An ominous 14-story wooden building sits in the center of the abandoned mining town of Kennecott, Alaska. The overgrown vegetation threatens to overtake the structure, as visitors observe the barn-red paint flake off and unstable beams vibrate with each footstep. It is hard to believe Kennecott was once anything other than a ghost town. Its streets are coated with debris and its walls are barely visible through the thick vines.
Kennecott is an historic landmark, but it is slowly being devoured by the national park in which it sits. Kennecott’s history is far more industrially grand than its present dilapidated appearance might lead us to believe. At one point, Kennecott was a prosperous copper mine, discovered by two young prospectors at the beginning of the 20th century.
On a summer’s day in 1900, Jack Smith and Clarence Warner were walking around the hills of Valdez in southeastern Alaska in search of a decent place to graze their horses. In the distance they saw a green patch, and assumed it was grass. The two men approached lazily with their horses but soon realized, upon closer examination, that the green they had seen was lumpy and hard. Smith and Warner had discovered a mountain of copper ore.
Smith and Warner assembled nine friends and together formed the Chitina Mining and Exploration Company. The copper sample was tested by a U.S. Geological Survey geologist and to everyone’s delight was found to contain 70% copper and traces of silver and gold. Stephen Birch, a Valdez local, saw the value in the budding company – and the value of the find – and bought it for $275,000. Using connections he had in the Northeastern mainland USA, Birch garnered the additional financing necessary to make Chitina Mining and Exploration a powerfully lucrative company. In 2003 Chitina was expanded due to investments by J.P. Morgan and the Guggenheim family and was renamed the Kennecott Copper Corporation, after the nearby Kennecott Glacier.
Five mines were created at Kennecott to harvest the copper ore. The ore was then shipped the 200 miles to Cordova in 140 pound sacks, laid on the steel flat cars that travelled along the Copper River and Northwestern Railway. At Cordova, an Alaskan port town, the copper ore could be shipped via the Prince William Sound and the Copper River. Between 1911 and 1938, more than 200 million tons of copper were sent through Cordova.
Along with the creation of mines, a town was built in Kennecott to accommodate the miners and their families. Unlike many gold rush settlements, which were comprised primarily of tents and temporary structures, the Kennecott copper mines were expected to keep people in the area for decades. Thus, town life necessities like homes, a school, a hospital and shops were developed.
Two towns eventually emerged – Kennecott and McCarthy, both of which are located in one of the world’s largest protected wilderness area, the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Kennecott was the official company town, and therefore outlawed ‘immoral’ businesses. However, McCarthy was not under the company’s jurisdiction and took advantage of its liberty by becoming Kennecott’s neighboring “sin city” – harboring saloons and a red light district. At one point, McCarthy was the largest town in the state of Alaska.
The Kennecott Copper Corporation continued to grow, and by 1916, the copper ore mined at Kennecott was valued at $32.4 million. Over the site’s life, 207 million dollars worth of copper ore was mined. However, the copper was so heavily and thoroughly mined that by 1925, a local geologist predicted the copper supply would be depleted in the next few years. By the 1930s, most of the higher quality copper ore was gone, but the miners remained at work a while longer. On November 10, 1938, the final copper-carrying train left Kennecott.
With no more mining business, no workers, economists, or geologists bothered to stick around Kennecott, rendering it a ghost town. From 1939 until 1952, only three people lived in Kennecott – a guardsman, hired to monitor the abandoned structures, plus his wife and child. Fearful that people could be injured by the abandoned buildings, machinery and equipment, the landowners attempted to demolish the town. However, funds ran low, and most buildings were fortunately left intact. The town was never repopulated, and in 1986 the area was designated a historic landmark.
Kennecott is now a popular tourist attraction for those history buffs and families eager for a day in a real ghost town. While there, visitors can hike the abandoned mines, which provide strenuous treks, and rock-scramble on the cliffs overlooking icefalls. Kennecott provides an interesting juxtaposition of beautiful wilderness and an industry that threatens to take it all away. Though the wooden structures of the abandoned mines are still standing, the surrounding trees reach much higher.