30 June, 2000

June 30, 2000

Don Lindsay (PSU grad student) and I befriended a local McCarthy resident this morning. His name was Tom and he has been working for the St. Elias backcountry guiding service for the past 10 years. It was a great way to learn about the history of the McCarthy area, which we discussed over breakfast.

In 1900, two prospectors named Jack Smith and Clarence Warner spotted a large green spot on the mountainside along the Kennicott Glacier. Located 5 miles north of the present town of McCarthy, the green spot turned out to be one of the richest ore deposits of copper ever found. The ore primarily consisted of thick deposits of Chalcocite, a grey, soft, copper sulfide mineral with a composition of 80% copper. A few years later a group of wealthy easterners - the Guggenheim brothers and J.P. Morgan - bought the mining claim from Smith and Warner. In 1906 the Kennecott Mines Company was formed. It later became the Kennecott Copper Corporation. The mining company was to be named after the Kennicott Glacier, but the company name was misspelled when incorporation papers where submitted. The town and glacier are spelled Kennicott. The company and mines are spelled Kennecott.

The next challenge was getting the copper from the mines to a processing and shipping location. In 1908 a railroad was started at Cordova, which is located along the coast of Alaska. The railroad reached Kennicott (196 miles away) three years later. In 1911, the Kennecott mines were opened. During this time there was a high demand for copper to be made into wiring for the new electrical transmission lines that had been recently invented by Thomas Edison. As a result, the Kennecott Mines were very lucrative at the outset. The town of Kennicott grew quickly - there were up to 300 people in the mill camp, with 300 miners working in the mines. A number of recreational opportunities were provided in Kennicott. As a company town, it had a reputation as being very proper and employed strict conduct rules.

It did not take long for an alternative economy to follow the opening of the Kennecott Mines. The town of McCarthy, located 6 miles to the south of Kennicott at the terminus of the glacier, sprang into existence with restaurants, saloons, pool halls, and numerous other businesses. These businesses provided services to not just the miners of Kennicott, but other surrounding mining camps as well.

The mines peaked in 1925. By the mid-1930s three things had happened that made it difficult for the Kennecott Mines to continue operations. The price of copper had fallen significantly, the quality of the ore had declined, and the cost of maintaining the railroad had soared. The mines officially closed in 1938. The last train left Kennicott and McCarthy in November of that year. The railroad bridge that crossed the Kennicott River was destroyed by the outburst flood in 1940. A fire wiped out three-quarters of McCarthy in 1947.

So there you have it - a digression into the history of the place where this research project is based. Thanks to Tom the backcountry guide for the information.

Downtown McCarthy - during the 1920s this was a bustling town with numerous hotels, saloons, and other businesses to support the mining camp of Kennecott located 5 miles away. Pictured (from left to right) is Andrew Fountain, Don Lindsay, Michelle Cunico, and Andrew Malm.

Getting ready to be delivered to the various field sites - Michelle Cunico laces her boots, and Andrew Fountain and Don Lindsay check equipment. All of this gear and the people will be delivered by helicopter tomorrow to Hidden Creek Lake and the Kennicott Glacier.

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