Back in 1900, two prospectors, Clarence Warner and “Tarantula” Jack Smith spotted green cliffs on a mountainside deep in the Alaskan wilderness between the Kennicott Glacier and McCarthy Creek. What looked like patches of green grass turned out to be one of the richest deposits of copper ore ever discovered.
The discovery led to the creation of the Kennecott mines, which produced nearly $200 million worth of copper before they closed in 1938. Today in the vast back country of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, you can see the remaining mill and other structures and visit McCarthy and Kennecott, the two towns that housed the miners.
To reach the area, we drove our Jeep over 93 miles of gravel and dirt from the town of Chitina into the park’s interior. Few private vehicles are permitted to cross the Kennicott River, so we parked at the river and raced across a footbridge to catch a shuttle van for the mile ride into McCarthy.
Our driver, Jennifer, pointed out quaint old buildings lining dirt streets. Bright summer flowers spilled from window boxes and nooks along boardwalks. Instantly, we picked up on the spirit of McCarthy—everyone along the way spoke to Jennifer and she returned the greeting, calling everyone by name.
Jennifer told us that during the mining heyday, the mining company had allowed no alcohol or fighting in Kennecott, possibly one reason that town’s old wooden structures never burned down while McCarthy burned twice. After 12-hour shifts in the mine or the mill, the men headed for McCarthy to drink, sling fists in the muddy streets and visit brothels. But come July Fourth, mill workers, miners, and managers with their families trekked to the rowdy town for an all-day celebration of races, baseball and ice cream.
After that brief overview, Jennifer drove us four miles over an old railroad bed to the mining center of Kennecott. To transport copper from the mill to Alaska’s coast for shipment, men had built the railroad tracks through rugged terrain, working in temperatures as low as 40 degrees below zero.
The mines and mill were designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1978 and the National Park Service acquired many of Kennecott’s significant buildings 20 years later and is in the process of stabilizing and rehabilitating structures. (Kennecott was named for the Kennicott River and glacier, but the mining company misspelled the name and it was never changed.)
The barn-red 13-story mill building still stands as the centerpiece of Kennecott on a hillside above the Kennicott Glacier. A guide led us on a tour of the old mill, past rickety walls and silent machinery. Our guide filled in history as he walked us up crooked stairs to the top of the towering building. He explained that the tall center portion formed the original structure. Wings and floors were added as the operation expanded, creating a misshapen complex that appears to have happened higgledy-piggledy with no plans, except to extract all the profits possible from the mountainside. In the beginning, the ore was so pure that workers could almost ship straight from the mines. As the purity dropped, the ore went into the mill to be crushed and purged by water to gain the green powdery mineral that men dumped into burlap bags and loaded on the rail cars.
In those days the mill’s owners heated the building to 32 degrees only to prevent water used in the operation from freezing. Workmen’s holidays were July Fourth and Christmas Day. The guide described the dangerous and brutal jobs men performed for 12-hour shifts seven days a week, earning as little as $80 a month. At the peak, about 300 people worked in the mill town and nearly as many in the mines.
On the tower’s deck, huge steel buckets jostled along a cable from the mine to the mill every 52 seconds. One man caught the unwieldy vessel and guided it to dump 750 pounds of ore into a machine called the “Grizzly.” Then he sent the empty bucket back to the mine and prepared to catch the next one. One worker continued this job for 12 hours.
No one knows how many workers died or were injured, although stories of men hurt at the mine and the mill still circulate. Kennecott had its own hospital and the first x-ray machine in Alaska, but no medical records survived.
Before the days of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), safety was not a major concern. The Park Service has shored up the old mill building, adding handrails and fencing over dangerous drops in the floors. Tools lay in the dust, adding a sense of mystery about the day in 1938 when all workmen boarded an outbound train, each carrying only one suitcase. The mine had been worked out.
During the mine’s operation, the company’s “higher ups” brought their wives and families to live in a neighborhood called “Silk Stocking Row,” carved into the mountainside above the town. That was also the site of a lodge where guests of the company stayed. We walked along the narrow street in front of the red painted cottages—some now privately owned and under renovation.
A recreation hall provided entertainment for the town’s residents, although the long hours in the mines left most folks little time or energy for socialization. Today, many of the doors to the buildings are locked. However, with the acquisition by the National Park Service, plans for improving safety around the mill site and the removal of remaining lead contaminants go forward. A Visitor Center takes up residence in a long-ago hardware store.
We felt privileged to see the buildings, steeped in stories of individuals who braved impossible odds to mine copper in Alaska’s unforgiving environment. Kennecott stands as a monument to men who conquered frigid temperatures and frozen terrain with ingenuity and brute strength.
(For information on the Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark, visit www.nps.gov/wrst. The concessionaire conducting tours inside the mine buildings is St. Elias Alpine Guides. For information, visit www.steliasguides.com.
Writer Arline Chandler and her husband, photographer Lee Smith, live in Heber Springs, Arkansas.