As you walk around the Kennicott townsite look at the gravel beneath your feet, it’s littered with crushed green malachite. The trees and shrubs have returned and the glacier has shrunk enough to be able to see the Fireweed Mountain across the valley. Stop and listen to the glacier as it snaps and creaks.
Location / Coordinates: Kennicott is at the end of the McCarthy Road, 314 miles east of Anchorage and 178 miles north of Valdez in the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.
Coordinates: Latitude 60.75 & Longitude 142.00.
Population: Ghost town.
Description: Much of the original Kennicott company town and 40 of the original buildings are still here. With a little imagination you can still hear the pounding of the mill, smell the ammonia from the leaching plant, and feel the vibration of the shaker tables. The fourteen-story Kennicott mill, a National Historic Landmark, is still an imposing structure, very photogenic both inside and out—make sure to take the tour.
History: At the turn of the last century, two prospectors stumbled onto what was to become one of the richest deposits of copper ore ever to be found. Funded by the Guggenheim brothers and J.P. Morgan, the Kennecott Mines Company was formed in 1906, later to become the Kennecott Copper Corporation.
Both the town and the glacier were named for the early Alaskan explorer, Robert Kennecott. The mine and the company misspelled the name and became Kennecott.
Transporting the copper ore from the wilderness to Cordova on the coast where it would be shipped to Tacoma, Washington for smelting was a challenge. The Copper River Northwestern Railway, (CRNW), solved the problem. It was jokingly referred to as the “Can’t Run and Never Will”. In spite of that it truly was an engineering marvel. Completed in 1911 with a price tag of $23 million, it was built under extremely harsh conditions. Huge river crossings, swamps, and ravines described the terrain from Cordova to Kennicott. Mosquitoes in the summer and 50-degrees-below-zero weather in the winter posed their own challenges. Large crews of men were needed to maintain this railway in the wilderness. The world’s biggest rotary snow plows were hauled in to clear the tracks in the winter and every spring massive trestles and bridges had to be rebuilt after being washed out in the spring thaw. At its prime, the railway boasted 18 locomotives, 8 passenger cars, and 256 freight cars.
Timing is everything, at the time of this copper discovery, the demand for copper ore was tremendous with the industrial age and World War I. The CRNW transported approximately 200 million dollars worth of copper ore from Kennicott during its day. The monetary value of the copper mined from this area exceeded the value of the gold taken from the famous Klondike gold fields in the Yukon between 1885 and 1908; $200,000,000 at the time, over $1,000,000,000 in today’s prices.
At the height of its activity, the Kennicott Mine and town had over 800 workers and residents. The Kennicott company town boasted a hospital with dental office, an elementary school, recreation hall, a silent movie theater, ballpark, skating rink, tennis court, and even a dairy.
In November 1938, the ore began to play out and the miners were getting restless. The Kennicott company told everyone “You have two hours to pack your things and board the last train out of Kennicott.” The Kennicott mine and the mill shut down. Everything was abandoned, personal belongings, mining equipment.
How to get there: If you drive to Kennicott, be prepared! Groceries, bottled water, a spare tire—or two, and a full tank of gas are a must for this trip. The Park Service recommends that you travel the McCarthy Road at 20 miles per hour. If it rains it can be slippery and railroad spikes sometimes appear on the washboard surface. It takes about three bumpy hours one way to drive to the footbridge at McCarthy. At the footbridge you can take a shuttle the last five miles to Kennicott.
If you fly to Kennicott, bring your camera! A charter flight will take you from the Chitina airport to the 3000’ McCarthy airport where it is possible that you’ll have to fly in a holding pattern until the wildlife leaves the runway. From there you can take a shuttle to Kennicott.
Please respect the private property throughout this area.
What to do: Flightseeing among the 14,000 foot peaks of the Wrangell Mountians, hiking over old mining paths, photography, historical walking tours of Kennicott Mill, guided tours onto the Root Glacier where you can see moulons, pressure ridges, ogives, fathomless blue water pools, and exquisite ice formations. Wildlife watching—bears, mountain goats, river rafting, and mountain biking. Take a day trip into McCarthy and check out the museum and the town where miners went to “have a good time.”
Facilities: The Kennecott Glacier Lodge is the only place to stay. It is pricey and reservations are encouraged as they can accommodate only 50 guests at a time. Enjoy private rooms, shared bathrooms and showers with lots of hot water, living rooms with games and books, and a dining room for gourmet family style meals. Relax on the porch ant take in the view!
Camping is the other alternative.
RV: There are no facilities for RVs in Kennicott.