The Kennecott Mines
A group explores the historical mining operations
Article by Brian Weed | Photos by Brian Weed and Joe McCabe
It all started in the summer of 1900. “Tarantula” Jack Smith and Clarence L. Warner were exploring in the Wrangell Mountains, northeast of Valdez near Kennicott Glacier, when they made an amazing discovery. Jack Smith later described the area to Stephen Birch, a mining engineer who was in Alaska looking for an investment opportunity, saying, “Mr. Birch, I’ve got a mountain of copper up there. There’s so much of the stuff sticking out of the ground that it looks like a green sheep pasture in Ireland when the sun is shining at its best.” The green color was malachite and chalcocite. Birch visited the property, spending months mapping and sampling, and began acquiring the rights to mine the area for the Alaska Copper Company.
With the help of Daniel Guggenheim and J.P. Morgan & Co., also known as the Alaska Syndicate, Birch was able to secure over $30 million for the project. The money was used to build a railway, a steamship line, and for the development of the copper mines. The Kennecott Mines are named after the Kennicott Glacier in the valley below. The glacier was named after Robert Kennicott during a 1899 US Army Abercrombie Survey. The spelling of Kennecott with an “e” instead of an “i” was supposedly a “clerical error” made by Stephen Birch.
In 1911, the first shipment of ore by train was made. The steamship Chittyna carried ore to the Abercrombie landing near Miles Glacier. The first shipment contained “72 percent copper and 18 ounces of silver per ton.” The peak year for production was 1916, when the mines produced copper ore valued at $32.4 million. By the early 1930s the highest grades of ore were depleted. The mines were closed in September 1938. The last train left Kennecott on November 10, 1938, and it became a ghost town overnight. The Kennecott mines had a net profit of greater than $100 million over its lifetime.
In the same year, the director of the Department of the Interior for the Division of Territories and Island Possessions, Ernest Gruening, proposed Kennecott be preserved as a National Park. It wasn’t until 1980, six years after Gruening’s death, that the Wrangell-St Elias National Park and Preserve was created.
With family and friends I visited Kennecott in mid-June of 2016. We were fortunate that the weather was mild—a couple days of sun, a couple days with clouds, and just a bit of rain. McCarthy Road is 62 miles long and ends at the Kennicott River and “Base Camp.” I was told that sometimes this road looks more like a Jeep trail, but the day we drove, it was dry, and we didn’t encounter any major potholes. We headed out in a large group, with a motorhome, several trucks and SUVs, each hauling a trailer with 4-wheelers on the back. Packed into each vehicle was the food, water, gas, and other supplies we needed for four days. The Kennicott River Lodge and Hostel was a great place to stay, especially with our group having 4-wheelers to get around.
We arrived in the late afternoon and rode the 4-wheelers into McCarthy and then on to Kennecott. From 1939 till the mid-1950s Kennecott was mostly deserted except for a family of three who served as watchmen. Later in the 1960s, a company attempted to reprocess the tailing piles and transport ore in an aircraft, but the idea turned out to be unprofitable. About this same time the company that owned the land rights ordered the destruction of the town so they wouldn’t face any liability for potential accidents. A couple structures were destroyed, but the job was never finished and most of the town is still standing. That first evening we took pictures and explored the outside of the Kennecott mill building, and the other buildings around the main mill area. Taking it easy that first day and learning the area sure did help for the next few days of adventures. Each night we had a community dinner with the rest of our group, many enjoyed a few too many beers, lots of laughs, and storytelling of the day’s excursions.
The second day we woke up early and met with Jake, our Kennicott wilderness guide. Greg Taylor, Joe McCabe and I were a bit more advanced than the rest of our group that came to Kennecott. We had decided that we would climb/hike to the hardest mines first, just in case we got sore, as we were going to be hiking all day, for the next three days. The Erie Mine is about four miles away from the main Kennecott mill building. The first three and a half miles are a steady uphill hike on a trail a couple of feet wide, high above the Root Glacier. Jake set a fast but steady pace trying to gauge our group to see if we were going to “make it.” After about an hour and a half we stopped at the base of a steep snow-covered ridge. Looking up, Jake pointed and said, “The mine is somewhere up there.” We geared up with helmets and mountaineering axes and the climb began. Jake went first and kicked out steps in the hard snow. Climbing the ridge took several hours. I could tell when we got to the place Jake told us most people quit at. I looked down at an exposure of maybe 300 feet. He said over 50% of the people that try to climb to Erie Mine don’t make it. The route was pretty advanced, even for me. The Erie Mine was worth the risky climb and the highlight of the trip was its epic views of the Root and Kennicott Glaciers. I could have explored the old building for hours.
Our trip down was fast and exciting. The gullies had been filled with hard snow on our trip up the ridge. As the sun came out and warmed the snow it became slushy, and we were able to sit down and glascade down the snow almost to the bottom of the ridge. Jake, our fearless leader, stood up and rode his heels down the mountain as if he were skiing. I remember someone saying, “I bet the ladies love him,” as he zipped down several hundred feet in about two seconds. The rest of us sat on our backsides and slid down using our axes as brakes.
I was sore on the third day—I think more from sitting on the back of the 4-wheeler than the Erie Mine hike. This day we planned to tackle a few different things. Gary Green, owner of McCarthy Air, is an amazing pilot, and we asked him to fly over several of the nearby mines so we could take pictures. He laughed and told us most tourists want to see the glaciers, so he was happy to do something different. He did three or four flybys of the main Kennecott area, as well as the Erie Mine. Then he flew us to each of the large abandoned mines. Gary knew the history of each one, and he’d even worked at a few of them before they closed down. I tend to get a little airplane sick and almost lost my breakfast a couple of times sitting in the back. Next time I’ll request the front seat.
Once we were back on the ground it was time to grab a 4-wheeler and go up the mountain to the Bonanza Mine and Angle Station. In its heyday, Bonanza had the highest concentration of copper known in the world. The trail was pretty rough and most of us were fighting over who got the padded seat on the 4-wheeler. We passed the Bonanza Angle station and headed to the top. After a while the trail gets narrow and there is a sign saying no 4-wheelers, so we left them behind and began to hike. A couple of miles and a 1000 foot elevation gain later we arrived at the Bonanza Mine. We found several buildings still standing, but the largest was destroyed in the 1960s and not much was left of it. The tram station and bunk house are in the process of falling down, so we strapped on our helmets and explored carefully. Rotten boards, loose rock, and large beams that looked ready to fall were everywhere. We took lots of pictures and explored each level of the tram station. In the bunkhouse we found straw filled mattresses, old magazines, and some old tools. Dark clouds started to roll in so we double timed down the mountain, back to the 4-wheelers. Before heading back we stopped at the Angle Station and explored the building. Seeing how the tram buckets latched onto the cable was pretty amazing.
On the fourth and last day, we once again jumped onto the now dreaded 4-wheelers. My tailbone and the backs of my legs were covered in bruises from riding on the front or back of the machine. Starting the day off slow, we went to the McCarthy/Kennecott Museum. The Museum is run by volunteers and donations. Inside were some great bits of Kennecott history, but I enjoyed the maps the most. They had tunnel maps for each of the big mines in the area, showing all the levels and connecting tunnels. Next, we took our last 4-wheeler trip up to the Jumbo Tram Station and explored its three levels. Lots of copper ore was laying around, some old tools and amazing views. We headed down the mountain to make it in time for our tour of the main Kennecott Mill Building. I hate to say it, but compared to the adventures, and other things we’d seen, the mill building was nothing to write home about. Our guide kept us on a set path and we were not able to wander or spend any length of time taking pictures. Much of the mill was being rebuilt. In many of my photos modern day things show up like plywood, metal conduits, tarps, stacks of lumber and other equipment for making repairs to the building. The tour took us around to several of the locked buildings, and our guide described each piece of equipment. This would be a great tour if you have children, or are unable to hike long distances.
There are several places to stay around the Kennecott area. The two main ones are the Kennicott Glacier Lodge and the Kennicott River Lodge and Hostel. The Kennicott Glacier Lodge is right smack in the middle of Kennecott itself, but has a higher price tag. The Kennicott River Lodge is more like a hostel than a hotel and the price reflects it. There is also a place to camp, called Base Camp, which is near the McCarthy footbridge. People with tents and motorhomes would like this spot, however, there are no utilities. There is a shuttle (Wrangle Mountain Bus Company) from the McCarthy foot bridge every two hours starting at 9 am and ending at 5 pm, which will take you to the main Kennecott Mill Building for 5 dollars. Two restaurants really stood out, The Potato and the Meatza Wagon. The Potato is located in McCarthy and the Meatza Wagon is in Kennecott near the cold storage building. We ate at the Potato for breakfast and the Meatza Wagon for lunch. I’m told the owner of the Meatza Wagon is a famous chef—his food was excellent.
I would have liked a few more days to explore Kennecott. I think 5-7 full days would be a good amount of time if you wanted to do and see everything the area has to offer. The ghost town is amazing, but please remember in the Wrangell-St Elias National Park and Preserve it is illegal to collect rocks/copper ore and historic items. Please just take pictures when you go exploring, and only leave footprints.
To view all images from this adventure, click here.