They say that places that are out of the way are worth going to and Kennicott in Wrangell-St. Elias National park is definitely worth it. We had to take a shuttle to get there – 90 miles, 60 of which are unpaved – very bumpy ride. We got to see a moose and her calf (2nd picture – calf had already run away) and then later two moose calves. We had three great days there.
We took a tour of the milling operation of the Kennecott Mines (they misspelled Kennicott when they incorporated the mines) which was very interesting. The 14 story mill (10th picture) is the tallest all wood building in the United States. The story of the mines is pretty interesting.
In August 1900, two prospectors Jack Smith and Clarence Warner, spotted a green patch of hillside that looked like good grazing for their pack horses. The green turned out to be part of a mountain of copper ore. They, together with nine friends, formed the Chitina Mining and Exploration Company. Stephen Birch, a mining engineer just out of school, was in Valdez when members of the this company arrived in the fall of 1900. Birch, who knew wealthy people in the northeastern United States, bought the prospectors’ interest in the mine for $275,000. Within twenty years, the find proved to be the richest known concentration of copper in the world.
Development of the mines began immediately. Ore was taken out by pack horses on a trail to Valdez. In 1903, additional financing for the mining came from the Guggenheim family and J. P. Morgan, who formed the Kennecott Copper Corporation. Kennecott had five mines: Bonanza, Jumbo, Mother Lode, Erie and Glacier. In order to get the copper out, they built a railroad line that ran 196 rail miles to Cordova. On April 8, 1911, the first ore train hauled $250,000 of 70% copper ore (50% is considered good).
In 1916, the peak year for production, the mines produced copper ore valued at $32.4 million. The mines, the milling operation and the trains ran 363 days of the year. The town had over 100 buildings, including a school house, hospital and general store. Six hundred men worked the mines and the rest of the operations. It was hard work – 7 days a week, 12 hour shifts with only 2 days off a year, but the pay was good. The milling operation was very interesting – by using the weight of the copper vs. the limestone it was embedded in, they were able to extract over 90% of the copper, which was unheard of at that time. By adding additional processes involving ammonia and eucalyptus oil, they extracted 98% of the copper.
When the price of copper dropped and the ore was running out, they closed the mine – the last train left Kennecott on November 10, 1938. They took some things of value, but left the majority of items because it was too expensive to haul them out. In the 27 years of operation, Kennecott produced 4.625 million tons of copper valued at roughly $207,000,000 with an estimated profit of $100,000,000. In addition, the silver by-product from this operation brought in another 4½ to 9 million dollars in revenues.