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A trip to Alaska's Kennecott Mine

Matt Keller
The structures are built on the sides of and atop the hilly terrain of the region.
Matt Keller photo
The mine has become a popular tourist destination.
Matt Keller photo
The Kennecott Mine camp has been abandoned since the 1950s. It can only be accessed by hiking into Wrangell-St. Elias National Park from McCarthy.
Matt Keller photo
One of the Kennecott mines; I believe this one is Erie.
Matt Keller photo
The Kennicott Glacier, seen from the air.
Matt Keller photo
The Alaska ghost town of Kennecott, as seen from the air.
Matt Keller photo

Six weeks ago we decided to block out a few days in July to take a family trip. This is unusual for us because it means the entire air-taxi service shuts down until we return. We booked two nights at the Kennicott Glacier Lodge and then worked like fools until the big vacation arrived. We crammed the Cessna 185 full of stuff, loaded the family, and launched for McCarthy. The weather was cloudless and it was almost too hot for us pathetic Alaskans -- I bet it was 70 degrees.

Kennecott was a huge copper and silver mine that was discovered in 1900. $23 million dollars and 11 years later, a railway had been built from the Kennecott mine in the Wrangell mountains to the costal town of Cordova, where the copper was hauled and shipped to the Pacific Northwest. Over the next 38 years, the mine grossed nearly $330 million, of which $100 million was profit. The mine closed suddenly in 1938 following the Great Depression, and this ghost town was left behind.

The mill was built on the side of a 45-degree slope. The pictures do not do it justice, as the enormity of these buildings will blow your mind considering the angle of the slopes on which they are perched.

Even in the early 1900s, the town had a movie theatre and some heated sidewalks. Some of the nicer cottages had indoor plumbing and electricity was run throughout.

I had not been here in more than 15 years and it was even cooler than I remembered. McCarthy is 60 miles from Chitina via a gravel road where the railroad used to run, and it used to take half a day to drive there. The road is much better now, from what I understand, but I am glad we flew. It was way too hot to sit in a car. The first time I visited, the only way to access the town of McCarthy was by using a hand tram to cross the river. A private bridge has now been built and regular shuttle service provides transport from the small town of McCarthy to the Kennecott mine, just four and a half miles up valley.

The toe of the Kennicott Glacier sprawls out in front of the mine, and the Root glacier can be easily accessed with a short walk. The scenery will blow your mind.

The Kennecott mine processed the minerals collected at the Bonanza, Jumbo, Erie, and Mother Lode mines located high in the hills. The remains of these mines could be spotted as we flew home. There are more than 60 miles of tunnels dug into the mountain and I have no idea how they transported the lumber to these sites to build these enormous structures, 4,000 feet from the valley floor. 

Matthew Keller is the owner and operator of Blue Ice Aviation. He was born and raised in Alaska and his office is the cockpit of his Super Cub. His goal is to transport everyone into Alaska's vast wilderness. See more of his videos and writing at Blue Ice Aviation.