It was the lure of riches that drew the first pioneers to the McCarthy/Kennicott area in the heart of Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. But unlike many other areas it was copper, not gold, that put the area on the map.
The late 1800's saw a frenzy of exploration in the Wrangell mountains and surrounding areas. Spurred by an influx of prospectors during the Klondike gold rush in Canada, the U.S. Geological Survey and War Department stepped up efforts to create topographic and geologic maps of the area. These early explorations eventually lead to the mineral development of the Wrangell Mountains.
In 1899 gold was discovered on Jacksina Creek near the headwaters of the Nabesna River in what is now the north part of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. That same year Oscar Rohn of the U.S. War Department found rich samples of chalcocite (a copper ore) in the moraine of the Kennicott Glacier and pointed out the similarities in geology to the rich deposits of Michigan's Lake Superior District. The next year two prospectors, "Tarantula" Jack Smith and Clarence Warner, traced the chalcocite deposits to Bonanza Ridge; and staked their claims on what would soon become the site of the incredibly rich Bonanza Mine.
The prospector's claims were quickly acquired by 28-year old Stephen Birch, a mining engineer from New York, sent to Alaska to look for investment opportunities for the wealthy Havermayer family of American Sugar fame. Birch, confident that there was money to be made, set out to procure clear title to the mining claims and obtain financial backing from industry giants such as the Guggenheims and J.P. Morgan.
In 1907 construction of the 196-mile Copper River and Northwestern Railroad (jokingly called the Can't Run and Never Will ) from Kennecott to Cordova began. The railroad was to serve as a key link in the development of the mines; bringing much needed supplies in and copper ore out. However, this was no small undertaking. The railroad had to cross raging rivers, rugged mountains, and active glaciers on its way to Kennecott from the coast. Construction of the railroad was awarded to Michael J. "Big Mike" Heney who had completed the famous Yukon and White Pass Railroad from Skagway. This fiery Irishman met the challenge head on and 4 years later the first trains rolled into Kennecott. In the meantime, Stephen Birch had been busy. Despite the inhospitable terrain, he had managed to transport enough equipment into Kennecott to begin mining. When the train came, he met it with a load of copper ore valued at $250,000! With the key link complete, production went into full swing.
Kennicott was a classic company town. Most of the miners lived there in company housing and everything revolved around the mining operations. The town was a "dry" town and miners were not allowed to bring their families. Nearby, the town of Shushana Junction begain developing. This small town eventually changed its name to McCarthy, and became the site of a turnaround station for the railroad. McCarthy was quite a miners’ and railroaders’ town, with all the – ahem – “entertainment” a young man on the frontier might require. Restaurants, pool halls, hotels, saloons, a dress shop, shoe shop, garage, hardware store, and thriving red light district all popped up to provide services to more than 800 people in the area. The two towns coexisted for the 27 years that Kennecott was in operation. Traditions from those days, such as the 4th of July baseball game, are still carried out today.
By 1938, after shipping a staggering $200 million in ore, the rich copper deposits were depleted and the mines of Kennecott as well as the railroad, ceased operations. Because of the high costs of transportation, the mill town was abandoned along with just about everything in it. Dishes were left on tables, medical records were left in the hospital, and mining equipment was left where it was used last. In the years that followed, several groups made attempts to resume mining operations in the area, but the high cost of transportation from such a remote area proved too much for them. Things became pretty quiet until the 1970's when tourism to the area began to develop.
McCarthy & Kennecott Today
Today, tourism makes up the majority of the local economy for the two communities. People from all over the world visit the area each year to explore the ruins of Kennecott and recreate in some of the most pristine wilderness left in the world today. Kennecott is still a company town of sorts as it is the headquarters of the National Park Service. And, though the bordellos are gone, McCarthy is still the center of social life. The McCarthy Road provides access to the area, following the rail bed of the old Copper River and Northwestern Railway from Chitina to McCarthy. Although the railroad tracks have long since been torn up, the road has a way of reminding visitors of its origins as old nails and spikes from the railroad days work their way up to the surface and into the tires of travellers.
History of the National Park
Though it would take decades to come to fruition, the first seeds leading to the creation of Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park were sown almost as soon as the last train pulled out of Kennicott. After a flight over the area in 1938, Ernest Gruening, Director of U.S. Territories and later Alaska's governor and a U.S. Senator recommended the area as a national park or monument. In a memorandum to the Secretary of the Interior he described the area:
"The region is superlative in its scenic beauty and measures up fully and beyond the requirements for its establishment as a National Monument and later as a National Park. It is my personal view that from the standpoint of scenic beauty, it is the finest region in Alaska. I have traveled through Switzerland extensively, have flown over the Andes, and am familiar with the Valley of Mexico and with other parts of Alaska. It is my unqualified view that this is the finest scenery that I have ever been privileged to see."
In 1978, President Jimmy Carter declared the area a National Monument because of its cultural and scientific significance. When Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980, the area became part of the 13.2 million acre Wrangell St. Elias National Park, the largest U.S. national park. Wrangell-St. Elias is one of four contiguous conservation units spanning some 24 million acres that have been recognized by the United Nations as an international World Heritage Site. The original 1978 designation included Wrangell-St. Elias and Kluane National Park Reserve in the Yukon Territory of Canada. In 1993, both Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve and a new park, the Alsek-Tatshenshini Provincial Park in British Columbia were added to that designation. Altogether, it is one of the largest internationally protected areas in the world.
We hope you’ll have a chance to explore this incredible area, whether it is by taking a history tour of the Kennecott town site, hiking out to the local glacier, floating down a glacial river, heading off on a multi-day backpacking trip deep into the park, or simply sitting on the porch of a local lodge or bed and breakfast and taking in the view.
Copyright 2009, McCarthy-Kennecott Visitor Information Center, All Rights Reserved.