Saturday, July 12, 2008

What's the Largest US National Park?- Post 5: Kennecott Copper Mill

[click here for all the Wrangell-St. Elias Posts]

For me, the highlight of the trip to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park was the Endecott Mill. Copper was what opened up this area. When the first train left Kennecott in April 1911, Lone E. Jansen writes in The Copper Spike, what appears to be the most thorough book on the topic:
It was loaded with ore so rich that it was not even milled, but simply shoveled into sacks as it came from the mountain. The ore from the mine averaged 70 percent pure copper.

The first copper train was expected to be 60 cars long to bring down the great backlog of ore; however, since insurance could only be obtained on a value of up to $250,000 the train was reduced to 35 ore cars. These cars carried 1,200 tons of copper ore, valued at the maximum insurable amount, $250,000.
And things shut down rather abruptly in 1938. The tour of the mill (the mines are further up the mountain and not open for tours at this point) is unlike most US historical tours. It feels like nothing has been touched since they walked out. Nothing has been prettied up. This mill has not been Disneyfied. [All pictures can be enlarged by double clicking on them.]

The private tour - $25 per person, $10 for under 12 - is about two and a half hours. I think there is also a free Park Service tour, but I'm not sure. You walk through town past this pile of gravel where the creek flooded a year or two ago - can't remember all the details - and then past those freshly painted red buildings you go up a path through the underbrush to the top of the mill. The tour starts at the 14th floor - the top - of the mine. In the picture above you can see the mill from below and then looking down back at the town from the very top of the mill. Here, from the top, you can see some remnants of the tram (I'm pretty sure that's what this picture is) and the mountains above the mine where the copper was). The copper was hauled down in big buckets on the tram.

Miners got up to the mines, and their dormitories, by riding the tram or a 3 or 4 mile walk. They had to sign a no-liability form first, and according to our guide, a number of people weren't able to duck low enough and got whacked. He said the death records weren't well kept, but a lot of people died or got badly injured. They had a hospital of sorts on site.

These are a couple of the buildings along the creek that flooded not too long ago.

These are pictures inside the mill.

Everything in here, we were told, is original, including all the stairs. But as I look at the pictures, surely not the safety stripes, and possibly not the hand rail. But that was what made this all so remarkable. There were still tools lying around, scraps on the floor. Actually, I suspect it might have been tidier when it was a working mill. It's good we started at the top rather than at the bottom.

These tables were where ore was shaken in water to separate the copper from the rest of the rock. People worked in this mill and in the mine for 12 hour shifts. When one worker was getting up, the one he shared a bed with was finishing up. They had two holidays - Christmas and July 4th. So it was appropriate to be there July 4th.

This is a closer look at one of the slurry tables. There's linoleum on a wood base, then wooden slats to catch the various sized chunks from the ore.

At the end of the tour we were back on the main street at the bottom of the mill. Here's a picture looking back up at the bizarre building we'd just toured.

We went across the street into the power plant at the end of the tour.

One can't help but think about this strange chapter in US history. Here was this incredibly rich copper mine but it was separated from regular transportation routes by rugged mountains, rushing rivers, in country that was cold (temperatures get well under -40˚ which is the same in F and C) and snowy in the winter and thick undergrowth and hungry mosquitoes in the summer. The railroad to Kennecott from Cordova is 196 miles long, crossing rivers, gorges, and in one case five miles right over a glacier. Repairs had to be made every year. Janson writes

From the beginning, the Copper River and Northwestern was really more than a mining railroad. It was glamor, adventure and excitement. Its construction had truly been "man against the wilderness." Its people, such as M.J. Heney, E.C. Hawkins[There's only a bit about Hawkins, but this is in an interesting on-line book Alaska, An Empire in the Making published in 1913 two after the completion of the railroad], Dr. Whiting[The link has a picture about 3/4 down the page of Dr. Whiting performing the autopsy on Soapy Smith], Jack McCord and "Big Mike" Sullivan, seemed bigger than life, their achievements almost beyond the power of description, and therefore a challenge to writers to try, somehow, to describe them.(p. 149)

The tour guide told us that net profits for the Guggenheims and JP Morgan owned mine were $100-200 million, or over $1 billion in today's dollars. The workers got paid well by the going wage but the work must have been punishing and we don't know how many died. Lone E. Janson writes in The Copper Spike:
The Cordova Alaskan reported that, "A rumor from some disgruntled source in Valdez that the wages for unskilled labor would be cut from $3.50 to $3.00 a day, a reduction of 50 cents for a ten-hour day, is not the case, although unskilled labor in the states at $1.75 per day is plentiful." (p. 72). . .
Someone I talked to said that she'd heard that the Chinese workers on the railroad were treated terribly and many died. I could find nothing in The Copper Spike about Chinese workers.
"The railroad was built," said old-timer Dick Janson Sr.,[a relative of the author?] "by what they call 'station men.' Two or three men would form a 'companie' which contracted for different jobs at so much per cubic yard of rock or dirt moved, or in railroad construction, so much per station.
"They followed the heavy construction around the world, these station men, and they knew each other from other jobs and other places. Like on the Copper river, I worked with men from the Gillevara Ofoten, the Iron Ore mountain in Sweden, which is the world's farthest north railroad. . .
"Most of the station men were Scandinavians, and they had some colorful names. Sometimes you worked with a man for years and never knew his real name. There were such handles as Pickhandle Jones, The Norwegian King, Shoot-em-up Sweede, Crooked Swede, Hurry-up Jones, and the like.
...The men were of assorted nationalities, some with exceedingly unpronounceable names. If a Mr. Mxlovopovsky appled for work, the paymaster would fix a firm eye on him and pronounce, "From now on your name is Jack Robbins.". . .
Another oddity of the paymaster's window was the fact that horses were on the payroll, that services brought in exactly the same manner as a man's. (p. 72)

[The use of quotations was inconsistent in the original.]

Here's an Alaska-Yukon Railroad bibliography
I found working on this post.


  1. Here's an interesting comparison photo taken in 1953 from the Alaska Digital Archives:

  2. Kenrick, Interesting coincidence. As I was doing the post, I ran into the archive site, but not that picture. I was looking at their rules for using pictures. They let newspapers use things in news stories for free, so I've emailed them to ask about blogs.

    The picture you sent is so close to the picture I took. You can see that the roof of the top floor of the mill was still all intact back then.

    And you reminded me that they told us someone was hired to tear everything down, they were worried about liability. He took down some buildings, but he was more interested in salvaging things and selling them, but he went broke and didn't get close to finishing the job and they never paid him. The guide said his name was Ray Trotocheau, but I couldn't find anything on him online. In this case we are all better off because he failed to do his job.



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