The second stop on our Alaska trip of 2019 was Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve. The largest national park in the United States, Wrangell-St. Elias spans more than 13 million acres in the wilderness of southeast Alaska. Our destination was the old mining town of Kennecott, situated deep in the park’s interior between the volcanic Wrangell Mountains and the coastal St. Elias Range.
Due to the tire issues mentioned in my last post, we opted not to take our Subaru down the 60-mile long McCarthy Road, the main access route into the park. In hindsight, we probably would have been fine, as the road was in excellent condition (at least relative to the roads we’d been used to driving in Utah. The similar-in-length Hole in the Rock Road makes the McCarthy Road look like a recently-paved superhighway). Fortunately, we were able to book a last minute van shuttle from Kenny Lake, AK to the end of the McCarthy Road. Regardless of your mode of transportation, you then walk across a footbridge spanning the glacial silt-laden Kennicott River into the town of McCarthy. (The only vehicle access to McCarthy is via a private, and very expensive, bridge a bit further downstream.) Kennecott is another 5 uphill miles by shuttle, bike, or foot:
Strangely, reaching Kennecott would have been much easier in 1919 than it was in 2019. The McCarthy “Road” is actually an old railroad grade originally built in 1909 to bring supplies in and ore out of the famous Kennecott Copper Mines. From 1911 through the late 1930s, the Kennecott mines shipped millions of tons of copper ore to Cordova on the Alaska coast via the Copper River and Northwestern Railway. The town had state of the art amenities at the time, including one of the best hospitals in the territory as well as the first X-ray machine in Alaska. While the mines closed in 1938, Kennecott Copper remains one of the larger copper-producing companies in the world, perhaps best known for the massive Bingham Canyon Mine just outside of Salt Lake City.
Following the closure of the mines, Kennecott lay mostly deserted for decades before beginning to draw tourists in the 1980s. Much of the land and buildings within the town were acquired by the National Park Service in 1998 and added to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Restoration and stabilization of historic buildings in Kennecott is ongoing. Today, you can actually explore many of these buildings, including the town power plant (photo below) and the massive concentration mill (photo above), a 14-story wooden structure where copper ore was crushed and then mechanically and chemically concentrated into the high grade ore that was eventually shipped out via the railroad.
History aside, the natural landscape of Kennecott is really what makes it stand out as one of the most stunning places I’ve ever visited. The town is perched on the flanks of Bonanza Ridge, with rocky peaks towering more than 4,000 feet above and what remains of the Kennicott Glacier below. At first glance, it is not apparent (even to a geologist) that the mounds of rubble in the valley below ARE a glacier, but ice does lay beneath the veneer of debris. Like most of the world’s alpine glaciers, the Kennicott Glacier has retreated dramatically since the town’s heyday in the early 1900s, when its surface was level with or even above the elevation of the town. Today, you look down several hundred feet on to what remains of the glacier and the detritus it has brought with it out of the mountains. The origin of the glacier, and the dominant feature of the northern skyline, is the massive Mt. Blackburn, the fifth highest peak on the United States at 16,391 feet:
A few miles north of Kennecott, the Kennecott Glacier is joined by the Root Glacier, a somewhat more “normal” looking glacier that we spent nearly an entire day exploring. The experience was rather surreal given that the air temperature was nearly 90 degrees. Climates amenable to the formation of glaciers don’t often produce days where a swim in the frigid glacial melt water actually sounds appealing as opposed to horrifying, but that was certainly the case on this day.
As spectacular as the glacier was, there is something quite unsettling about walking around on one in a T-shirt. The signs and symptoms of a warming climate were all encompassing. We walked along deep gouges (surprisingly reminiscent of Utah slot canyons) carved into the ice by strong currents of melt water…
encountered many sublime pools filled with deep, electric blue pools of glacial melt water…
and carefully avoided deep shafts, known as moulins, that carry cascades of melt water into the internal plumbing of the glacier. In many places, we could hear the dull roar of the melt water boring tunnels through the ice beneath our feet. Glaciers like Root won’t survive many more summers with too many days like this one.
Despite the best efforts of the interpretive signs displaying historical photographs, and the park film showing the sights and sounds of the past, the sheer remoteness of Kennecott in 2019 makes it difficult to imagine the Kennecott of 1919: a busy town immersed in the deafening roar of copper mining, with a glacier not yet ravaged by climate change dominating the horizon.
Driving west on Highway 2 over Stevens Pass last spring, I kept catching glances of what appeared to be some sort of elongate, dark grey, overgrown, man-made structure paralleling the highway on the opposite site of the Tye River valley. Whatever it was, only isolated chunks of it were visible through the dense vegetation and the deep, late-season snowpack. It appeared to me to be made of concrete, although it was hard to be 100% sure given that my primary goal at the time was to prevent a van full of people from careening off the highway and plummeting into the gorge below. Ironically, little did I know that the very existence of the mysterious object I was seeing was the result of a passenger train carrying hundreds of people doing exactly that 113 years earlier.
Walking through a large concrete snowshed along the Iron Goat Trail, built at the site of the 1910 Wellington disaster to prevent future avalanches from sweeping trains and passengers off the rails.
It didn’t take long after getting home to my internet connection to figure out that what I was seeing was the old grade of the Great Northern Railway, the northernmost of the transcontinental railway routes in the U.S. The Great Northern reached Seattle in 1893 and the route it took across the Cascades can best be described as “gnarly”. A series of extremely steep switchbacks, and eventually a 2.60 mile long tunnel completed in 1900, funneled trains safely, if not easily, over Stevens Pass to Seattle. In the summer at least. The biggest danger of the route lay in the combination of heavy winter snows and steep rugged topography. The railway built a number of snowsheds, large concrete or timber structures which covered the rails in avalanche prone areas to protect the locomotives. Avalanches don’t always play nicely though, and in March of 1910, during a storm in which 11 feet of snow fell in one day, a 10′ thick slab of snow detached from Windy Mountain several hundred feet above the tracks and swept two trains off the tracks just outside the railroad town of Wellington, Washington. 96 people perished in what remains the deadliest avalanche in U.S. history, and one of the worst railroad disasters in the country’s history to boot.
Despite the somber backstory, the old railroad grade has been turned into what has to be one of the most fascinating hiking trails in Washington: the Iron Goat Trail. Taking its name from the mountain goat on the logo of the Great Northern Railway, the Iron Goat trail follows the portion of the railroad grade that was abandoned in 1929 after the 8-mile long Cascade Tunnel (still in use by the BNSF today) opened, which for the first time allowed trains to bypass the pass and its deadly avalanche chutes entirely.
Looking into the abandoned Windy Point Tunnel along the Iron Goat Trail
While this hike may not provide a wilderness experience (Highway 2 and the associated drone of motor vehicles is just a stone’s throw away across the valley), it does provide a heavy dose of history and just enough eeriness to keep you from ever wanting to spend the night. In between the Wellington disaster and the opening of the Cascade Tunnel, a span of just 19 years, the Great Northern Railway heavily fortified the section of rails near Stevens Pass in an attempt to prevent another disaster. I hiked the four mile section of the trail from Highway 2 to the Wellington Townsite and nearly the entire stretch was engineered in some way: tunnels, timber snowsheds, concrete snowsheds, you name it, the Great Northern Railway spared no expense in attempting to tame the mountains and make this a viable travel route over the Cascades. They even gave the town of Wellington a new name, “Tye”, because of all the bad publicity. Ultimately though, the mountains emerged victorious: the line was abandoned in favor of the tunnel less than 30 years after it was first constructed, leaving the man-made structures built in response to the Wellington disaster to slowly decay and become re-assimilated into the mountain.
This process is already well underway. After decades of enduring heavy winter snows, timber snowsheds are now unrecognizable piles of rotting wood. Concrete snowsheds are crumbling, exposing their innards in a scene that my hiking partners likened to the post-apocalyptic visuals of the Hunger Games.
Deep snow and avalanches ultimately get the better of anything man builds to lessen their impact
Many of the tunnels have partially collapsed, including the Old Cascade Tunnel, the longest in the world when it opened at the beginning of the 20th Century. In 2007, a portion of the roof collapsed, creating an unstable dam of debris which occasionally likes to rupture and send a deadly torrent of water rushing out the west end of the tunnel without warning. The Windy Point Tunnel, built to keep trains from derailing around a particularly sharp curve, is also slowly crumbling away while the entrances are slowly reclaimed by the forest:
Moss and debris slowly reclaims the old grade of the Great Northern railway at the entrance to the Windy Point Tunnel
Portions of the Windy Point Tunnel have been heavily damaged by rockfall. Thankfully, Gary and the fall foliage escaped unscathed.
After a somewhat strenuous 700 foot climb from the trailhead up to the Windy Point Tunnel, the hike follows the gentle grade of the old rail bed for several miles in either direction. Thanks to impressive work by local volunteer groups, the trail is well-maintained and a series of interpretive signs explain the history of the Great Northern Railroad and the chain of events that led to the Wellington disaster. Several spots on the trail have great views of the Tye River valley and the surrounding peaks in the Cascades making for a beautiful, intriguing, and incredibly diverse hike. But stay away during the winter for obvious reasons, and like I said, not really somewhere you’d want to spend the night…
Fun graffiti inside the concrete snowshed
For more info, trail maps, and directions, check out http://www.irongoat.org/
Spend enough time driving or hiking around western Colorado and you will inevitably be introduced to the rich mining history of the area. This is especially true in the San Juan Mountains where it’s hard to hike for more than a few miles without running into an assortment of old and dilapidated mining structures, ranging from head frames covering mine shafts that plunge hundreds or thousands of feet into the mountains, to bunkhouses that still contain the metal skeletons of the rickety old beds slept upon by early 20th Century miners. Most of these buildings have been abandoned; left to slowly decay and disintegrate under the weight of the dozens of feet of snow that accumulate in the mountains each winter. However a handful have been preserved or restored by local historical societies, such as the Mayflower Gold Mill just a few miles outside of Silverton, Colorado.
A mill is an integral part of any mining operation. While Hollywood seems to think that western gold rushes involved a handful of old grizzled, bearded men fishing fist-sized gold nuggets out of streams with their gold pans, the reality is that most of the rock mined in Colorado had concentrations of gold and silver that were best measured in parts per million, and concentrations of other metals like copper or zinc that were only somewhat higher. The purpose of a mill like the Mayflower was to take in this low-grade ore and spit out material concentrated in gold, silver, and a plethora of other valuable metals while leaving the rest of the rock, known as “gangue”, behind.
The crushing room inside the Mayflower Gold Mill.
The Mayflower Mill opened its doors in 1929 and was a technological marvel for its time. It was the last of the San Juan mills to close, in 1991, long after most of the mines in the area had ceased production. Ever since 1991, while the exterior of the mill has undergone stabilization at the hands of the San Juan County Historical Society, the interior of the mill has been left more or less untouched. The mill closed suddenly; one day it was open for business, the next it was shuttered for good as the prices of gold and silver plummeted and no one ever came in to clean up. Piles of partially crushed ore still lie on stationary conveyor belts, waiting patiently to continue their trip through the mill. Pairs of rubber gloves still lie on counters and railings, now covered with a thick layer of dust. Calendars with pictures of scantily clad women still hang from rusty thumb tacks in offices and control rooms. If all this wasn’t eerie enough, the power went out about five minutes after I entered the mill and from then on the only light source other than sunlight streaming through a handful of windows was the flashlight in my hand. Walking through you would never guess that it’s been closed for only 22 years; the place looks like its been abandoned for a good half-century and much of the equipment looks much older, yet somehow advanced for its age.
The tour through the mill is self-guided and costs $8 which at first seemed steep but ended up being well worth it. Not for the quality of the interpretive signs dispersed throughout the mill (despite the extremely friendly and helpful staff, the signs could use some serious work) but merely for the pleasure of exploring the mill itself, one of the most fascinating man-made structures I’ve ever been inside. My computer is telling me I have something like 48,000 photos on my hard drive at the moment. I’m willing to bet more than 95% of those were taken outside. Why? Well to be honest, I don’t generally find man-made buildings that fascinating so I’ve never been that much of an indoor photographer. Once in a while, I find myself somewhere like the Mayflower Mill that changes that, at least temporarily 😉
Piles of iron balls were bounced around in large drums to help mutilate the ore into pieces as small as a grain of sand!
While milling ore to produce gold and other metals may seem somewhat alchemistic, in essence the process consists of two phases: crushing the rock into very, very, VERY small pieces, and then using a variety of noxious chemicals to separate the metal from the rock based on their physical properties. Ore would arrive at the mill in large metal buckets that zipped downhill along an aerial tramway that connected the mill to the Mayflower Mine several miles and several thousand feet above the Mill in Arrastra Basin:
A view of the aerial tramway originating from the Mayflower Mine in Arrastra Gulch. The miners would often ride to work in the empty buckets headed back up to the mine. Hard to imagine a commute with a better view!
The crushing is then accomplished using a variety of progressively diabolical looking devices that to this day are covered in rock dust and surrounded by little piles of partially crushed ore that fell off of one of the many conveyor belts snaking through the mill. Normally there are buttons that you can press which turn on some of these devices for a short period of time but this was thwarted due to the aforementioned power outage. This was the device that I would have most liked to see in action:
A spiral classifier, used to separate different sized pieces of crushed ore.
Pieces of partially crushed ore scattered around the base of an enormous jaw crusher.
The separation occurred in a series of tanks and vats that, while not visually impressive, still seemed to reek of the boiling concoction of lead and cyanide they once contained. My gut feeling was that hanging around this part of the mill for a long time would probably be a bad idea. The final product was rich-enough in gold that access to the areas where the final stages of separation took place was restricted to only a handful of employees who were continuously monitored by a network of security cameras. Unbelievably, even after all this, the ore would still need to be sent to a smelter for further purification and processing before pure gold bullion, or other metals were obtained.
Here are a few more random pictures from inside the Mayflower, which truly is a photographer’s dream, ESPECIALLY when the power is out. I was so caught up in taking pictures inside that I completely forgot to get a picture of the mill from the OUTSIDE!
Every size drill bit imaginable!
Piles of old equipment in a dark corner of the mill. Actually, since the power was out when I visited, just about the whole place was dark…
A little workplace humor for good measure!