Copper Rush

The Kennecott Copper Mill is a marvel of turn-of-the-century ingenuity.

By Scott Kirkwood

When most people think of copper, a penny comes to mind. But in the summer of 1900, when Clarence Warner and “Tarantula Jack” Smith discovered a stunningly rich copper deposit in the mountains of south-central Alaska, they saw dollar signs.

Of course, it’s one thing to identify a copper deposit in one of the most remote, treacherous landscapes in North America. It’s quite another to get to the copper ore, remove it from the earth, concentrate it, and deliver it to market using turn-of-the-century technology. Warner and Smith quickly recognized that they didn’t have the funding and expertise necessary to do that  work, so they sold their stake to Stephen Birch, who secured the financial backing of wealthy families including the Morgans and the Guggenheims, eventually forming the Kennecott Copper Corporation.

After a few years of legal wrangling, the company hired construction crews to build 200 miles of railroads to the interior, beginning in 1907. Supplies were brought in by vessels running up and down the Copper River. At least one steamship was taken apart, deposited on the other side of particularly dangerous rapids, and reassembled. The railroad was completed in 1911, but the work never ended: For years, crews were forced to rebuild miles of tracks again and again as permafrost buckled beneath the trestles, floods washed out bridges, and locomotive sparks turned timber into firewood, destroying 60 miles of tracks in one single event.

What was it about copper that made it worth so much trouble?

“Copper became an essential metal during the Industrial Revolution,” says Logan Hovis, a Park Service historian. “Iron and steel were important, too, but copper brass—made with zinc—can be manipulated much more easily, and doesn’t rust. Without it, you wouldn’t be able to produce boilers or generate steam power, so you wouldn’t be able to power any big industrial plants. By 1900, we see the invention of telephones and telegraphs, which used huge quantities of copper wire. Military technology also used a lot of copper in machinery and ammunition cartridges; without brass, you wouldn’t be ableto fight the first world war.”

At the time, any ore deposit with five percent copper was considered high-grade; today, mining companies pursue deposits with copper content far below one percent. Kennecott’s “Bonanza Mine Outcrop” contained copper ore fragments with as much as 70 percent pure copper, most of it highly concentrated in huge pockets.

Not all the ore was that rich; much of  it had to be concentrated at the mill before being shipped to the Lower 48. Today, St. Elias Alpine Guides leads tours of the towering 14-story copper mill built on the side of a mountain, taking visitors from the top to the bottom, illustrating how up to 98 percent of the copper was captured. A Rube Goldberg contraption of crushers, sifters, belts, and pulleys made the most of gravity, separating the copper from the limestone incrementally, capitalizing on their different densities. Railcars came right up to the side of the mill and delivered the copper to Tacoma, Washington, where it was smelted and sold. In 27 years of operations, the mine yielded profits between $200 and $300 million in 1930 dollars, or more than $2 billion in today’s dollars.

That money is what drew miners and mill workers to this part of Alaska. At its peak, Kennecott employed up to 800 men in the 1920s—several hundred in the mill town and the rest in the mines. The mine and mill were operated 24 hours a day, 363 days a year—Christmas and the Fourth of July were the only exceptions. The operation became a city of its own, with a hospital, general store, school, skating rink, tennis court, and recreation hall that showed movies for a dime.

“The miners were isolated from society, working seven days a week for four or five dollar a day, sending their paychecks home by telegraph,” says Hovis. “Most lived in bunkhouses and they were fed well. Drinking was reason for dismissal, but the company encouraged gambling, because a broke miner stays longer.” Indeed, the annual turnover rate was generally in excess of 100 percent. During one round of strike negotiations in June of 1917, management complained that one contentious issue had been settled only six months earlier, but labor representatives pointed out that none of the workers had been there at the time, which was only a slight overstatement.

In the 1930s, copper prices fell, and the mine was depleted; Kennecott closed in November, 1938. Some of the most expensive machinery was removed and sold to other mines and mills, but because of the extreme cost of moving anything in Alaska, much of it was simply left behind, which is what makes the site so fascinating 70 years later.

“In the lower 48, most of the major copper mines were retooled in the 1920s; if not, they were almost certainly torn down or retooled after World War II ,” says Hovis. “So it’s rare to get an opportunity to see how a mining operation of that period actually worked—you just don’t see mills like Kennecott anymore.” 

Scott Kirkwood is editor in chief of National Parks magazine.

This article appears in the Spring 2008 issue.

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