Located within Wrangell-St. Elias National Park (the largest national park in the United States) is Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark. It was the top item on my personal list of things to see and do in Alaska, and it did not disappoint. Part of the allure of visiting this landmark is the challenge of getting to it.
In order to reach the towns of McCarthy and Kennecott, you must first begin a 60 mile drive on an unpaved road that was originally used by the railroad servicing the mine. It is recommended to have a spare tire with you, as they are still uncovering railroad spikes in the gravel. You also need to be prepared for road washouts – they were repairing one section on the day we traveled. But it’s a beautiful and historic drive.
The road begins in the town of Chitina (pronounced “Chit-Na”) which was a major stop for the trains from Kennecott to the ships in the port city of Cordova. The log cabin below, constructed in 1910, is one of Chitina’s oldest buildings, and now serves as a National Park Service visitor center.
View of the Copper River along McCarthy Road.
The Kuskulana River Bridge was built in 1910. This single-lane railroad bridge is 238 feet above the Kuskulana River.
My “back seat” view as we were driving across the one lane wooden bridge.
Twenty-nine miles into our trip on McCarthy Road we encounter the Gilahina Trestle, which was constructed in eight days during the winter of 1911. Over 15% of the railroad was built on wooden trestles like this, because of the rugged landscape. It’s really hard to believe it supported a train. It looks more like a Disney tower of terror train ride!
Once you reach the end of the 60 mile McCarthy Road, the journey is still not complete. Next up, you walk over a footbridge and wait for a shuttle bus to take you into the town of McCarthy. Or you can walk a half-mile from the footbridge into the town of McCarthy.
McCarthy is 4 1/2 miles downhill from Kennecott and was a supply and recreation spot for the mining town. The mining employees worked seven days a week, so they didn’t have much time to visit this little isolated town. Since we still had not made it to Kennecott, and had to wait for another shuttle bus to take us on the last 4 1/2 miles of our journey (with an elevation change of 3,000 feet) we did not have time to check out the little shops. It looked like a fun little town.
Three and a half hours after we began our journey, we arrived in Kennecott!
History of Kennecott Mines
As gold prospectors started exploring the area, a young mining engineer, Stephen Birch, joined expeditions in 1898 and 1899. In 1900, prospectors Clarence Warner and Jack Smith discovered the Bonanza Ridge and staked copper claims in this area. Given the remoteness of the area, a lot of money was needed to mine in this area. Stephen Birch sought out financial backing from the Havermeyer, Guggenheim and J.P. Morgan families and formed the Kennecott Copper Corporation. The town of Kennecott was established and grew along with the mining and mill operations.
A total of four underground mines were developed and operated twenty four hours a day, seven days a week until the operation closed in 1938 due to declining concentrations of ore, along with declining prices for the ore. It was no longer profitable to continue mining here. Over 4.6 million tons of ore was extracted from the mines producing almost $300 million dollars worth of copper and silver (and a profit of over $100 million for the Corporation). The mines are not available for touring, and the entrances to them have been filled with concrete to keep people out.
The town is perched right above the Kennicott Glacier and the Root Glacier. (Yes, the glacier and the town have two different spellings – one with an ‘i’ and the town with an ‘e’). It makes for a beautiful setting. In the photo below, the Root Glacier remains snow covered in the background. The Kennicott Glacier’s ice is covered by rocks and dirt, called a moraine.
The 14 story Concentration Mill is the highlight of the Kennecott Mines Historic Landmark. The mill underwent many changes over a twenty year period as new techniques were developed in processing the ore. This is why the building looks like a hodge-podge of buildings put together. The train cars would pull right into the building in the center for loading of the processed ore.
A view from the other side of the mill has a better view of the different structures that were added on.
The only way to see the inside of the building is on a guided tour (cost $28.00 – totally worth it!). Unless of course you have an issue with heights, as you start the tour on top, and descend down all 14 stories of the building on steep steps and ladders that have been added by the park service, since some areas are no longer safe.
A short walk up a path alongside the mill takes you to the stop, and the start of the tour. There are amazing views of the area. This is the view to the right, of the Kennicott Glacier (what looks like piles of dirt) and part of the town including the power plant (4 smokestacks).
Another view of the Kennicott Glacier and the top buildings of the mill.
Views to the left show some of the restored building in the town, along with the Kennicott Glacier (again this is not piles of dirt from the mine, it is the moraine, covering up ice).
The building just beyond the entry way has collapsed.
But the park service has built a walkway to connect to the next building.
The ore and rock were delivered to the mill from the mines via a tramway. The mill was able to process 1200 tons of ore per day. It was cheaper to process the ore here, before shipping it down to Tacoma, Washington for final processing. The ore went through a series of crushers and sorters before being placed in burlap bags and put on the train.
Several different styles of sorting machines were used.
In order to maximize the profitability of the mine, low grade ore was put into tanks of ammonia which dissolved the copper in the ore. That solution was placed in another tank which was heated so the remaining ammonia evaporated off. The ammonia tanks have been preserved.
The power plant was not open for tour, as the roof collapsed over the winter from a heavy snowfall. The park service is working on restoring the building.
Several bunkhouses were built to house the men working for the mine. They had to pay $1.25 for room and board, which included meals. A school was also built, which not only provided education for the children, but adults as well. In 1920, the school educated 126 adult students from 23 countries that were working at the mill. The corporation taught English and helped the employees study for their citizenship.
While the employees had shared quarters, the managers were able to live in small cottages with their family. They paid about 25% of their wages to live in them. Several of the remaining cottages are privately owned residences (purchased before the park service took over operation of the town in 1998). They have one that has been restored and open to the public.
The town had it’s own Post Office and General Store for the employees.
In 1915, a hospital was built which was not only used by the mill employees, but members of surrounding communities. The first X-ray machine in Alaska was used at this hospital. Once a month a dentist would arrive for check-ups. Employees had eight cents per day deducted from their checks for medical/dental coverage.
The hospital is on the left and two bunkhouses for employees are on the right. The buildings were damaged from a flood several years ago.
An additional view of the town, with the train station on the lower right, and a glimpse of the Root Glacier in the background on the left.
And finally, this is what started it all…
It was a long day touring this historic landmark, but definitely worth the challenge of getting there.
Quote of the Day: “The meek shall inherit the Earth, but not it’s mineral rights.” – J. Paul Getty