Ghosts of Kennecott: Exploring an Abandoned Copper Mine in Alaska
The washboard gravel road had lost all newness. Hours now felt like days, feeling like almost a week since we left Alaska Highway 10 for that endless road that shook bones and warped time to nowhere. OK, not anywhere, a very specific where. In the heart of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is home to the ghost town of Kennecott.
Once a thriving and lucrative copper mine, it was closed in the 1930s and completely abandoned in the 1960s. Today it houses the decaying remains of one of the largest freestanding wooden structures in the world. Surrounded by rugged mountains and huge glaciers, it’s as remote as it gets and one of the most amazing places in the world.
There are abandoned mines like this all over Alaska, but few were as large and successful as Kennecott. An entire town was built to help service the mine. A few hours from the slightest trace of civilization, there was a store, a dance hall, a barracks and even a school. Only a handful of people live here now, let alone through the harsh, dark Arctic winters. It takes a tough soul to survive here.
I come here with my father. We converged on Seattle from opposite corners of the United States, then flew to Alaska. A great adventure to explore my 50th state. When we finally arrived in Kennecott, after eight hours of rural driving and the brutal McCarthy Road, what I saw was unlike anything I had ever seen.
Discover the abandoned Kennecott copper mine in Alaska
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Kennicott Glacier (yes, with an “i”) spreads out like a vast honeycombed plain. Covered in a thick gray moraine – the material left behind after a glacier retreats – the white ice below stands out only from cracks and edges. Distance is extraordinarily deceptive. From the lodge, it looks like the distant mountains are only steps away, but they are miles away. Each pointed moraine looks no bigger than a tycoon, but it’s bigger than houses. It’s a strange place to find a mine, but with the promise of wealth, people will go to the ends of the earth.
Established in 1900, the Kennecott copper mine grew in stages over the next 20 years. It was worth the struggle against nature, weather and common sense for one of the richest copper deposits ever discovered. By the time the mine closed for good in 1938, up to $6 billion in today’s dollars had been mined from the ruthless hills. A small close-knit community around the mine,. Remnants of it can still be seen on the edges of the Kennicott Glacier. Century-old equipment rusts where it was parked; buildings sag and lean. And then there’s the Concentration Mill, a 14-story wooden juggernaut that looks like something out of an apocalyptic sci-fi movie. Nothing this old and made of this much wood should be this big.
The US Parks Department keeps the buildings in a kind of preserved disrepair. It won’t fix them, but it won’t let entropy turn them to dust. A sort of pause in the natural devolution of these historic buildings, so that they can be enjoyed for generations to come.
Four mines fed the Kennecott mill, over three miles and 2,500 feet on the Bonanza Ridge side. A series of aerial tramways brought down ore and men. The trams are long gone, but you can explore the mines if you are a keen and prepared hiker. I am neither. My dad is turning 80 this year and I’m sure if he wanted to he would have gone upstairs and back before I had my second breakfast. Instead, we explored Kennecott.
The mill is a real skyscraper of lumber and OSHA violations. There is a guided tour. They provide helmets, which I think will help about as much as wearing an SPF 30 for a vacation in the sun. Structurally and reassuringly, there is no wobble. The building appears to be held together by an ancient wickedness. Despite clear examples of collapse and lack of seemingly important structural supports, it is remarkably strong for a 100-year-old wooden building in the Alaskan wilderness. Better shape than I would be after 100 years, that’s for sure. In better shape than I am now, to be honest.
The raw material comes in at the top and the copper ore comes out at the bottom. Each intermediate stage has the purpose of sorting or shaking, often both, the copper from the limestone. By the time the material reaches the lower floors, it’s practically dust. Tiny shards bouncing off shaker tables, some worth something, most worth nothing.
The next day we try to walk to the foot of the Root Glacier. Again, distances are deceiving. It takes several hours to approach it, and in the distance I can see tiny people crossing the glacier itself, so it would take even longer to get there and then back. So I take some pictures and we call it a day.
On our last day, a surprise. My dad splurged for us to take a flight over the glaciers. It is one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Wild snowy nature as far as the eye can see. If we crash here, there’s no way out. It’s just miles of snow and ice.
Normally I end these photography tour stories with a recommendation to check out the location for yourself. Me of course. It is undoubtedly an epic journey, but also a difficult one. Alaska is far away, Kennecott even further. It’s hours by plane, then hours by car. And not easy highway hours either, but plenty on rutted, rutted gravel. Most of the year there is snow, and if there is no snow there is mud, bugs or both. There is no AAA. There is virtually no cell service. It is the desert.
Maybe that’s your thing. For some people, it is. A few dozen people live in nearby McCarthy year-round. If so, put this place on your list. It’s incredible. Otherwise, see.
As well as covering television and other display technology, Geoff takes photographic tours of museums and cool locations around the world, including nuclear submarines, massive aircraft carriers, medieval castles, epic 10,000 mile road trips, and more. Check out Tech Treks for all of its tours and adventures.
He wrote a bestselling science fiction novel about city-sized submarines and a sequel. You can follow his adventures on Instagram and his YouTube channel.