Kennecott Mine and Ghost Town:
Are miners still at work in the afterlife?
© 2017 - Stephanie Hoover, All Rights Reserved
When the name of a location includes the words "ghost town" you have to expect some good stories, right? That's certainly the case with Kennecott Mine and Ghost Town in Alaska.
Well north of Vancouver, and far above Glacier Bay National Park, sits what was once Alaska's - and the world's - most prodigious copper mines. Though not really close, the nearest town of McCarthy had, in 2010, 28 residents. Of course, "Alaska" as we know it didn't exist in 1900 when prospectors discovered copper in Kennecott. It didn't become a territory until 1912, or a state until 1959. In the early 1900s, Alaska was a "district."
Three years after Clarence Warren and Jack Smith found the richest concentration of copper ore ever discovered, Kennecott Copper Corporation set up shop. Its five original mines were Bonanza, Mother Lode, Glacier, Jumbo and Erie. Investors included J.P. Morgan and the Guggenheim family. For the next two decades, Kennecott mines produced more copper than any other mines in the world. Men from around the globe moved there, hoping to reap their fortunes. Some were drawn by ads like the one in the Alaska Railroad Record touting a "great opportunity in Alaska for exploration work by young men with some capital and mining knowledge and a whole lot of energy." But the mines were hard masters.
Clustered at the summit of a rugged mountaintop, Jumbo mine's bunkhouse was built on frozen rock debris. To accommodate for its shifting footing, it sat on rollers. Steel cables anchored it to adjoining cliffs.
Temperatures in the mines were often below freezing. Crystals coated tunnels, and cast beautiful reflections when lamp-lit.
Deaths, often gruesome, were commonplace. In 1912, Swedes Swan Hellgren and L. Anderson suffocated in Bonanza Mine, victims of toxic gas. 22-year-old Italian Tony Carino was buried in a rock slide. Milo Parovich from Montenegro died an hour after a falling slab crashed down upon his head. Other men slipped off ladders and plunged 80 feet (or more) to the floors of dark shafts.
Blasting for new veins was particularly dangerous. Belgian Gust Devos died when he went to check a failed charge, only to have it explode as he approached.
Even the arial tram that transported miners could be lethal. Several men fell from the bucket. Snow slides killed others. In some cases it took days to find the body.
Mine workers tried to improve their safety conditions by banding together and organizing strikes. In some cases, they were simply replaced by cheaper - eager - labor. One of the largest walkouts occurred in 1917 when 700 men went on strike. They requested either arbitration, or government takeover of Kennecott Copper. Strikers returned to the mines when the company offered an increase of 50 cents per day, plus $35,000 in improvements for bunk houses and bathing facilities. That same year Kennecott Copper's stock sold for a staggering $45 per share.
By 1921, the Erie mine had ceased operation. Yet, despite the falling price of copper, the remaining four mines stayed active. But the writing was on the wall: the copper supply was dwindling. Kennecott Copper Corporation continued on for another 17 years. In 1938, however, the U.S. Bureau of Mines reported that - unless prospectors discovered a new ore vein - Alaska's copper was depleted. Kennecott closed the last of its mines, and the last train between the mines and Cordova ran on September 1st. During their operation, the mines produced more than $200 million worth of copper ore. It was the richest concentration of copper the world has ever seen.
Today the abandoned mines are a National Historic Landmark District. But some say the moniker "ghost town" is apropos. Reports regularly surface of tombstones that only appear while driving toward Kennecott - not away from it. Construction workers building a federally funding housing tract near Cordova some years back reported strange events. These included encounters with phantoms, and voices coming from the nearby, defunct, Old Copper Railroad.
Is Kennecott Mine and Ghost Town haunted? We contacted the local historical museum for their take, but have yet to receive a response. Haunted or not, it's an amazingly well-preserved representation of a 20th century mining village. Visitors can arrange tours via the town's page on Alaska.org. ☁