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Kennecott: Visiting America's Past


Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark sits in the center of Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve, America’s largest national park. One of the richest copper deposits in the world was found here in 1900, and the five mines and supporting camp soon followed, but not without financial and physical challenges. Ore had to be transported from the mines down to the mill, a 3,000+ foot difference in elevation. An entire railroad had to be built to transport the processed ore to the port of Cordova, 196 miles away. Money had to be raised to support the development of the mines, mill, and railroad (enter J.P. Morgan and the Guggenheim family). The first freight did not leave Kennecott until 1911. Less than 30 years later, the mines closed due to limited supply and dropping prices because of the Great Depression; the last train left in 1938 and never returned.

We toured Kennecott via St. Elias Alpine Guides. Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable and passionate, and not only presented the intricacies of copper mining, but also shared many fun facts about the mill, life at Kennecott, the miners, and celebrity sightings. For example:

  • The mill was built/expanded over time, evolving as technologies evolved. Hence, the piecemeal look and windows located between floors.

  • When all machines were running, the mill would start to shake itself apart. To counter this, large metal beams were installed, with a turnbuckle on one side. A giant wrench would be placed in the turnbuckle to cinch the building back together after operations.

  • John Denver had an intimate relationship with Kennecott, and filmed a chase scene here. Denver also received inspiration for his Wrangell Mountain Song (originally misspelled as “Wrangle”). Check out: https://fb.watch/f3RLv-lgai/

  • All buildings were painted red, except for the hospital, Stephen Birch’s house (the mining engineer who managed the whole endeavor), and the women’s quarters. Painting the women’s quarters white gave little leeway for unwanted visitors claiming they didn’t know it was the women’s quarters.

  • Cordova and Valdez battled (literally) over being the shipping port for the copper, and thus the terminus of the railroad. Valdez lost due to politics, the convenience of Cordova (i.e., the railroad could follow the Copper River, whereas passing through the Chugach Mountains to Valdez would be much more difficult)…and a gun battle! Check out the fascinating history of the Copper River & Northwestern Railway versus the Alaska Home Railway here: www.valdezmuseum.org/railroads/ and www.valdezalaska.org/discover/history/railroad-tunnel

  • Kenn”e”cott versus Kenn”i”cott? Kennecott was named after the neighboring Kennicott Glacier. It’s not known why the mining town was spelled differently, but folks guess a clerical error may be the cause.

  • Kennecott was a dry town; miners would go to nearby McCarthy to have a little fun (i.e., booze and women). More about McCarthy in a future post!

Tip: The only way to access the Concentration Mill and Leaching Plant is via concession’s tour through St. Elias Alpine Guides ($28/adult, $14/kid; 2 hours; check schedule for tour times). The mill tour, while fantastic, is not be suitable for everyone. Access to the mill is via a short steep hike to the top of the mill. Once you enter, the tour takes you down several sets of uneven and sometimes steep stairs as well as two ship ladders. NOTE: Kennecott is ~5 miles from McCarthy; shuttle busses run between the two towns. Check the schedule to ensure you don’t miss your Kennecott tour time.


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