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McCarthy Road and Kennecott Mines
In the southeastern part of Alaska lies the largest national park and preserve in the United States. It covers an area bigger than Switzerland, and has taller mountains. The name of the park doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. That could be one reason why most people have never heard of it. The other might be accessibility. The two main roads that extend into the park are long stretches of washboard ridges and dips that test a vehicle’s integrity, and a driver’s perseverance.
We had heard of this area’s grandeur, and we were enticed by the opportunity to do some glacier hiking and to explore an old copper mill town called Kennecott. Despite warnings about how “bad” the road was, we were determined to get there.
Here is Genevieve with a distant view of Mt. Drum, which stands over 12,000 feet high:
A closer look at Mt. Drum:
To our right, we could see the ice-covered dome of Mt. Wrangell, an active shield volcano, over 16,000 feet high:
The route to Kennecott is called McCarthy Road, named after the tiny town of McCarthy that sits near the end of its 60-mile length. The start of the road is at an equally small town called Chitina:
The beginning of McCarthy Road:
The road was not recommended for “large” RVs, although our guidebook did say those up to 30 feet “should have no problem.” At 32 feet, we were definitely pushing the envelope. The first six or seven miles were the worst. As we rattled and shook, creeping forward at an average of 8 to 15 miles an hour, I wondered what I had gotten us into, and whether our RV would survive.
After one particularly heinous section, which felt like an amusement park ride, Sebastian’s voice piped up from the back, “Do that again!” He added, “The top of the stove shook so much, I thought it was going to fly off!”
Soon, however, the road smoothed out somewhat, and we figured out the perfect speed to float us along on top of most of the chatter-bumps.
The road had been built over the top of an old railway line for the trains that carried copper ore from the Kennecott mines. Crossing a deep gorge was the Kuskalana Bridge, a former train bridge that had been built in 1910.
The bridge was so high and skinny that I almost wished that I hadn’t stopped to take a better look before crossing.
A sign warned us not to stop on the bridge:
Not to worry, as we had no intention of doing anything but moving our heavy rig across as quickly (and safely) as possible. I did, however, cast a glance down at the milky river:
The road ahead:
There were several other bridges, lower to the ground and full of old-time character, such as the Takina River bridge:
After about 2 ½ hours of jostling and bumping along, we arrived at the end of the road—with a few loose screws (not in our heads!) and some disconnected electrical wires (easily repaired). The land here was privately owned, and camping was offered along the edge of the Kennicott River. We found the perfect spot. Along with the soothing music of rushing water, we had a backdrop of the brilliant ice fall that descended to Root Glacier:
The old copper mill town of Kennecott (spelled differently than the river) was located five miles from the end of the road. Hourly shuttles were offered for a fee, but we opted to ride our bicycles.
Genevieve set to work wiping off our bikes, which were filthy from all the mud and dirt they had received hanging off the back of the RV:
We began by riding over the steel pedestrian bridge that crossed the river:
Looking back at our RV and campsite:
The dirt road was fairly smooth, and rose slightly at a steady climb.
About 35 minutes later, we reached the entrance to Kennecott, a national historic landmark:
Kennecott was the site of a booming copper mill during the early 1900’s. It processed the ore from several nearby mines, and finally ended production in 1938. For years, the town was virtually abandoned, with only a handful of residents in its barn-red buildings. The National Park Service purchased many of the structures in the late 1990’s and is in the process of restoring some and keeping others from complete collapse.
Restoration in action:
Perhaps it’s too late for this white building, which was the hospital:
The most impressive building in town was the 14-story mill:
The interior of the mill can only be viewed by taking a historic tour from St. Elias Alpine Guides. We signed up for their 2 ½ hour guided walk through the town and the mill.
Our tour guide was Dan Hernandez, who was everything a guide should be—a great story teller, knowledgeable, and an overall nice person (the kind who you’d like to invite to your backyard BBQ).
He started by explaining that the brown heaps below town were actually what is called “glacial moraine” from the Kennicott glacier, which stretched for 27 miles from the distant snowy peak of Mt. Blackburn (over 16,000 feet high). As the ice moved slowly down the mountain (about 100 feet each year), it shaved off rocks, gradually crushing them into small pieces and depositing them at the glacier’s terminus. Under the top layer of dirt was solid ice. Because the dirt layer is uneven, some parts of the underlying ice melt more quickly than others, creating mounds.
We then moved on to the history of the mine area, beginning with prospectors in 1899 who saw copper items being traded by the First Peoples along the coast. A search for the source of the copper eventually found two of the prospectors in this valley, looking up at what they thought were green grassy slopes. The green patches, however, were deposits of almost pure copper. The prospectors sold their copper claim to a young man named Steven Birch for $275,000. He, in turn, received additional financing, including investments from J.P. Morgan and the Guggenheims, to mine the ore and build a railroad between this area and the nearest town (Cordova) that was 200 miles away—a major undertaking.
Kennecott proved to be the world’s richest copper mine, generating about $5 billion in today’s dollars.
At its peak, there were about 600 to 800 people extracting ore, and about double that many maintaining the train tracks—often buried in snow or swept away by floods.
After the high-concentration deposits were extracted, the mine was abandoned. Most of the miners were only given 24-hour notice that the mine was shutting down. The buildings and equipment, as well as many personal items, were all left behind, like skeletal remains.
The schoolhouse has now been restored to its 1938 condition:
The schoolhouse served the children of mine administrators, as the actual miners were forbidden to have their wives or families here.
Next door was one of several bunkhouses, in a state of arrested decay:
The miners practiced “hot-bedding”, where people on rotating work-shifts would share the same bed—as one person was waking to start their shift, another person just finishing would be ready for sleep.
Another building nearby sat next to a creek, which changes its path and was flowing through the bottom floor last year:
Down below were the remnants of a wooden dam that had blocked the creek and provided a water source for the miners during the winter months when the creek would freeze:
The home and office of Steven Birch has been restored:
(Supposedly his wife came here to live but only lasted two weeks before returning home.)
Other buildings still showed their age:
The old mill building stretched upwards against a hillside.
We entered the mill from the top floor by climbing a path that wrapped around behind the building.
A ceramic toilet lay by the path, with the date “1899” on the back.
It is believed that the toilet came from the home of Steven Birch, who liked modern amenities and brought many of them here—including the first X-ray machine in Alaska, the latest cinema films, generators for electricity, and even the world’s biggest snowblower (for the train tracks).
Along the ground were still bits and pieces of green rock—copper. In the 1950’s, some men had tried to extract some of the remaining copper, but the process proved to be too expensive and difficult.
Dan gave us two similar-sized rocks to hold to feel the weight difference:
The darker rock was mostly copper and very heavy, while the lump of limestone was lighter in both color and in weight.
For the mill tour, we started at the top platform, where large chunks of rocks once arrived in ore buckets along a tram system that ran directly from one of the mines. We then traced the former path of the ore, as it was dumped down various chutes, pounded and ground into smaller pieces, separated into piles of copper and other minerals, and then ultimately put into burlap bags and loaded onto a waiting train.
Part of the tram system:
One of the chutes:
The ore bucket hooks:
Dan and one of the rock sorters:
The staircases were narrow—and watch your head!
Above us was a seemingly chaotic network of pipes, wooden beams, conveyor belts and pulleys:
The views from the top floors of the mill were terrific:
Sebastian, taking a peek over the window sill:
It is doubtful that the men who once worked here had much time to admire the view, however. The large spaces in the mill were only staffed by about 15 workers, who had to manage every single mechanical and physical aspect of the process, all while trying to stay warm in temperatures that often dipped to 50 degrees below 0.
When we left the mill today, we reflected on how different our lives were than those of the miners who had endured long days of hard labor here. Both my grandfathers were coal miners in the Appalachian Mountains in Kentucky, and I understand how harsh a life mining in general can be. Top that with below freezing weather and being separated from one’s family, and things must have been mighty grim indeed.
For the moment, we relished our freedom, sailing downhill on our bicycles, with hoots of pure pleasure and big grins from ear to ear. And tonight we were grateful when we pulled back the covers on comfortable beds that were not still “hot” from another person’s slumber.
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