Kennecott Mine

September 7, 2018

Wednesday 11 July 2018


Once again we set ourselves the target of departing by 0900 and leave at 0940. Today we have a deadline and in fact I had a deadline of 1000 so I’m happy that we are moving by 0940. However, more to the point I am really pleased with the way everyone had breakfast and broke camp. Putting up and taking down tents in the rain is an art form. Last night, with the last of the rain falling I was able to coach some on the drill of getting a tent up without getting into a totally wet home despite the downpour. There is nothing quite like getting out here and doing this sort of thing to learn the tricks. We start the day by getting our food and other scented stuff out of the bear food container then returning to the rock scree to set up breakfast. The weather is slightly overcast but up here I can see south to the Churgach Mountains which have broken cloud over them so I’m hopeful the day will clear up – given the weather moves up from the south. That proves to be the case and the cloud moves off surprisingly quickly. There is no rain to speak of, and no wind.

The deadline we have today is 1.30pm when some of us  have a tour of the Kennecott mill building booked. We will return back down the track from Erie while those who stayed back at Kennicott River Lodge will meet us there for the tour. As we return down the track we run into what seem like quite a crowd, various groups attracted like moths to a candle all headed to the Root Glacier. Despite my misgivings about stepping out onto a glacier there seems, from our vantage point on the track overlooking the ice below, that there is a safe transition from moraine to ice. I’m not so convinced about those I see picking their way across the crevasses further out. That seems foolhardy, an impression no doubt reinforced by my numerous dips into NZ crevasses on the end of a rope. Some of these we meet coming the other way are frail and unsteady on their feet and they totter along in grim determination. We hear that one of these folk died later in the day from a heart attack the previous day as we tabbed up the track to Erie.

It took us four hours to get to Erie but only two hours to return. The ascent is deceptively gradual and barely noticed but the return run is marked by an awareness of how much the gradient drops and just how quickly. We meet Geoff and Louise and Vi-Lay on the track as we descend. They are walking up to see the glacier and will meet us in time for the exploration of the mill.

The tour, led by local guide Elle was a handy two hour exploration of the Mill building but also some of the surrounding buildings as well. We started at the top of the Mill and follow the ore down through its crushing and separation process. As we enter the top most section where the ore buckets are received I’m struck but the evidence of human endeavour. This is not a traditional museum where people worked and lived. Tools still lie about and what might have been a foreman’s office is still fitted out. A broom leans on the wall, its bristles worn down to the head. Someone used it once and as with so much of these these sorts of ghost towns I’m sobered by the thought of legacy. What do all our efforts and strivings amount to? I read somewhere in the course of the day that the twenty years of fabulous engineering, mining and supporting industry by each person up here helped to define their lives. Or more specifically, became defining moments of their lives and the men were all quick to admit that. It’s a fresh perspective on these sorts of sites which I like. Or, as Basil Austin wrote in 1898 after enduring the worst Alaska could throw at him “Was it a waste of time? I have never thought so for the whole trip was so full of interesting experience.”

The Mill spills down the side of the hill which might be inclined as much as 45 degrees. Locked into the hill by beams about 10-12” square, sometimes bigger. The local spruce was not rated for such engineering loads and stresses and the timber used here was shipped in the Northwest Coast. We marvel at the industry of those who brought such massive timbers all the way up here, even before the railway was built. And not just timber but steel cable by the tens of miles, engines, pumps, sorting tables, generators, heat exchangers, radiator. An endless and extensive variety of equipment but also of material to build the houses, bunkhouses, hospital, offices and all the support buildings. Tar paper. Nails. Hand basins. Plumbing. Taps. Paint All those things you need in order to build a town, right down to the flower seeds. Remarkable. But that human element and presence is always to the fore and I’m reminded of that when we are shown machinery still functioning in oil in crankcases that is the same oil that was in there in 1938. Someone topped that up. What was his name? Where did he go? And by the pencilled instructions to workers that they are ‘not to piss in this room’ (In the depths of winter the Mill still operated but there were no toilets provided inside for the men).

The mill crushed, shook and otherwise used every means to separate copper ore from its limestone host and the men in that building must have suffered terribly – deafness and cold. In fact the noise, which was continuous day and night all year could be heard in McCarthy 8km down the road. And while Stephen Birch, CEO, was considered an enlightened executive by his workers he worked on the theory that a cold worker was an alert worker so didn’t heat the mill, the exception being the machine shop which was heated to ensure the tradesmen’s fingers were nimble enough to carry out the repairs and maintenance required. We are amused by that. One of those engineers commented for a history written in 1950 about those machinists and tradesmen – that their ingenuity and skills, common for the day, were now lost and he doubted a mill like the one we walked through could be built like it again, in the same way. I’m amazed by that. He observed that in 1950. How much less so 70 years on from that. His reflection is supported by the numerous tags we see around the building, placed by numerous and different engineering groups who still come up here to decipher how things were done in the Mill.

We are  astonished to discover it only took ten men to operate the whole facility. We have been shown floor after descending floor of automated machinery but have not appreciated just how automated the whole operation was.  And that sophistication is still lost to us as floor after floor reveals tag after tag. No one seems to know or is capable of deciphering exactly what went on in even this most recent of histories. Perhaps the answer is simply that no one knows because the mine company, which still exists, doesn’t want anyone to know. They had all their hospital records vanish in the 1930s – 20+ years of birth and other significant events all gone.  They are sensitive to liability – witness the attempt to have the whole site destroyed by fire. Fortunately the chap charged with that gave it away as a bad thing, took the cash and vanished into Canada. Oddly enough I read in a history of the company that Kennecott left everything intact with a view to probably returning at a later date. Their geologists remain convinced that commercial ore remains, so much so that it returned in 1955 to re-survey the lode. The question that casts doubt over it all is the quantity rather than the quality, and that was always the issue even at the height of its operations. Now it’s a national park and will never be mined again.

We continue with Elle into the power house and then wrap up. It’s been a big day and we are now heading to four o’clock. The site is filled with visitors who are looking now to leave the place and be bussed back to either McCarthy or the footbridge. (I should hasten to add the numbers are not Venetian or Parisian but total about 50). Yesterday I watched visitors walk up the street and climb straight in to the van, bypassing those who were waiting for the shuttle which turns up every thirty minutes. I’m keen to avoid any fracas such as I witnessed then, so elect to walk with a handful of others the 8km to our digs, though in truth I’m in no mood to wait around, and know that a solid walk home will get the ‘ants out of my pants’. It’s a quick 1 hour 15 minutes walk peppered every now and then by rain. The rest of our team pass us but there was no guarantee we would have all made that bus. And we beat the arrival of the second bus. Perhaps more to the point we, or at east I had the satisfaction of knowing we had walked 16km up to the Erie site and walked the 16km back.

Despite the long and active day it’s not over yet. We walk into Kennicott River Lodge at 1815 with the intention of getting up to McCarthy’s night spot ‘The Potato’ which has advertised a bluegrass band playing tonight at 1930. But by the time everyone has showered and eaten we were not up there until 2100. Fortunately the band, a very versatile quartet (who recorded their CD in Sydney at Circular Quay!) is still playing. We join the parents, kids, long haired young men, grizzled young men who look old (too many winters up here), and hairy armpit hippie type mothers and enjoy the talents of the group and the buzz of the place until the final encore is played and we walk back home over the footbridge, ever alert for bears.

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