Cold Mountain Path: The Ghost Town Decades of McCarthy-Kennecott, Alaska, by Tom Kizzia
Porphyry Press, 344 pages, 2021, $21.95
The tiny community McCarthy came into existence early in 20th century to provide goods and services to workers at the nearby Kennecott Mine. The mine closed, but the town remained, though barely so. Cut off from road access for decades, it was never easy to get to, and never home to many people. Those who came and stayed needed gumption and the requisite skills to improvise with whatever might be on hand in a pinch. It was a challenging life, but one they preferred to the rapidly changing modern world they came to McCarthy to escape.
The problem, as we learn from Tom Kizzia’s history of the people who lived there during the middle decades of the 20th century, is that the modern world kept finding its way to McCarthy regardless. The demands of the global economy had created the town and then cast it aside. Politicians both state and federal had designs on the location. And on March 1, 1983, a troubled loner, fueled by personal demons and outrage at that modern world, killed six residents in a murder spree when fewer than two dozen people were in the valley.
It was a crime so horrific that the town has become synonymous with it. Somewhat lost owing to the event was the long history of a uniquely Alaskan community where a distinct culture emerged that would help the survivors slowly recover from their trauma. Kizzia, who first laid eyes on McCarthy as a young reporter assigned to cover the slayings, and who now owns a cabin in the area, explores these years in “Cold Mountain Path,” a beautifully written story about the sometimes difficult but almost always generous people who made their lives amidst the wilderness.
Kizzia opens the story with the departure of the final train in 1938. The global depression, coupled with the expense of drawing dwindling copper from the mountains, rendered the operation uneconomic. Better and cheaper prospects lay elsewhere. In 1938, employees and managers abruptly left, leaving homes filled with possessions and a mine filled with equipment. It became a ghost town, and in nearby McCarthy, the economy crashed. By the next year, the bridge into town had washed out, and the handful of remaining residents turned to subsistence, guiding, trapping, and other means of scratching their lives from the soil, and from houses and industrial buildings filled with items waiting to be scavenged and repurposed.
McCarthy became a relic of America’s expansion across the continent. A town that existed solely because of huge corporate investment in the adjacent mine was all but wiped out by the withdrawal of that money. The town’s birth and near abandonment established a pattern that would continue in some ways. Regardless of who was living there and what they sought, McCarthy could never break from this reality.
Kizzia introduces readers to a stream of characters who wandered into McCarthy and left their marks. Mudhole Smith, a pioneer in Alaskan aviation, became a lifeline to the outside for residents. George Flowers, the son of Black Mississippi sharecroppers, walked from Seattle to Alaska somewhere around 1910, found his way into McCarthy, and took to trapping. Prospector George Smock wandered the hills, looking for the proverbial motherlode, often enraging his neighbors while becoming a model for artist Fred Machetanz’s icon images of Alaska sourdoughs. Blazo Bill Berry earned his nickname with his fire starting practices.
Colorful characters such as these inhabit this book, and Kizzia tells of their struggles with the land, with each other, and with themselves. To live in McCarthy in this era required an extreme degree of independence, so it’s hardly surprising that conflicts arose. Yet for the most part peace was maintained. There was enough room for residents to socially distance, yet they were close enough to support each other if needed.
Harder to avoid were the outside forces. The first wave of tourists came by air in the 1950s. They toured the mine and its vacant residences and, much like the locals, helped themselves to what they could carry away. Hippies started arriving in the late 60s, introducing marijuana to the town. Construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline brought workers, along with a pimp and two young women. John Denver paid a visit.
More bothersome were government bureaucrats who had their own ideas about what was best for McCarthy, culminating with the National Park Service when Wrangell-St. Elias National Park engulfed the land beyond the town. Residents split over every state and federal proposal made that would impact them. They wanted to maintain their way of life and get what they wanted from the government and outside powers, while maintaining control over what those entities did in the region. An impossible task anywhere.
As he tells these and many other stories, Kizzia, a masterful writer, delivers one beautiful sentence after another:
“The afternoon had been wet with heavy and falling snow. But now the sky opened and cold poured down from the stars.”
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a crew of workingmen in possession of a good fleet of heavy equipment must be looking for earth to move.”
“Edwards hired a lawyer, despite his well-known aversion to the way white-collar professionals keep the meter running when you are trying to have a simple conversation.”
Edwards was Jim Edwards, who came to town in the 1950s and lived out the rest of his life. His wife Maxine was one of the victims of the 1983 shootings. He was the quiet backbone of McCarthy for many years, and Kizzia makes him a central focus of the book. Unlike the killer, the Edwards’ names are worthy of remembrance. As are all who pass through these pages.
“Cold Mountain Path” is a tribute of the town and its people. And while the murders must sadly be a part of it, their lives, not their deaths, are what Kizzia finds worthy of honoring, and that is what he does. This is a beautiful book.