Our destination for the night was Chitina, a tiny town on the outskirts of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, and it was getting late in the day. Thus, after our glacier hike, we drove . . . past more mountains, through forests and tundra, until we turned south on the Richarson Highway at Glennallen . . . and then we drove some more. Travelling down the Richardson, we now followed the Copper River, one of Alaska’s grandest waterways, one that supports a prolific salmon run and, at its delta, a provides a major resource for migratory shorebirds. We rested at Chitina House B&B, a well-preserved building that had formerly been a bunkhouse for railroad workers.
Huge, mountainous and very special, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is part of a 24 million acre World Heritage Site. At six times the size of Yellowstone, with a glacier bigger than the state of Rhode Island, it is a land of superlatives.
There are three ways to get there: two long gravel roads or flying. We flew. The 30-minute flight was smooth and spectacular. Along the way, we saw major rivers, glaciers, enormous mountains and six mountain goats. This park is ideally suited to wilderness activities such as backpacking, fishing and rafting, which we, unfortunately, did not have enough time to pursue.
Upon arrival, we took a shuttle to the historic mining town of Kennecott, a town built in the early 1900’s for the purpose of extracting, processing and transporting copper ore back to the lower 48. The richness of the ore, up to 70% pure, provided motivation to develop a mining operation in such a remote and difficult location. It required, among other things, that a railway be built from the coast and a steamship be disassembled and carried over mountains, and, of course a set of rich investors (two of them being the Morgan and Guggenheim families). The first trainload of ore was shipped in 1911. The mine continued to operate until 1938. The featured image, which is the centerpiece of the historic site, is a 14-story concentration mill where the raw ore was “purified” through various processes employing crushing, water and gravity. The National Park Service is currently restoring various Kennecott structures, some of which have nearly collapsed.
We did a self-guided tour through the mining town’s buildings and explored the surroundings. Louis hiked to one of the actual mine sites where he saw the tramline that had been used to transport copper ore down the mountainside. Before leaving, my mother and I visited McCarthy, another ghost town in the process of resurrection, the place where Kennecott’s hard-working miners and railroad men sought entertainment.