But, we didn’t just brave the McCarthy Road to see the road. Oh, no, we had a purpose and it was to see the Kennecott Mine ruins. Well, before you can have ruins you need to build it. So, again, if you want to skip the history, don’t read the next 4 paragraphs.
The Ahtnas, who lived in this area for centuries, had collected, used and traded copper for ages. The worked it into arrowheads, spears, bowls and decorative art, Many wore copper jewelry. Two prospectors, ‘Tarantula’ Jack Smith and Clarence Warner not only noticed the jewelry but also noticed a patch of green grass high up in the mountains. It turned out to be one of the richest deposits of copper ever found. Stephen Birch, a young mining engineer, saw this, contacted the Guggenheims and J.P. Morgan who came through with financing and the Kennecott Mines Company was found in 1906. (Funny, the company was supposed to be named after Kennicott Glacier but someone misspelled it.) He paid the two prospectors $1.25 million for their claim.
Now, how in the world can we get people and supplies into this remote, impregnable area and then how can we get the copper out? A railroad was the answer but it was not easy to build. Michael J. Heney, a master railroad builder was called in to oversee the construction. One of the enticements to build one of the bridges was a case of whiskey on the other side of a gulch. Get this bridge built and the case is yours.
They built wooden trestles over deep gorges. But the Copper River flooded every year and washed out the trestles. If a train ever derailed, the track was rebuilt and then the train was pushed back up onto it using a jack. Sparks from the train often set the wooden trestles on fire. But, the railroad was built through some awful conditions.
The railroad, named the Copper River Northwestern Railway or nicknamed ‘Can’t Run and Never Will’ was started in 1908 and in the end stretched 196 miles to the Kennecott mines. In the end, it transported 200 - 300 million dollars worth of copper and silver out of the mountains before the mine finally played out and, with falling prices, was closed in 1938. The employees were given 2 days notice of this, the railroad was closed, the buildings were closed, everything of value was stripped and the buildings were left to deteriorate. Then the company gave the railroad right of way to the federal government to build a road. Now the mine is surrounded by the largest National Park in the US and one of its prime attractions is the town of Kennicott.
The tailings from the mine were used to level off the land so that bunkhouses for the single men, homes for the married managers, offices, a school, a hospital and other buildings could be built. Most of the employees were men but women also were employed as teachers, nurses and office workers. They got 2 days off a year: Christmas and July 4th. The average wage was $5.25 but from that was subtracted $.08 for medicine and $1.25 for room and board. Company scrip was used for all purchases in the company store. Because the work was so hard and the conditions so harsh, the turnover rate was 200% per year. Many of the workers were hired from abroad but, when they saw their living and work conditions, many served their contractural 6 months and left.
The miners lived in the town of Kennicott where there was no liquor allowed, no gambling and there were few women. That’s where the town of McCarthy came in. 5 miles away it provided all of these pleasures: restaurants, saloons, pool halls, inns, two newspapers, a garage, barber shop, and certain other businesses. Hey, all the buildings in Kennicott are painted red - sure, because red was - the cheapest paint at the time. All except the hospital - so everyone would know what building it was.
The building that loomed over the whole town was the concentration mill, where the copper was separated from other mineral and refined til it was almost pure. Why is so much of this in such good shape? Well, the mine company hired a guy to tear it down. He got the top floor torn apart but it was hard work, hard weather and - then people came wanting to look at it. Sure, he said, for a price. And, he realized that the mill was worth more standing than torn down. There are also people who still live in the area and use some of the buildings. Finally, the National Park system took it all over and is in the process of restoring them.
Here’s a picture where you can see the part he tore down.
Great view from the top over the town and the glacier covered with dirt.
Before we toured, we had to don these fashion statements. You can see in this picture some of what the guy tore down.
We toured the concentration mill and, though it looks as if it might slide down the hill any moment, the park system has shored it up so that it won’t. Check out all those timbers at the bottom.
They also have added timbers inside to supplement those already there. It is a 14-story building. The ore is brought into the building on the 14th floor and, using gravity, slowly but surely, it moved down the building through various processes, getting more and more concentrated until it is almost pure on the bottom floor where it was loaded into bags, packed on the train and taken to the boats at Cordova and then on to Tacoma for smelting.
On the top floor they received the rocks and put them through a sledge hammer machine to break them down. Then another floor below, they crushed them into even smaller pieces.
Here’s the inside of one floor with a huge fam belt which ran all of the machines on this floor.
Lower were three floors of what I call ‘shaker tables’ which were large tables with ridges on them. Here they put the crushed material and flushed it with water. The copper was heavy and would stay in the trays while other materials would wash off with the water. There were 3 or 4 floors of these shaker tables, each one working with finer and finer pieces of copper.
Finally, by the 1st floor of the concentration building, the copper is separated out, bagged and shipped off.
We toured the whole building until we got to the bottom. Our guide really knew his stuff, even though this was his first year here. He then left us to explore on our own.
We passed the school which taught not only the children in the village but also taught English and citizenship courses. In 1920, the school had 20 children during the day and 126 adults at night. There was a rec hall where one could play basketball, tennis and handball - probably not the miners but the managers.
Kennicott was mostly a town of itinerant foreign men. Some worked for just the 3 months to pay off their train fare. Mne lived 2 per room and shared washing facilities for $1.25 per day. Single women who worked here lived separtately in an area called: ‘No Man’s Land’ above the hospital.The miners lived in bunk houses while the managers lived in a large building that has been converted into a very fine hotel. For the managers with families, there were homes scattered throughout the town. Many of these were sold off and are occupied to this day.
The Visitor Center is in the old company store. Here we saw a good movie which covered the building of the railroad, the mill, the town and the aftermath. It is also stocked with some of the goods that the miners and mill workers could buy. If the store didn’t have it, they could order it from popular catalogs: Sears and Roebuck or example. But, you’d wait a month or more for it.
At the bottom of the hill, below the mill and town was a huge pile of rusted trash. Old oil barrels, metal machine parts, whatever.
As we were walking around, we saw this sign. Oops, did I get off the trail at any point? Makes you wonder where you stepped.
Then it was time to head back to the car and we decided to walk the 5 miles since that way we could see all the homes of the people who lived here now.