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Discover the abandoned Kennecott copper mine in Alaska

Discover the abandoned Kennecott copper mine in Alaska

Discover the abandoned Kennecott copper mine in Alaska

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1 of 54 Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

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2 of 54 Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

A hint of one of the main reasons this place is unique can be seen from the town itself.

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The 14-story mill is an absolutely massive wooden structure, even by today’s standards. The ore would arrive by aerial tramway from much higher up in the surrounding mountains, then be split and sorted into the precious copper to leave by train at ground level.

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Hundreds of employees, and even some families, call Kennecott home. To the right is one of the dormitories, to the left the hospital.

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Today, the National Park Service preserves the site, maintains it but does not repair it, keeping this abandoned mine and town as it is.

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Looking southwest you can see Kennicott Glacier (yes, with an “i”) covered in moraine. Distances are deceiving. These meringue-covered rocky peaks on the glacier are the size of buildings.

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These 6,000 foot peaks are over 5 miles away. Everything is huge in Alaska.

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The wood mill was a remarkable feat of engineering, not only for its complexity, but also for its very existence in this harsh environment.

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The glacier, like almost all glaciers, has retreated significantly over the past 100 years. At the height of the mine, the glacier was so large that you could not see the mountains in the distance. Stand on the glacier, let yourself be seen down on the mill.

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The slow return to nature is one of the best parts of exploring the region. The Park Service will try to prevent buildings from collapsing, but will not try to restore them to their original state.

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The scale of everything is impressive. Each angle a postcard.

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Since Kennecott was so remote, a day’s journey from any major town, many things had to be made locally. These are the remains of the machine shop.

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It certainly looks like he could fall at any moment. It’s a good thing we’ll be heading inside for a visit!

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First we have to get up there. A narrow path in the mountain brings us to the top of the building.

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The rusting equipment sits where it was left when the mine closed in 1938.

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The ore would arrive here, by cable car. Kind of like an upside down ski lift except for the rocks. My dad heads over to the tour while I stroll around taking pictures (and not wheezing at all from the hike).

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Looking back over the hill. Three mines provided ore for the mill: Bonanza, Jumbo and Glacier. All are approximately 3 miles and 2,500 feet higher in elevation. It’s way beyond that first rocky peak you can see on the left.

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A not at all alarming amount of collapse.

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Hard to imagine the glacier blocking the view even at this height.

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Beyond these mountains is the Gulf of Alaska, about 100 miles as the crow flies.

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During its nearly four decades of operation, the mine produced $4 billion to $6 billion worth of copper and silver in today’s dollars.

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To make exploring easier, the Park Service has made safety upgrades.

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At this level, the ore was crushed into smaller, more manageable pieces.

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The white peak in the distance is Mount Blackburn, the tallest mountain in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, 16,390 feet. It’s 24 miles.

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No more sorting and crushing of ore.

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These were vibrating screens to separate small pieces that could skip more crushing.

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The woodwork is amazing, although some of it is more recent work by the National Park Service to keep the building from collapsing.

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The high-grade ore bypassed the additional sorting levels and was driven into its own special chute. This ore was shipped directly to smelters in Washington.

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No more vibrating sieves to separate large pieces from smaller ones.

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It is important to keep in mind that this wooden building was filled with huge vibrating machines. It’s remarkable that he never wavered.

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Speaking of vibrating machines, it is a ball mill, which uses a rotating cylinder and metal balls to grind the ore.

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This building is a 14 story OSHA violation.

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At this point, a little more than halfway, the ore is in fairly small pieces.

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This is a Hancock jig, which further sorts ore and stone.

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As quiet as it is now, I can’t imagine how noisy it was to work here.

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The vibrating sorting tables were one of the last steps in separating the worthless limestone from the copper ores.

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Some remnants of the mine closing in 1938, more nearly a century of dust and dirt.

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A maintenance and repair shop, I believe. The tour didn’t come through here; I may got lost.

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The bottom of the chute for high grade ore.

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The tank is a Dorr thickener, or Dorr agitator. It spins the ore in an aerated liquid to further separate the copper.

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Looking down into the Dorr thickeners.

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Another ball mill, even bigger.

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Finally, after all that, the copper ore gets here. It was packed into 140-pound bags and loaded onto railcars for shipment to the port of Cordoba, 196 miles away. From there it was sent to Tacoma by ship to be melted down. Remnants of these railway lines and their many bridges can be seen throughout the region and on the route.

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Such a remarkable building.

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While the mill was quite advanced for its time, a new method for extracting the very last copper was developed here in Kennecott, located in this building directly across from the mill.

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Called ammonia leaching, it liquefied copper from limestone.

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The ammonia was then boiled off, leaving fairly pure copper. This was bagged and shipped with the rest of the copper from the mine.

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A photo around 1968. The mine had been closed for 30 years and completely abandoned for 16 years. Two remarkable things to note here. First, how similar it all looks now, half a century later.

Second, look at how tall the glacier was in 1968. In the 1930s, it was more than double that height.

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While the mine is certainly a key attraction in the area, it’s not the only one. A few miles from Kennecott is the Root Glacier. You can hire a guide to take you to the surface, but it’s quite a hike.

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On our last day, something a little different…

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In a great great loop from McCarthy south to Kennecott, we flew over Nizina Glacier, Wrangell Mountains, then back down Root and Kennicott Glaciers. It was one of the most incredible moments of my life.

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Here you can see the town of Kennecott. Not just the imposing Concentration Mill, but on the right the long white roofs of the Kennicott Glacier Lodge where we stayed. Note the drop to the glacier.

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