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Specters and vanishing tombstones at Kennecott Copper Mines

Eric Christopher Adams
Alaska Dispatch illustration

Ghosts of the old territorial days are with us everywhere. Alaska is littered with abandoned Russian settlements, deserted prospecting sites and the wreckage of so many doomed expeditions into the cold, dark and mysterious Far North. Spirits of the ancients are even said to be trapped in the great animals roaming the Great Land, ferrying souls from this realm to the next.

And while there's talk of ghosts and spirits rustling in trees, haunting old lodges, moaning in the mountain passes and dwelling near shipwrecks, only one recurring premonition can be said to have scared off state government.

It's somehow fitting that perhaps the greatest concentration of paranormal activity in Alaska's vast lands has been reported near one of the world's richest-known gold and copper strikes. The old railroad that serviced the Kennecott copper mines in the Valdez and Chitina mining districts is said to be so haunted, so spooky, that to this day -- 73 years after the final lode was hauled -- phantoms plague repeated attempts by locals and even state officials to redevelop the area.

A bit of history on the mines: Kennecott's ore was mined from deep inside the Wrangell Mountains and then carried across a three-mile aerial tramway before it was conveyed 4,000 feet down the frozen mountainside to the mining town of Kennecott. And from there the ore met up with the Copper River and Northwestern Railway.

The old CR & NW is an abandoned, 200-mile stretch of track ambling from Kennicott Glacier south to Cordova on Prince William Sound. Copper was hauled there and then shipped south to smelters in Tacoma, Wash. The railroad, built by the J.P. Morgan-financed Kennecott Copper Corp. between 1907 and 1911, spanned a massive glacier (the tracks had to be moved, continually, as the glacier shifted and settled). It bridged yawning canyons. It clung tenaciously to rock walls above the madly-swirling Copper River. During construction, thousands of workers were required to dig through snow and avalanche. Others went to work to blast a way ahead, through miles and miles of rock. Many were reported to have died during construction of the CR & NW.

The rail line cost Kennecott Corp. $20 million to build at the time. Adjusted for inflation, that's more than $458 million in today's dollar. The investment eventually produced some 4 million tons of copper ore that passed south over the Chitina River Bridge -- not to mention 128 other bridges -- and then on down the line. While the track eventually became a very profitable investment, during construction railroad workers and miners swore the acronym for the CR & NW stood for "Can't Run and Never Will."

Widespread and persistent stories of hauntings along the old track have been reported from the region, especially near Chitina. It is well documented that the railroad created thousands of jobs. There was a 30-year boom in nearby McCarthy, a town adjacent to Kennecott, which offered "colorful diversions" for miners, including a red light district.

But how many lives were lost during the railroad construction and the mining boom -- and the inevitable bust? Practically overnight, the once-bustling communities surrounding Kennecott mines turned to ghost towns. McCarthy almost died but hung on thanks to a hard few who continued to work other area gold mines.

Eventually, when the National Park Service showed up, after establishment of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Kennecott flourished again, albeit it in a less fashion, as a tourist attraction unnamed. The park now draws people along the McCarthy Road, which took over the old railroad grade from Chitina east into the mountains. Over the years, travelers on the road and visitors to the present-day Kennecott historical landmark have claimed they've seen tombstones just off the old dirt path that in places where it parallels the CR & NW, the Old Copper Railroad.

Thing is, on the way back from their adventures, these wayfarers have consistently reported that the grave markers are gone, vanished into the still, cool mountain air.

Back in the late 1990s, the state of Alaska is said to have begun developing a government housing tract out along the trail that once marked the CR & NW. But during construction, workers so regularly recounted phantom visions and "disembodied voices of both children and adults along the Old Copper Railroad" that keeping work up became impossible. Eventually things got even worse. Construction workers, having seen the tombstones and heard the wails of long-dead miners, then started losing their tools, right out of their tool belts and boxes. It was enough to frighten off even the boldest and bravest public servant and the whole project is said to have been canceled.

Getting out to the long-abandoned track isn't easy. Much the same can be said of many other godforsaken places in Alaska, but in some of those people manage to maintain, sometimes even flourish. Few other places are believed to have as many spirits discouraging resettlement as the abandoned ghost towns and railways of the Kennecott Copper Mines in Wrangell-St. Elias.

Contact Eric Christopher Adams at eric(at)alaskadispatch.com

Editor's note: This story originally ran on Halloween in 2012.