More Wrangell – St. Elias

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7/24/19  Blackburn Cabins, McCarthy, Alaska

Lunch at the Kennicott Lodge, on the Balcony

McCarthy isn’t the only ‘town’ inside the park.  You can either hike, or in our case, take the shuttle ($15 round trip/person), from McCarthy, or the footbridge, to the old mining town of Kennicott, about five miles up the side of the glacial valley.  Kennicott is the name of the town as well as the copper company that operated in this town for thirty years starting in 1908.  Probably looking for gold, prospectors discovered massive outcropping of greenish rock, just at the interface between layers of limestone and basalt in the mountainsides.  Claims were staked and a company, the Kennecott Mining company, formed to extract the riches from these hills.  It became the most lucrative copper mine in the world, earning $2 billion in sales (in dollars of the time) and $1 billion in profit on nearly 600,000 tons of high grade copper ore.

All of that in the bottom half is rock covered glacier.

At least five different mining operations were working during that period on different parts of the mountain, but all of that rock was sent to the single processing plant at Kennicott, located on a hillside above a glacier.  The town re-energized after the park was created and there is not only a food truck (with supposedly good food), but also a fine-dining restaurant and lodge operating out of one of the restored buildings on the hillside.  You can hike on your own or take various guided hikes in and around the town, but I highly recommend the mill tour, a two-hour guided tour through a half-dozen of the buildings in town, including the main mill building where the rock was broken down and sorted into smaller chunks for shipment to the ‘lower 48’ via a train which was built just for that purpose.  

Yep, Glacier covered with rock and dirt.

The mill is described as in a state of ‘arrested decay’, which means most of the structure appears close to simply falling down, but the park has carefully constructed supports where necessary to keep the building erect and allow tours through its amazing structure.  Because it has no concrete foundation supports, it is known as the tallest unsupported wooden structure in North America.  It uses gravity as a source of power, pulling the rocks down through the various stages in the process.  It also used about a thousand gallons of water per minute to aid in the cleaning and sorting of the copper ore, taken from the creek nearby and then processed through an elaborate recycling system.  The whole building was designed to run on as few as eight people, suggesting a remarkable degree of automation. 

The Kennicott Mill to crush and sort copper ore.

The extraction of the ore from the mountainside was, actually, a much more labor-intensive operation.  The mine employed thousands of workers, many immigrants from Scandinavian countries and the wages were low and the working conditions even lower.  Turnover of mining personnel reached 200% per year, suggesting men had little idea what they were getting into when they signed up for this job.  But it generated profits (amounting to 50% of sales) for the investors which included the Morgan and Guggenheim families.  (Records of deaths and injuries of workers don’t exist because Alaska had only a ‘territorial’ government at the time.)

It is a fascinating structure and our young guide, Stan, was full of energy and enthusiasm as he told the stories associated with the operation.  Clearly he enjoyed his summer job.

We started our visit with a lunch at the lodge which was very good.  It is also a jaw-dropping experience to sit on the porch of the lodge and look out over the end of the glacier.  Miles across, it is as much as 300 feet deep in ice, but you see very little of the ice.  Here the melting of the ice has resulted in a covering of rock and dirt that varies between three and ten feet.  As a result of the glacier’s path through different kinds of rock, the covering has bands of different colors which gives an unusual landscape as you look out across the glacier filled valley.  Yep, all that brown stuff in these pictures is actually dirt covered glacier – it just looks like a weird set of sand dunes.  

We’re getting towards the end of the road trip part of the Odyssey, and I have to admit that with ten days yet to go on our Alaskan adventure, we are getting tired.  We’ve been running full steam now for seven weeks and us old folks are finding we like taking naps more frequently.  We don’t have much planned for the rest of today, except grilling steaks for breakfast and going out to a nice dinner tonight, our last evening in McCarthy.  Once we get back to Anchorage, I’ll write a summary post about the road trip.  Wrangell – St. Elias, though, is a park you can only imagine.  Finding a ‘favorite’ park on any of our trips is a risky venture, but this might be the one for Alaska!