Strike it Rich!
~Saturday, July 9, 2022~
Day 19 of Alaska Trip
No leisurely morning here as we needed to catch the 10:00 shuttle in McCarthy to get to our 11:30 tour at the Kennicott Mill (the mill spells it differently than the town), just 5 miles from our campsite.
We shared a ride with a couple from Utah and a couple from Fairbanks among others. Interesting to hear about the Alaskan’s comment about the fishing boat tours in Alaska….NEVER do a ½ day, and NEVER go out in inclement weather. The charters just want your money if they offer those things. He also highly recommended plane tours, saying it would be the best $300-$400/person you’d ever spend. Once we arrived at Kennecott, we all dispersed in different directions….some doing the same tour as us, while others were doing the Glacier Tour or just plain sightseeing on their own.
After we checked in, we went to make sure our bikes were still in the same place we left them yesterday. And yes, there they were all safe and sound. We were looking forward to our ride back (all downhill! 😉). Since the tour was meeting at the general store, we thought we’d take a look around a bit before things got started. Our group was split into 2 by our guide Landon. About in his early 20’s, he was a serious, knowledgeable fellow, who displayed a rare grin. And if he didn’t know an answer to a question, he wasn’t shy to admit it.
We were given an introduction to what made this place tick back in the early 1900’s…….copper and lots of it! The mill’s construction originally began in 1909 and would be added over time as needs changed. Heavy equipment would be hoisted into place with some machinery deemed useless over the years. Instead of removing it, they would simply leave it behind. Two aerial tramways brought copper ore from the mines high on the northeast ridge of the Wrangell Mountains, nearly 4,000 feet above the Mill. One was named the Bonanza Mine, the other……the Jumbo Mine. The ore would eventually make its way to the tramway terminals at the Mill where copper ore was crushed and concentrated in this building. All of the processing equipment in the Mill was run by electricity from their on-site power plant which would operate everything in the mill, plus the surrounding buildings in town. Between 1911 and 1938, nearly $200 million worth of copper was processed there, employing about 300 people at the Mill and about 300 in the Mines. Between mine engineers, general managers and dedicated workers, it became one of the most profitable mining/mill sites in the world, in one of the most remote locations in the world.
Our tour group of about 12 were issued hard hats, not for fear of the structure collapsing, but for the tight quarters we’d be walking through, some with very little head clearance…….steep, dark steps and a number of tripping hazards (Cal/OSHA would shut this place down in a second) made this tour challenging.
Before making our way up the hillside to get inside the Concentration Mill, it was apparent which buildings stood the ravages of time and which ones didn’t. The ones that survived were made of imported Douglas Fir while the ones that failed (and there were quite a few) were made of Alaska’s native Spruce (a poor building material). In any case, most, especially the Mill itself, built into a steep hillside needed structural refurbishing.
Lucky for us, the third phase of renovations of the historic 14-story Kennicott Concentration Mill Building was completed in the summer of 2021. It was interesting to see where the new supports were added simply by looking at the color of the lumber. It was remarkable just how much stabilization had to go into making this place fit for tourists. The $5.7 million dollar project replaced heavy timber elements, some about 141,000 pounds of lumber with the largest pieces being up to 850 pounds and 34 feet long. But there were also challenges coming into contact with buried explosives and hazardous material. In fact, workers and engineers of the restoration project are regularly tested to monitor blood levels.
Not satisfied with the 10 or 11 steps of copper extraction, Stephen Birch demanded even more to extract the finest particles of copper so their success rate would be somewhere around 97%. To achieve this, scientists created a series of vibrating tables and chemical extractions with ammonia to get the most valuable product out of their ore. Incidentally, after they began the chemical process, it was then they discovered silver in the ore as well…..another successful endeavor. Fascinating tour. Highly recommend it if you're not afraid of steep, narrow stairways. Thank goodness for those hard hats!
Aside from the Mill, another favorite building of ours was the General Manager’s office building, which had exhibits about the men behind the scenes, who started the entire operation; the movers and the shakers if you will. Upstairs was also the drafting room where the concept all began….. (something Jeff and I would appreciate from our interior architecture school days). Seeing the process on so many levels was very fascinating.
After another full day in Kennecott, we were ready to head back to camp (this time by bike!) with a quick detour to McCarthy for a late lunch at The Potato. Sitting alone at an outdoor table next to us was a guy from Indiana that we struck up a conversation with. It started off great, hearing about his summer employment working for 2 doctors in McCarthy, until the conversation turned too political and too personal and let’s just say he wasn’t the “sharpest tool in the shed”. But he was smart enough to know we were more interested in our lunch than in opinionated chatter. Our lunch of falafels and Mexican style burritos was delicious and enjoyed our visits, once again, by the local’s 4-legged friends.
By the time we got back, Sadie was happy to see us, and ready for her own bit of fun which we were going to do in town…… McCarthy was having music night #2 (this time Reggae). But after being immersed in our beautiful surroundings at the campsite, we decided to stay put. It was our last night after all in Wrangell St. Elias before moving onto Valdez. We couldn’t have asked for a better way to spend a Saturday night spent outside, with our 360-degree views of the Wrangell Mountains as we played a few rounds of
Fast Track together with Sadie at our feet. Plus, we could even hear the live music from McCarthy after all without having to be there. Fast Track results…..Jeff won 3 of our 4 games……those darn draws of the “4” card.