A crimson paint faded by a century of relentless Alaskan winters, Kennecott’s remains loom out of the wilderness, an anomaly of right angles against the jagged mountain landscape of Wrangell – St Elias National Park. This early 20th century copper mining town once provided comfort and community to hundreds of residents. Abandoned, reclaimed and now preserved, Kennecott is the ghost town that helped electrify the United States.
In the 1900s, prospectors searching along the eastern edge of the Kennicott Glacier stumbled upon huge green copper cliffs. Demand for copper wiring was skyrocketing as large-scale electrification efforts swept across the United States and descendants including JP Morgan and the Guggenheim family saw an opportunity. They formed the Alaska Union, with the intention of accessing the mineral riches of the Alaskan wilderness.
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By 1911 a railroad had been laid over inhospitable land, and the Kennecott mine and factory were completed. At its peak, Kennecott employed 600 people. The work was grueling – the temperature in the mines was around freezing and the hours were long. But according to Kelly Bay, the current local resident, the community has thrived. “They had great social events and ice skating in the winter,” he said. The company town included a hospital, school, recreation facilities, a general store, and even a dairy.
The mine closed in 1938 after the ore deposits ran out and the world copper prices fell. The abandoned city has started to return to nature again, with buildings slowly collapsing. But by the mid-1970s, people in search of a “hippie” lifestyle began to slowly relocate the remnants of the city. According to writer and historian Ronald N Simpson, Kennecott has become a place of escape. “There was no work there or anything, but if people wanted a distant existence, they had one there,” he said.
In 1978, Kennecott was listed on the United States National Register of Historic Places and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986. In 1998, the United States National Park Service acquired many buildings and much of the land. and began to restore the site. Today, summer visitors make the seven-hour drive east of Anchorage to stroll the streets of Kennecott, once again imagining the challenges of life on the other side of the world.
(Video by Matt Dworzańczyk; text by Christine Sarkis)
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