Alaska, the Last Frontier - Summer 2012 travel blog

Kennecott glacier

mill and glacier

ore mill complex

our hotel

picturesque building

moose with baby

railroad trestle

someone lives here

glacial gravel

trading post

handful of copper

mill buildings near water fall

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crossing the foot bridge

Ironically for such a wild land, this area’s main attraction for visitors is its history. The richest copper deposit in the world was found here in 1900 by a group of prospectors who mistook a green mountaintop for a patch of green grass where they could feed their horses. It was a mountain of almost pure copper, with metallic nuggets the size of desks. The deposit produced trainloads of a 70% pure copper. The first ore was so rich it required almost no processing before shipping, then came lots more copper that did need minimal processing. Much more lower grade ore still lays under ground. An investment group that included JP Morgan and Daniel Guggenhiem, built the Kennecott Copper Corporation from this wealth. To get the copper out they paid for an incredible 196 mile rail line up from the port of Cordova and created a company town deep in the wilderness called Kennecott. Building the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad (can’t run and never will) was such a challenge it took five years and even after it began transporting the ore, trestle bridges had to be replace and repaired regularly. When the high grade ore was gone in 1938, they pulled the plug, leaving a ghost town with an eerie beauty that still contains machinery and even documents they left behind. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park now owns Kennecott and more than 13 million acres in the largest national park in the US, six times larger than Yellowstone and larger than the entire country of Switzerland.

We left our home away from home in the car and after a few miles of pavement, encountered the infamous McCarthy Road to Wrangell - St. Elias, a dirt/gravel road on what used to be the railroad which took copper ore from the Kennecott Mine to port in Cordova. Of course it was cold and raining, but the weather didn’t matter as we lurched along at 20mph. The potholes were filled with water and we wondered at times how deep they were, but three hours of persistence was rewarded with the sight of the footbridge near McCarthy. We paid $5/day to leave the car and schlepped our luggage across the footbridge to a shuttle which brought us to McCarthy. Kennecott was a company town which focused exclusively on mining, but McCarthy five miles away, took care of the miner’s other needs, namely booze, broads and gambling. Our hotel here is in an old boarding house, lovingly restored but short on electric outlets. We could have stayed in the brothel next door, but it’s room were very tiny - only enough space for a fifteen minute quickie. To stay here we are paying what we normally would only in midtown Manhattan for a bathroom down the hall. You have to remember where you are.

Another shuttle took us to Kennecott one of the world’s greatest ghost towns, where we toured the massive mine complex. When the mine was deserted, locals looted the place regularly, recycling wood, glass and metal for their own use. As the fourteen story mill building, perched on the side of a hill began to deteriorate more and more the mining company paid a local to destroy it completely. Instead he continued the recycling for his own profit. What is left of this huge complex now belongs to the National Park Service, which is deciding what to do with it all. Some of the buildings that housed the miners have fallen down completely; others like the hospital have been damaged by flood waters, but could be restored to their original condition. Locals still harvest herbs and rhubarb from what used to be the company garden. We felt lucky to tour the entire fourteen story mill building, which will be closed next week for stabilization work. They gave us hard hats to wear during the tour, but they didn't seem all that helpful when 't looked to us like we could have slid down the mountain and onto the Kennecott Glacier which lies below. When the mill was built the glacier loomed above it, but now if lies 200 feet below. Go global warming...

The work people did in this building was incredibly uncomfortable. As the ore came down from the mountainside in buckets on cables, they used massive crushing machines and water to separate the ore from rock. The heavy machinery was so noisy, those who worked there any length of time went deaf. The building was kept just warm enough so that the water used in the process wouldn’t freeze, but the men worked in conditions just above freezing for eight hours a day, seven days a week with water dripping everywhere. They shared a bed with their colleagues on the other two shifts, since the mine was open 24/7. They were not allowed to bring their families along and few stayed longer than six months, unless they had special skills which entitled them to more comfortable living conditions. When the mine closed the Kennecott Corporation had profited 100 million from their venture here.

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