January 30, 2018 by Deborah W. Trotter
It is not unusual to find historic buildings protected within national parks. But the 14-story remains of the early 20th century Kennecott copper mill, found still standing miles inside Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve in Alaska, is a bit of an anomaly. And getting to this feature is a bit out of the ordinary national park experience, as well.
The way in is via the McCarthy Road, which leads from the small community of Chitina to the Kennicott River a few miles from the historical copper mining operations. The road is rutted and rough, usually passable in summer, but the 62-mile trip can take three hours or more, and is very hard on vehicles. The road consists of gravel topping over the old railroad, from which the rails were removed for scrap after the mining operations ceased in 1938. Hence the warning on the sign above about loose railroad spikes that occasionally work their way to the surface of the road. There are also places where the stumps of old railroad trestles have become exposed, creating a unique road hazard.
On our visit last June, we opted to hire a driver and van, in part because we couldn’t risk damaging our rental car driving on the McCarthy Road, but also to augment our experience with a local’s knowledge and insight. Likely tall tales aside, our driver shared much information about the road, the area’s natural features and its history.
From the end of the McCarthy Road at the Kennicott River, we walked across the foot bridge and caught an inexpensive shuttle through the tiny town of McCarthy and up to the old Kennecott mining town. (The difference in spellings may or may not be the result of a past clerical error.) There we took our memorable tour of the old copper mill.
Looking up at this dilapidated structure which had sat unused for decades, abused by the harsh elements of Alaskan winters, made us slightly question the wisdom of going inside. We knew it has been stabilized by the National Park Service, and tour guides tramp through it every day. We tried not to dwell on the fact that Alaska is earthquake country.
The tour began with a steep climb up a trail nearby to get to the level of the top floor of the mill. Once there our group donned hard hats, and then followed our guide down floor by floor through the bowels of the old building. Although it had been abandoned nearly 80 years before, much of the equipment was still in place, though not intact, and our guide did a great job explaining the copper milling processes, creating a sense of what it was like to work there. I’m certain that at times I felt the spirits of the men who toiled inside that facility, many suffering injuries and most losing at least some if not all of their hearing.
The Kennecott area is a small fraction of the territory embraced within Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, the largest national park in the United States at six times the size of Yellowstone. Much of the rest of the Park is wild, remote, often inaccessible, containing such a vast number of mountain peaks and glaciers that it is nearly impossible for a visitor even to begin to learn their names. The grand scale of Alaska’s natural majesty is difficult to comprehend, even after flying over it and being temporarily immersed in it.
Traveling the McCarthy Road and touring the old copper mill (arranged by our daughter and her fiance who lived in Alaska for a year) proved to be a way in, a way to possess and take away some concrete experience of this national park in the one day we had to visit that section of it. If you can stay longer, there are accommodations and places to camp, and several trails to hike near Kennecott.