The Knitting Nurse

Rambles and Travels

FINALLY! Alaska – Part Two of ? – Fish Wheels and Copper Lust – Copper River and Kennicott


I last left you flying, with me, around Denali.


…after leaving Talkeetna, my brain still circumnavigating Denali, I headed to my next goal. The wee town of McCarthy and the Kennicott Mine tucked in at the foot of the Wrangell-St. Elias mountains and the respective National Park.

The drive took me along the famed Copper River.  287 miles long, the Copper drains a total of 24,000 square miles (an area the size of West Virginia.)  2,000,000+ salmon spawn in it each year.  The 10th largest US river its delta, in Cordova, is reportedly the largest contiguous wetlands along the N. A. Pacific Coast and favored by 16 million shorebirds.   Yah…it’s an important river.  I was excited to meet it.

Peeking over the Copper River and looking into the mountains in the far distance:

Passed through the town of Chitina. Once a thriving stop on a railroad line, the 1939 Kennicott mine closing almost did it in.  123 now call it home.  Most are AK Natives living a subsistence lifestyle.

A campground sits here just east of Chitina at the confluence of the Chitina and Copper River.

My first step along the Copper’s banks revealed a roaring, muddy, roiling train of water barreling along. I’d heard people speak of this huge river with reverence and respect. This photo does not capture its movement.  A man warned me of a deer carcass downstream and its potential to attract bear.   His daughters were riding a big-wheel down a small sand dune next to the river. The things I remember.

A (horribly exposed) photo below shows fish wheels, devices used by Native fishers and only allowed on the Copper and Yukon Rivers.  A system of baskets and paddles spin with the current and trap salmon swimming upstream, dropping them into holding tanks. The wind and dust tore through this spot.

Many AK Natives hunt and fish in a subsistence lifestyle.  This literally means if they don’t bring home seals, or whale, or game, or fish they don’t have food through the winter.  Working with the AK Native population at AK Native Medical Center Hospital put me in touch with this concept.

It was here in Chitina I got lucky and found a tire repair shack.

I woke after camping that night and found the tire pressure light on.  Noting a tire looking low I made it across the bridge and  found a tire shop.

A young man, maybe 16, stumbled out of a trailer buried in piles of old tires.  With a cigarette stuck to his lip one hand held his pants up on his thin frame.   Inside the dimly lit repair shop, built from pallets and tar paper, the smell of grease and dirt filled my nose.  Using a hydraulic tool he pried off the tire and found a screw in the tread. Interesting conversation we batted about as he patched it up.

I was lucky to find him.

A Chitina vehicle. Now this exemplifies rural AK. Note the gun cases.

The drive along McCarthy Rd is a delightfully slow, narrow dirt road of 60 miles and follows an old railbed. In fact, in places the ties (and spikes) peek out through the gravel.  I came across a caravan of old Model T’s. One group allowed a photo-op.

The scenery is splendid and void of human evidence. The Chitina River:

At mile 17 the 600 foot long Kuskulana Bridge spans a 238 foot gorge. Construction of the near 200 mile railway from Kennicott to Cordova beat the odds of extreme cold (-54 F in winter), mountainous terrain and dangerous flooding water in the name of copper’s wealth.

A trestle:

Most of the road passes through open, wet area with conifer and foothill views:

First lilypads I’d seen in the wild:

After 60 miles of dirt road you reach the rock-strewn banks of the Kennicott River and can go no further. You can walk or take a shuttle across.  I walked to the wee town of McCarthy.  Wish I’d taken a good pic of its main drag though it doesn’t show much.  Just a couple small hotels, a museum full of intriguing artifacts, a mountaineering center and a restaurant exist for summer tourists.  Sounded like none overwinter. I can imagine why.

Shuttled further up the road to Kennecott. Two lucky prospectors spotted a couple green patches on a hillside one day in 1900. Thinking it grass for their horses they set out and found it to be copper. This source proved to be the richest in the world at the time.  The famed Guggenheims and J.P. Morgan funded the Corporation.

Kennecott had five mines feeding the Mill ore: Bonanza, Jumbo, Mother Lode, Erie and Glacier.  Elaborate trams and tunnels connected some.  All are perched on dangerous, steep slopes 3-5 miles up.  One thing that strikes me, when exploring old and dilapidated mines, is how much larger and bustling they must’ve been when operating.  Kennecott was named after an AK naturalist, Robert Kennicott.  (A clerk’s misspelling of his name stuck through time.)

1916 was its peak year producing $32.4 million (yep) in copper ore. The lifetime total value exceeded $207,000,000 with profits of over 1 million. What would that equal today?

Like all mines, though, the goods ran out. The last train of ore left Kennecott in 1938 sealing its fate as a ghost town.  A lone family of three watched it from 1939 until the mid-1950s.  Much artifacts were pilfered by the public. The company with land rights ordered the destruction of the town to rid them of liability for potential accidents. Fortunately, just a few structures were destroyed. In 1986 it became a National Historic Landmark with the NPS gaining much of the mill-town’s land.  Work on stabilizing and rehabilitating many of the mill and town’s buildings continues today.

A panoramic pic as you approach:

If you visit, a tour of the 14 story concentration mill is provided (for a fee) through St. Elias guides.  I took it and it was worth every penny.  One can also take glacier hikes, go ice climbing or on guided (or solo) strenuous hikes to the mines up the hillsides.

The concentration mill:

From atop the mill you look over the company town and up the Kennicott Glacier. The Root glacier is off to the right:

I believe that’s Mt. Blackburn in the distance. Beautiful!

The former hospital, the only whitewashed building there. I read that red was the cheapest paint color at the time so that’s what they used.

This building’s been badly damaged. Upon closer inspection one sees rooms full of rocky debris:

Once inside the Mill the usual array of frames, belts, machines, doo-dads and wha-cha-ma-callits present themselves.  I didn’t get good pics inside.  What I did enjoy was a tour from a man who seemed to eat, sleep and breathe Kennecott history.

If you’ve followed posts from the past you’ve likely noticed I’ve a thing for mining history.  The notion of the boom to bust cycle, it’s layers of people involved (laborers to profiteers) and the way they often overstep Mother Nature’s imposed limitations fascinates me.

I was glad for this leg of the trip.  I learned much about AK Native culture in Chitina. Some things I came across seemed quiet and private so I did not photograph them. Many images are stored in my mind.   People followed consuming motivation, and travelled improbable distances, to an unwelcoming setting.  All in the name of making a fortune. Which few did.  Just wait until I blog about Skagway and the Klondike gold Rush.  Crazy people!


2 thoughts on “FINALLY! Alaska – Part Two of ? – Fish Wheels and Copper Lust – Copper River and Kennicott

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