Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Kennecott Ruins

September 8 (in Kennecott, Alaska).

After a great, but too large, breakfast at Kennicott Glacier Lodge, it is time for the morning's guided tour of the Kennecott Mines ruins. I would have eaten more, but Mary cleverly distracts me and motions for the dining room attendant to hide the platter of cinnamon buns. Note the two different spellings of Kennecott and Kennicott. The mining company uses the "e" and the glacier uses the "i." No doubt serious readers of this blog will find cases where I have mixed them up.

It is raining steadily, so I leave the camera behind. Therefore I didn't get any photos of the fascinating interior of the copper mill. All the photos here were taken the next day when the weather finally cleared, but the interiors of most of the buildings are too dangerous to go in without a guide and are off limits. The site is a mix of original buildings and reconstruction to strict plans and standards to match the historical site.

It is a fascinating place, and unimaginable what it must have been like to work here: the noise, the dust, the cold, the hard labor, the isolation. Men were recruited to come up here from the "Lower 48" to work for 5 dollars a day, which was a dollar a day better than the average USA wage at the time. But they were charged a dollar a day for room and board. They worked 363 days a year, with Christmas and the 4th of July off. Only the management could bring their wives and children. There were a few women employed in the offices, but if they married one of the laborers, they had to leave. The town was a dry town, but McCarthy was far from dry. Only five or so miles away, it provided all of the bars and brothels one might expect in such a situation.

The mine sites were 3,800 feet higher in elevation than the mill and the town. As I can personally attest, it is an arduous hike of about 4.5 miles each way. Once the men got up there, they didn't leave but lived in bunk houses. In the winter, it was warmer to live underground in the copper mine, so that is what they did: eating, sleeping, and working underground. I am not sure how they ever got to McCarthy which would have been about 10 miles from the mines. Sometimes they would ride the buckets up and down to avoid the hike, but this was so dangerous that they actually had to sign a release form holding the company blameless if they were maimed or killed in the process.

This was the richest copper deposit ever found, I believe. The side of the mountain was actually green. I cannot remember how many millions of tons of ore were removed, but it was brought down to the mill on buckets running on cables. Each huge bucket contained 750 pounds of ore, and one arrived every 52 seconds. There were two bucket trams from each mine - one for high grade ore and one for all other.

At the mill, a man had 52 seconds to dump the bucket of mixed grade ore into a huge crusher. The high grade ore went down a steep chute directly to be bagged and loaded to cars. The other ore was processed in the mill through what had to have been an incredibly noisy and dangerous process as it dropped through the 100+ foot high mill. The goal was to separate as much rock as possible from the copper before shipping it out by rail to a seaport a hundred or so miles away. The railway had to built through the wilderness to reach Kennecott.

The ore was crushed into workable chunks by machines and sledge hammers, then dropped through levels of the mill, with something happening to it at each level. Much of the work was done with these huge shaker tables that attempted to separate the various grades of ore from the rock. It was deafening work, and men complained of "noise in their ears." It was extremely dusty, and men commonly got silicosis. It was unheated, other than the carpentry shop, as management determined that the men worked harder when it was cold. And it was wet, using 1,000 gallons of water for every minute of operation. Only about 15 - 20 men worked in the mill on each shift. There was one toilet.

The last step was where a man attached a burlap sack to the end of a chute, then released 100-150 pounds of ore into the bag. Bending over in this cramped space, he would place the bag on a conveyer belt to take it to a waiting freight car.

After there was no longer enough ore left for profitable operations, the entire town closed down and became a ghost town. A company was contracted to destroy the place but decided that the work was too difficult and left the job undone, fortunately for posterity.

Here are some photos of the mill area, starting with the first building built, the office:

The mill is an imposing yet ghostly structure. I've attempted to capture it from different viewpoints:

How they ever got the materials in here 100 years ago to build the powerplant is beyond me, but they did it:

This was a home for one of the managers:

The original company store had been torn down, but it has been painstakingly reconstructed, along with replicas of the exact products carried back in its day:

This gives an idea of the rugged beauty of the area, along with the historical ruins, in a rare moment of partial clearing:

The tram terminus (the highest part of the mill) is pretty much in ruins, but still impressive:

This view over the office building shows the impressive, rock-covered Kennicott Glacier:

I can't remember what these building were, but I liked the shot:


  1. Wow, that mill is super! I love it. My husband does model railroading in HO scale and when I saw the mill, right away though what a great structure for the layout. I'll have to show him these pictures.

  2. Wouldn't that be great for a model railway? It was a fascinating place.