Off the Beaten Path:Kennecott Coppermine, Alaska

Nestled in the snow-capped Alaskan mountains of our largest National Park: Wrangell-St. Elias, stands the Kennecott Copper mine. Closed in 1938, it stands silent watch above the valley and steep drop offs that are common to the area.

When visiting the abandoned mine, the sheer majesty of its size gives you a whole new appreciation for the people who lived and worked here. The structure of the main mill, pictured here, has such an ominous presence that even if it is not haunted it still has an alarming presence that truly is awe-inspiring.The building of the mine itself, and the surrounding buildings supporting the workers, initially seemed to be  insurmountable tasks. To bring buildings materials in through the rugged mountain passes, the first priority was to build a railroad. In addition to helping construct the new city and mine, the copper ore was transported via railroad south to Cordova. When visiting Kennecott, I walked along the original rails that line up with the chutes, where the rock crusher spit out processed rock and ore that was further refined.

              Traces of past profits
Remnants of the tools that were used in the labor intensive process of mining are found strewn about the area. Here my son Dan surveys the rugged Wrangell Mountains while standing by an ancient rock crusher, circa early 1930’s. Also remnants of the life that was left behind after the mine closed are still visible and one gets a strange sensation that memories and spirits of the past still are present here.  It seems to have had more recent activity in the mine than the footsteps of tourists and it is hard to believe it closed more than 75 years ago.  Nevertheless, as one of those tourists, I found it a fascinating historical place to visit and taking in the natural beauty of the park was an inherent bonus.
National Park Service Site
The National Park Service acquired the mine in 1998 and the lands of the historic mining town of Kennecott.  The mine has been designated a National Historic Landmark.  On the Wrangell-St. Elias website: www.nps.gov/wrst life working in the mine is described: “Kennecott was a place of long hours and hard, dangerous work.  At the height of operation about six hundred men worked in the mines and mill town. Paying salaries higher than those found in the lower-48, Kennecott was able to attract men willing to live and work in this remote Alaskan mining camp…..Despite the dangers and grueling work, the Kennecott workers mined and concentrated at least $200 million worth of ore.”
The mine successfully ran for over 30 years, but was closed due to declining copper deposits and the high cost of railway maintenance.
  The Road Less Traveled
The mine is a fascinating place to visit because it is a demonstration of the tenacity and ingenuity of the human spirit. When traveling the McCarthy Road to get to the mine, you feel as if you are already on an adventure, and you sometimes have to reach into your own resolve when seeking this destination.

The McCarthy Road is 60 miles long and is a long gravel road. Here is a photo showing where the nice smooth pavement ends and the gravel road & imposing cliffs begin. It is intimidating when all the travel literature warns NOT to take rental cars on this road and other warnings for the faint of heart. It was a rough ride with several portions of the road demonstrating the “wash-board” effect, a series of tight ridges.  I give my sister-in-law, Christy, so much credit: she drove both in and out on this challenging stretch of road.  We took her mini-van, which worked well and we took it slowly.  That is key to surviving on this road without a flat tire or worse damage to your vehicle.  It is only 60 miles, but plan for about 3 hours. It is well worth the trip if you take your time.

You can see so much more when you are traveling at 30 mph as opposed to 65. Be sure to catch all the scenery and wildlife along the way and the views are spectacular. This is the Kuskalana Bridge, built in 1910, it spans 525 feet and sits at a height 238 feet above the river. An incredible building accomplishment and yes we drove across it. Having a little bit of a fear of heights (don’t we all to some extent) I had to hold my breath and somehow muster up the courage to take in the view.  Be courageous and take in the view, it’s worth it.  Put your traveling shoes on. JES

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