22 January 2022

The Kennecott Mines: Abandoned Alaskan Boomtown

In 1900 two prospectors were traveling through Alaska. Their horses were hungry and so when they spied a distant green hillside they thought their luck was in.

They were not wrong. They had stumbled upon a massive deposit of copper ore, exposed at the surface. Industry on a massive scale quickly followed. Yet by 1939 the copper was exhausted, the place abandoned. This is what remains of the Kennecott Mine Camp.

Unlike many other abandoned sites, the Kennecott Mines have been designated a National Historic Landmark. The site, situated in the Valdez-Cordova Census Area of Alaska is, moreover, inside a National Park (St Elias) which probably speaks volumes for the remarkably intact state of the buildings.

Back in 1900 the two prospectors, Smith and Warner lost no time in taking full advantage of their find. They formed a mining company with nine associates. They were quickly bought out by Stephen Birch a recently graduated mining engineer for the sum of $275,000. Birch was young and inexperienced but had rich friends whose interest was piqued by his discovery in the area of ore that contained 70% copper. This was not to mention the silver and gold he also discovered in the deposits.

The new owners began development at once.  To begin with, pack horses were used to transport the ore to the nearby town of Valdez (so named in the late 1700s after a Spanish naval officer). There were rows about the environmental damage that mining would cause which even reached the office of the President (Theodore Roosevelt). The environmentalists lost. The go ahead was given for full scale mining.

One can only wonder what regrets Smith and Warner may have had in later years. However unwittingly they had revealed the richest known concentration of copper in the world and set the wheels in motion for it to come to the attention of some of the wealthiest people on the planet. More wants more, as the old saying goes.

And there was plenty.  In 1916 alone the mines shipped out over 30 million dollars worth of copper ore. The place had attracted the big players, too. In 1903 a consortium was formed between Birch and his investors, JP Morgan along with the Guggenheim family.

All told five mines would haul the copper treasure of Kennecott to the surface. They had names which reflected the ambition not to mention sheer expectation of the consortium and the mine workers. There was Bonanza with its open-pit extension GlacierErie, Jumbo and Mother Lode made up the other three mines with the latter two joined to Bonanza by tunnels. It must have been like a giant ant’s nest at its peak.

If you look higher up the mountain you can still see the remains of Erie perched precariously, biding its time almost nonchalantly until total collapse takes place.

This is what remains of Bonanza

The high level of production of the mines was not to persevere, however, with the 1916 bonanza being the most profitable year. The concentration mill you can see in a lot of these photographs was a staggering 14 storeys high. That and the peripheral buildings (including a hospital which homed the first X-Ray machine in Alaska) are about five miles from the mines and are the best preserved. Yet by the time of the Great Crash of 1929 the end was in sight with Glacier closing in the very same year.  The other four all struggled on but closed in 1938. The last train departed on November 10 leaving a ghost town behind.

Yet even though the boomtown had not lasted forty years it had generated something of a revenue for its distant owners. All told it is thought that the mines made an estimated profit of $100,000,000.

There were a handful of watchmen on site until the 1950s when an unsuccessful attempt was made to reprocess the vast amount of tailings (the material left over after the process of extricating the precious part from the unprofitable fraction of the copper ore) around the mines. This proved to be unsuccessful (financially speaking) and the destruction of the town was ordered.

Yet Alaska is Alaska and far away from the eyes of the money, as it were. Fortunately for us, the job was never finished. Some buildings were demolished but most of Kennecott was left as it was. Doughty locals made some use of the abandoned materials but by the 1980s the old mines were attracting a new type of visitor: tourists.

By 1986 the area was made a National Historic Landmark and two years later the National Park Service managed to acquire a lot of the land within the town.  Even today work still has to be done to ensure that all the buildings will withstand the elements for the foreseeable future. Restoration work is painstaking and slow.

Yet the Kennecott Mines will stand, perhaps as a testament to a time when profit was put before the environment. History will be the judge of whether that time also includes our own.

First Image Credit Flickr User UA