Park Service Announces Major Work On Upper Levels Of Historic Kennecott Mill Building

Work On Saving The Kennecott Mines Continues  In 1938, the last train pulled out of Kennicott, famously leaving the tables in the dining hal...

Work On Saving The Kennecott Mines Continues 


In 1938, the last train pulled out of Kennicott, famously leaving the tables in the dining hall fully set with dishes, plates and silverware. But no people. The grunt workers, laborers, high-end supervisors, professional miners... they all disappeared. Forever. Leaving the spectacular buildings behind. 

The ravages of time at Kennicott. (Photo, Country Journal) 

It was as if Kennecott were the Titanic. The huge mines were contemporaneous with that  ill-fated and overambitious ocean liner – everything was supersized back then. But now, just like the Titanic, the mines had seemingly hit an iceberg and were about to sink. 

Alaskans couldn't believe it. Surely this was a mistake. Kennecott was an extraordinary effort – and in the wild and desolate Copper River Valley, no less. The expense and toil of building a complete and modern massive mill town, with all the bells and whistles – right next to a wilderness glacier – had been enormous. There were all those railroad trestles high on the sandy cliffs beside the raging Copper River. All those bridges that had been built in the winter and under terrible conditions. All that heavy equipment... 

And now. To walk away? 

What about the five mines – Jumbo, Mother Lode, Erie, Glacier and Bonanza? What about the many huge, heavy-timbered buildings? And the Copper River railroad to Cordova? What about America's love of metal? What about all that? Surely they'd come back. 

But, for the mining company, it was over. The mine in Alaska had played out, and the whole shebang was closed down.  They left behind the school, the tennis court, the laundry, the dairy, the store, the hospital, shafts and chutes and smokestacks...  It was time to go look for copper somewhere else. For the Kennicott Copper Corporation, enough was enough. And so they walked away from the Copper Valley and Alaska – as so many large corporations have always walked away from Alaska. Including the coal miners at Sutton, and the gold miners in Nome and Fairbanks, and the fish processors on the Kenai and along the Panhandle. 

The story is that in the late 1960s, hoping to clean up the mines, a man and his sons were contracted to tear down the buildings. The mines are huge. It turned out to be too difficult. But – the sparse crew did manage to rip the roof off the heavy-timbered mill building, peeling back its protection and opening it to rain and snow before abandoning the job. 

The Kennecott Mine was an incredible feat. That mill building is 14 stories tall, and considered to be the tallest wooden building in America. (Its stability is assisted though, by the fact that it's built up against a small mountainside. It's not freestanding.) 

Where would you stash the trash from such a clean up anyway? The mines had aerial tramways, chutes, huge gears and buckets. It was oversized in every possible way. It hadn't been easy to build. It was harder to tear down. The only way it was going to disappear was to moulder away, and collapse – as so many barns and cabins and old buildings do when they are neglected and unmaintained. First the roof goes, and then everything falls in with it as the rain comes and rots the wood.  

And this is exactly what began to happen. 

So in some ways, Kennicott actually was like the Titanic. It had struck disaster, and, abandoned by its makers, had sunk to the bottom of an empty, waterless inland sea.

Yet the extraordinary mine, with its smokestacks, its gorgeous glacial surroundings, its defining history that celebrated the golden age of American copper mining was obviously  important. And some people knew that. The mines were listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. 

Then, in 1980, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park was established. By June, 1998, the National Park Service acquired a lot of those old buildings. 

The buildings were really falling apart by this time. The lush "Kennicott Red" color on some of them was fading to an unnerving pinkish-brown mottled hue with the rotting wood showing through. The roofs were turning to slats with holes between them. The sides of the building were caving in, with wood splintering and exposed. 

In 1988, people in McCarthy and Kennicott had joined together to form an organization called "Friends of Kennicott". Their purpose was to help the Park Service stabilize key structures of the buildings, protect "Kennecott's historical, cultural and natural features" and provide a "safe and rewarding experience" for visitors and people of the area. The local people advocated "a light touch" to keep the place authentic. 

Sometimes vision does pay off. The Park Service has been working on major renovations for years. And the ability of local people to understand Kennecott's appeal has made McCarthy and Kennicott a major tourist destination and historical complex, beloved even by Alaskans. 

On September 7th, 2021, Wrangell-St. Elias Park announced that had stabilized a major part of the centerpiece of the operations: the Kennicott Concentration Mill Building. Using local carpenters, they had finished stabilizing 5 more floors of the building, in spite of the need for extensive manual labor and finding blasting caps along the way.

PRESS RELEASE, NPS: SEPTEMBER 7TH, 2021

Kennecott Concentration Mill Building
Renovations Completed 
 
Copper Center, AK – Phase III renovations to the historic 14-story Kennecott Concentration Mill building in the Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark (NHL) in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve were completed this summer.   
 
The $5.7 million dollar project stabilized levels 7-11 of the Mill building and followed two previous projects that stabilized levels 1 through 6 and installed a fire detection and notification system.  The project mainly replaced heavy timber elements; 141,200 pounds of lumber were utilized in the stabilization effort. The largest timber elements were up to 850 pounds and 34 feet long. Because the site and structure were not accessible to heavy construction equipment, the heavy timber elements were moved around and through the building viaBit. manpower, winches, and chain falls. Skilled local carpenters hand notched and fitted each piece. Additional challenges in accomplishing the work included blasting caps discovered on the north slope elevation of the Mill Building and the presence of hazardous materials, including heavy metals. 
 
Construction of the Mill building originally began in 1909; copper ore was crushed and concentrated in this building until the mines closed in 1938.  Between 1911 and 1938, nearly $200 million worth of copper was processed at the Mill. At the peak of operation, approximately 300 people worked in the mill town and 200-300 in the mines.   
 
Kennecott Mines NHL is located at the end of a remote, unpaved, dead-end road in the heart of the largest National Park, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. The historic mill town is considered the best remaining example of early 20th Century copper mining and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 and designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1986.  National Park Service interpretive exhibits and historic buildings are open to the public Memorial Day through Labor Day, 9:00am – 5:00pm.  Visit the park’s website for trip planning information. 
 
 

 




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