The bright red buildings perched above the rubble field of the Kennicott Glacier in the Wrangell Mountains are silent nowadays. Long gone are the iron men and huge machines that burrowed and dug and tore the earth. The only sound now is the wind.
While America endured the Great War and the Great Depression, the sturdy buildings housed clanking, roaring contraptions to process one of the richest copper deposits the world has ever known.Now they are little more than a ghost town, an out-of-the-way stop for a few hardy tourists and dedicated history buffs as the federal government mulls ways to preserve one of the most significant, but largely forgotten, chapters of Alaska's past.
The Kennecott Mines Co., which set up a camp and offices in 1906, took its name from the glacier. But the mining company, which still operates in Utah, misspelled the glacier's name with a second "e."
Between 1911 and 1935, the Kennecott copper deposit - located some 235 miles east of Anchorage - yielded 4.6 million tons of ore that was refined into 591,535 tons of copper and 9 million ounces of silver.
The discovery of vast copper deposits in Chile and the economic turmoil of the Depression killed Kennecott, even though there may be millions of tons of high-grade ore left in the sawtooth ridge behind the processing facilities.
Except for 3,000 acres of private land around Kennecott, the magnificent mountains in almost every direction are part of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve.
That precludes any new mining claims in the region, but park service officials say the status of patented claims and those on the private land is unclear.
What is clear is that the Kennecott mine works and nearby town of McCarthy represented a considerable triumph of technology in the raw wilderness of Alaska 75 years ago.
Scavengers have made off with virtually everything of value. But a stroll through the ruins evokes memories of America as an industrial giant.
The Trenton Iron Co., the Pelton Water Wheel Co. of San Francisco and New York, and Byron Jackson Iron Works of San Francisco are among the names stamped proudly on mammoth metalworks in the bewildering maze of machinery. The equipment mostly was hauled in by river sternwheelers and horse-drawn sleds before the now-defunct Cooper River & Northwestern Railway reached the mill.
Once mining and milling started, Kennecott boasted its own machine shop capable of crafting pipes, pulleys, bolts and anything else needed. Many of them still litter the floors and bins of the shop.
"They could build anything there, from the smallest, little part to 10- to 20-ton machines," says Bud Seltenreich, who grew up in McCarthy, about five miles away.
As a boy, he used to hang around the shop, picking up skills that served him well later as an aircraft mechanic and eventually as chief of aviation maintenance for the Federal Aviation Administration.
"There was a lot of guys who knew a lot of things. I learned a lot from them," says Seltenreich, who lives in Anchorage.
Historian Lone Janson says there were noticable differences between Kennecott and McCarthy.
"Kennecott was the company town; staid and very proper, where the neat red and white houses were the homes of company officials. McCarthy was the booming, roistering miners' and railroaders' town, wide open and roaring," Janson says in her book "The Copper Spike."
That's pretty much the way Seltenreich remembers it.
The youngest of three brothers, Seltenreich says he was the first child born in the Kennecott-McCarthy area. His parents came to the area in 1913 to try to cash in on the gold rush in the Shushana area, about 50 miles northeast of McCarthy.
"They thought it might be something like Dawson," he says, referring to the Canadian Gold Rush community 150 miles farther east.
Instead, they ended up in McCarthy, running a laundry and a meat market. By the time Seltenreich was born two years later, McCarthy was a prosperous community of 300-400 people.
"Not a big town, but quite a wealthy town," he says.
The town boasted three big saloons, five good-sized hotels, five restaurants, two general stores, three taxicab companies, a movie house and electricity in the major businesses.
"It was very metropolitan. We had everything you could need," he says. With regular train service and worldwide telegraph connections, McCarthy and Kennecott were more in touch with the world than most frontier towns, especially in Alaska.
Seltenreich says he remembers a drama theater, boxing ring and a local baseball team and, of course, a school, where he went through the 10th grade with fewer than a dozen other students.
Although most of the mine laborers lived in bunkhouses at Kennecott, many spent their free time in McCarthy.
"It was called the little Reno of Alaska," complete with gambling and prostitution, Seltenreich says. "I had a good education when I was young," he says with a grin. "I knew all the tricks of the trade."
Among the many jobs he had as a boy was the task of chopping kindling and getting fires going in the local brothels early in the morning.
"It was a great place to grow up," Seltenreich says. "Lots of opportunities. I always had a jingle in my pockets."
He never worked at Kennecott but says those who did liked it. "In those days, people didn't dislike their jobs," he says.
The small hospital in Kennecott where Seltenreich was born still stands, although tons of gravel from an adjacent stream have invaded rooms on the lower floor.
A few broken medicine bottles litter the cabinets, and the attic floor is strewn with old medical records. In 1921, Dr. E.L. Anderson prescribed morphine for Louie Kenter for an undisclosed ailment. In 1926, Dr. J.M.C. Batts treated one Fred W. Johansen for "contusions of the fingers."
The two-story white clapboard building stands out among the rich red hues of the mine buildings.
In the general store, business records have been scattered like a deck of cards out of control. A 1923 pay scale lists blacksmiths at $5.75 a day; roustabouts at $4.75. Room and board was $1.45 a day. A hospital room was only 8 cents a day.
Jell-O was 11 cents a package; fruitcake mix 40 cents. RyCrisp crackers went for 20, 35 and 40 cents, depending on the size of the box.
The 191-mile train ride to Cordova set passengers back nearly a week's pay, or $19.50 one-way.
Across the street towers the 14-story concentration mill built into the side of the hill. It is virtually intact except for the roof. The imposing structure contains 200,000 board feet of lumber.
Inside, huge crushers swallowed ore that was brought thousands of feet down the ridge by trams. Everything seems well preserved.
Filthy, worn coveralls, gloves and leggings lie in a corner as if just peeled off by a miner headed for a night of revelry in McCarthy.
The burlap bags used to ship ore concentrates still clutter lower level bins.
The first tram linking the mines with the mill was finished in 1908, three years before the railroad reached Kennecott. The first shipment of 1,200 tons of ore, valued at $250,000, went to Cordova by rail on April 8, 1911.
Production and profits peaked in 1916, but labor shortages during World War I marked the first sign of trouble for Kennecott as output dropped by two-thirds.
The war's end and a government-mandated copper price of 23.5 cents a pound sparked a revival in the early 1920s. But by then, the miners no longer could count on ore that was 65- to 70-percent pure.
Lacking access to coal that would have allowed the ore to be smelted on location, Kennecott's future dimmed.
Foreign discoveries, surplus stockpiles and the Great Depression sealed Kennecott's fate. By 1931, the price of copper was down to 4 cents, a far cry from the record 35 cents in the mine's heyday.
Prices crept to 9 cents in 1935 but plunged to a penny a pound following the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling that the National Recovery Administration Act was unconstitutional. Within two years, the mine was closed.
Kennecott was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, but the mill buildings, housing and land immediately adjacent are owned by Anchorage dentist James Harrower.
Harrower says he once envisioned developing his holdings but says he now worries about liability if someone is injured while poking around. He says he wants to sell to someone with the finances to either make something of the area or raze the buildings.
The National Park Service estimates it would take $6 million to acquire the property and make it safe for visitors. Interior Secretary Donald Hodel is considering the proposal.