2017 Mining History Association

 

ON THE WAY TO THE MHA...
A Visit to the
Kennecott Mines
National Historic Landmark,
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
And Preserve, McCarthy, Alaska
June 10-14, 2017

 

Johnny and Dawn Johnsson
Dick And Elna Hauck

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The iconic red Kennecott Mill buildings cascade down the hillside in the center of the old Kennecott town site near McCarthy, Alaska.Five copper mines were located high up on the mountains behind the mill. Today, getting to Kennecott and McCarthy requires advance planning but the spectacular journey is well worth the effort for any mining history buff.

 

After picking up our dear friends Dick & Elna Hauck in Anchorage with the 4WD rental vehicle we would need for this special portion of our trip, we visited the Independence Mine State Historical Park and then headed east on the Glenn Highway. Not too far east of Palmer in Sutton was the delightful roadside Alpine Historical Park. With clean restrooms and well-maintained premises, the park highlighted the history of the area’s coal mines with historic buildings, relic coal mine equipment, exhibits, artifacts, interpretive displays, and gardens. These coal mines were developed during WWI to supply the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet with fuel, but by the 1920s the fleet had converted to oil and coal mining declined. The town later served as a staging point for the development of the Glen Allen Highway and there were signs and exhibits to explain this.

Along the highway we observed dall sheep at Sheep Mountain, and the Matanuska Glacier among other scenery. We stayed at a nice B&B in Glennallen and Dawn picked up an Alaska wildflowers guide at a gift shop. This book provided much reference and delight during the remainder of the trip. Please realize that Dick and Elna come from a horticulture/greenhouse background prior to their tenure and involvement at the Sterling Hill Zinc Mine & Museum in Ogdensburg, New Jersey. So not only was there interest and knowledge in mining, geology, and mineralogy aboard our vehicle, but some enthusiasm for the multitude of new and interesting Alaskan wildflowers that we would see.

We checked out the Visitor Center to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve on our way from Glennallen to Chitina, now traveling on the Richardson Highway adjacent at many points to the Alaska Pipeline. It had informative exhibits and explanations of natural and human history and good views of the Copper River and Mt. Drum at the western end of the Wrangell Mountain Range. We had a picnic table lunch in Chitina before setting out on the McCarthy Road towards Kennecott. As we crossed the bridge over the Copper River, we observed native Alaskans operating their fish wheels in the river laden with glacial silt.

The McCarthy road follows 59 miles of the 196-mile long historic Copper River and Northwestern Railway grade, a state-maintained road built during the 1960s mostly on the railbed, except where bridges and trestles were gone. The first 18 miles were paved in 2014 with an experimental surface, but the frost heaves here are worse than the remaining gravel portions which can be regraded each season. To travel the McCarthy Road requires renting from a company that will specifically allow their vehicle to be driven upon such a gravel road, where flat tires and broken windshields are often an issue. We used Midnight Sun Car Rental for a 4WD Durango because of the major rental companies’ restrictions. While driving we used the Kennecott-McCarthy Visitors Guide for its milepost guide of the road, as well as a used 2nd Edition of “Roadside Geology of Alaska” (which gave us all kinds of interesting roadside observations and facts for our entire trip).

The two major landmarks along the McCarthy Road (besides scenic vistas, wildlife, and wildflowers) were the Kuskulana Bridge and the Gilahina Trestle. At MilePost 17 the Kuskulana Bridge spans 600 feet over a 238-foot gorge, now as a single-lane vehicle bridge with guardrails. There is a wayside with vault toilets at the east end. At MP 29 we stopped to examine the old timber railroad trestle crossing the Gilahina River. There are vault toilets here, too, which are convenient since there are no travel services along the entire McCarthy Road. The wooden trestle was originally 890 feet long and 90 feet high. It was completed in just 8 days during the winter of 1911 and required one-half million board feet of lumber. 15% of the entire railway from coastal Cordoba to Kennecott was built on timber trestles. Some of the Gilahina trestle is now missing, but the standing portion was huge and impressive and you could walk beneath it observing the construction and connections. There are some picturesque lakes, mountain views, and views of the Chitina River and valley along our route. Wildflowers are prolific along the edge of the road, with jackrabbits darting across periodically, and we saw a black bear as well.

Overlooking the Copper River and Mt. Drum at the entrance to Wrangell-Elias National Park and Preserve.



Along the 60-mile road from the Richardson Highway to McCarthy the Chitina River drains the copper basin.

(Above)  The Kuskulana Bridge spans a 238-foot gorge. This 600-foot steel girder bridge was constructed during the Winter of 1910.  It is the only bridge anchored into bedrock, rather than on pilings driven into the glacial gravel stream bed.  It was redecked in 1988 and guardrails were added.

 

(Right)  View from the bridge of the Kuskulana River gorge below.  The muddy water originates from glaciers on Mt. Blackburn.



With our scenic stops it took a little less than 3 hours to travel the road (you can get up to 30 mph in several places, but mostly 20-25 mph) and we arrived at the parking area for the Glacier Lodge guests, where they shuttle you to the footbridge over the rushing Kennecott River.  You unload your luggage and pull it across the bridge on a heavy wagon.  A Glacier Lodge van picks up guests for transport the last 5 miles to Kennecott.  McCarthy is the old mining town with an airstrip, restaurants, lodging, and guide services on the other side and south of the bridge.

After arriving at Kennecott proper in the Glacier Lodge van, we checked in and ate dinner in the dining room.  As part of the package, 3 meals are included (dinner at 7, breakfast from 7-10) and you can request a box lunch (which we did) if needed due to your plans for the day.  After dinner, the Glacier Lodge often has evening lecture or tour programs.  In our case it was an evening walk with a National Park Service (NPS) Ranger focusing on some of the ethnic workers and people of old Kennecott.  Dick Hauck got picked for reading a role as an Irish mill employee and he did an excellent job (not surprising since he probably personally conducted thousands of public tours while at Sterling Hill).  This evening tour (and in June it stays light and never really gets dark) gave us a good feel for the basic town layout and what to expect for our guided tour the next day.

Narrative continues in Gallery 2…


(Above)  The McCarthy Road is on a portion of the old Copper River & Northwestern rail bed.  The railroad was a 196-mile engineering feat constructed from 1906-11.  It carried some $200 million of copper ore from Kennecott to Cordova, where it was shipped to the copper smelter in Tacoma, Washington.

(Right)  The Gilahina Trestle was completed in 8 days during the Winter of 1911.




The Kennicott River (spelled the same way as its namesake, rather than the misspelled copper company, Kennecott) drains the Kennicott and Root glaciers.  Blue mini-icebergs float down the silty rapids.  You can see the gravelly moraine upriver.


Dick Houck and Dawn Johnsson are traversing the footbridge to McCarthy to meet the Glacier Lodge shuttle to Kennecott.  Guests must haul their luggage by wagon from the parking area and across the footbridge over the Kennicott River to reach McCarthy and Kennecott.

Glacier Lodge was built in 1987 as a replica of Kennecott copper living quarters.  It is very nice, serves 3 meals per day in the dining room, and will give you a box lunch if you need it.  Evening history programs are offered and you can walk next door right into the historic Kennecott mill town.


Welcome to Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark in the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.  Johnny and Dawn Johnsson pose in front of the entrance sign.


Park Ranger describes the lives of the miners and mill workers at Kennecott.

Dick Hauck plays the role of an immigrant Irish mill worker.
 
Photos by Johnny and Dawn Johnsson

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