The last train departed Kennecott in 1938 never to return again. It was an overnight ghost town, everyone was gone except for one last family. The mine was closed forever. In thirty years the most productive copper mine in Alaska played out. The copper was gone. The mill was empty and the only watchman lived along the only road leading to the Kennecott Mill.
In thirty years the Kennicott Mines produced over 200 million dollars of copper. After all the expenses, including building nearly 200 miles of train track, the profit was nearly 100 million dollars.
Our journey in remote Alaska
Getting to Kennecott isn’t easy. In our last six years as full-time RVers, it was our longest-ever single-day exploration. The day prior to our visit we departed Valdez and climbed through Keystone Canyon and up Thompson Pass stopping on the Richardson Highway at the Squirrel Creek Campground. Squirrel Creek was nearly 100 miles north of Valdez and was one of the many Alaska State Recreation Areas we stayed at this summer. Squirrel Creek was still more than one hundred miles from Kennecott.
We picked Squirrel Creek because it was located along the Richardson Highway near the Edgerton Highway. The Edgerton Highway goes east to Chitna. Chitna is a tiny town with almost no services 35 miles to the east. It is at the end of the Edgerton Highway. Our campground at Squirrel Creek is at the center of what is known as the Copper Center, Alaska.
Copper Center isn’t a town, but rather it is a historical place. Recently the construction of the Alaska Pipeline put Copper Center back on the map because the Alaska Oil Pipeline route follows the Richardson Highway through Copper Center to Valdez.
McCarthy and the Kennecott Mine was the most remote place that we visited in Alaska. It also involved driving on the longest dirt road section that we traveled all summer.
Chitna was the winter home for the Athabaskan Natives in Copper Center. Chitna was at the junction of the Chitna River and the Copper River. The reason that this was the winter home is that salmon would run each year up the Copper River and Chitna was an easy place to catch the salmon and this abundance created a food supply that would last all winter food.
In the summer Athabaskan Natives had a summer camp at Dan Creek, 15 miles east of McCarthy. While at Dan Creek, the tribe members would collect copper ore in the form of malachite nuggets from the area. The malachite was sourced high in the mountains and eventually washed down Dan Creek where it was picked up.
The Athabaskan Natives knew that the source of the copper was near the Kennicott Glacier. While Dan Creek was one source, the largest finds were near the top of McCarthy Creek, next to the Kennicott Glacier.
Chitna coffee stop
After a quick stop in Chitna, at a food truck, for coffee, we decided that a few extra gallons of fuel would take some of the worries out of our trip. When we left Vadez the gas tank in the car was more than half full, but we knew that we were on a two-hundred-mile single-day trip. We also knew that the road to the east of Chitna would be rough and that going would be slow.
Chitna doesn’t have lots of services. Besides the food truck where we got a refill of coffee, there was the old hotel, a ranger station, and the Wrangle View store. I assume that the store sells groceries, but we didn’t stop. The town is small enough that the only things that I remember were the food truck and gas station. In 1911, Chitna on the east side of Copper Center, was a boom town. Like Kennecott and McCarthy, it too became a ghost town when the last train departed from Kennecott in 1938.
Right after our quick trip through Chitna, the road changed. We didn’t really make a turn but the Edgerton Highway became the McCarthy road. Just outside the town, we crossed the Chitna bridge across the Chitna River. The bridge wasn’t built for cars but rather it was built for the train. Instead of pavement, the next sixty-five miles on the McCarthy Road would be on gravel. The road was well traveled which meant that it was 65 miles of washboard. The car survived, but the color turned from silver to dust-colored brown.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
The Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is huge beyond belief. Overall the park is 13.2 million acres. That is over 20.6 thousand square miles. Overall this means that this park is more than twice the size of Vermont. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is almost six times larger than Yellowstone National Park and includes three mountain ranges and parts of the Alaska Mountain Range. The park also includes nine of the sixteen highest peaks in North America including Mount St. Elias which is more than 18,000 feet tall.
It is very difficult to describe how big Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is without comparing it. It is larger than many states on the east coast. It is also larger than several countries in Europe. McCarthy and Kennecott National Historic Landmark are some of the easiest parts of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park as it is accessible by roads and they are very popular. The Wrangell-St. Elias Visitor Center (on the west side of the park) is more than a hundred miles west of the most popular destination in the park. Most of the park is usually accessed by plane in the summer. In the winter, it is untouched.
The end of the McCarthy Road is McCarthy. Even though our destination was Kennecott, the closest you can get in a car is five miles short of Kennecott. Actually, you can’t drive your car to McCarthy either. You have to walk or take one of the infrequent shuttles. The first one takes you into McCarthy and then a different shuttle to Kennecott.
There are two bridges across McCarthy Creek. To the south, there is the vehicle bridge that is gated and private and only used by residents. To the north, there is the footbridge used in the summer next to the tourist parking. McCarthy is about a half-mile walk across the footbridge to town. It was easier for us to walk than wait for the shuttle.
McCarthy today serves as the receiving station for visitors to the Kennecott Mill and the Kennicott Glacier. From McCarthy, you can take a shuttle to Kennecott. Historically McCarthy was created about four miles south of the Kennecott mine for one reason; unlike Kennecott, McCarthy had saloons and all the entertainment that is normally associated with a mining town. In 1900 McCarthy was a boom town. McCarthy too became a ghost town when the last train departed from the mine in 1938.
After Kennecott closed in 1938, the once-thriving town of McCarthy also had one family in residence until 1954. The names would change as people came and went but there was always at least one family remaining. That wasn’t true for the last resident of Kennecott. More than a dozen years later he was cut from the payroll and left, presumably for someplace warmer.
McCarthy is private land holdings inside the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Several private land holdings exist inside the park. Not only is there private land inside the park but there are active mines in the park. All predate the establishment of the National Monument and National Park.
We actually never made it to the Kennecott Mines. The mine site is located near the top of Bonanza Ridgeline between the Kennicott Glacier and McCarthy Creek. Since we already drove over a hundred miles that morning, mostly on dirt, we didn’t have time to make the hike up to the mine site. We also didn’t arrive early enough to take the 9:30 am tour of the Kennecott Mill. Evidently, we should have spent the night near McCarthy, but that wasn’t part of our plan.
At Kennecott, there were several copper mines, all located near the top of Bonanza Ridge. Miners worked and lived in small camps at the mine sites. Overall there were five mines located along Bonanza Ridge and several other sites where malachite could be found scattered on the surface of the ground and picked up without digging. The copper content of the malachite at some locations was as high as 72%. In 1906 the mines were evaluated to have the highest concentration of copper ore in the world.
About 300 miners worked the mines at the top of Bonanza Ridge and sent the ore to the mill. These miners lived at the mines on Bonanza Ridge and rarely left the mines.
Ore was transported downhill to the mill using a network of aerial cables carrying ore buckets. Ore buckets would arrive at the top of the mill at a frequency of about one per minute. Then they were dumped at the top level and quickly sorted based on copper content and sent tumbling down each successive level until they were bagged and placed on the train bound for Cordova.
The Kennecott Mill consisted of 14 different stories with each story of the building focused on removing rock and leaving the ore. High-grade ore containing about 60% copper was dumped directly from the top to the bottom, fourteen stories below, into loading sacks at the bottom level. Lower-grade copper ore was sorted at each level. At the end of the sorting, the ore was about 75% copper. Each ton of ore also had about 11 ounces of silver as a bonus mineral.
Twenty families lived at the Kennecott Mill site in individual small homes. Bunks in the bunkhouses were rented to the mill operators. Most of the workers at the mill and nearly all the workers at the mines were single.
Kennecott was a company-owned town. About 200-300 workers worked the mill and lived in bunkhouses. The miners who worked at the Kennecott rented their bunk from the mine (presumably including meals) from the mine for about 40% of their monthly wages. If they wanted something different, it was found at the company store or in McCarthy. Rules associated with conduct and manners at the mine didn’t apply in McCarthy. The only way to get higher wages was gambling in McCarthy. Mostly, miners didn’t fare well while gambling in McCarthy. Gambling wasn’t permitted at Kennecott.
Copper River and the Northwestern Railway
Starting operations in 1911, the Copper River and Northwestern Railway was built to carry the copper ore from Kennecott to Cordova. After the last train departed Kennecot in 1938, the tracks were torn up turning the railway into the roadbed we now travel to McCarthy. During the last 100 years, several attempts were made to re-connect Cordova to the rest of Alaska using the old railway but over the years many of the key bridges have been damaged beyond repair.
Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark
Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark is located inside the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Even though it is very popular and accessible by roads it is a very small part of the overall park. Kulane National Park and Reserve continue the park status in Canada. Combined the two parks spanning the border make the Wrangell-St. Elias/Kulane Parks the largest protected areas in the world.
Well before the mine was found, the Kennicott Glacier was well known. Due to a clerical error, even though the mine was named after the glacier, the spelling of the mine came out Kennecott while the glacier has the other spelling.
The Kennicott Glacier flows southeast towards McCarthy, combining with the Root Glacier north of town. In terms of age, the Kennicott Glacier is far older and far more “mature” than the Root Glacier. Overall the Kennicott Glacier moves far more rock. The Kennicott Glacier is sourced from Mount Blackburn almost 16000 feet high. The Root Glacier is interesting. After descending the mountainside it then cascades over a cliff edge to start the Root Glacier. This feature is called an icefall.
The previous two pictures show large morane fields of rock. All these rocks are part of the glacier. Under the rocks is a rock-ice combination. Once all the ice melts, the moraine field will only be rock. As the glacier moves, it carries all these rocks along with the ice and deposits the combination at the terminus of the glacier.
As the glacier moves, it both gathers rocks and moves them along with the ice, but also pushes rocks in front of the glacier. At Kennecott, at the terminus, there are lakes at the toe of the glacier. These lakes are caused by the glacier pushing rocks into a natural dam.
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