The town of Kennecott, Alaska, is the home to the abandoned Kennecott copper mine. It's remote and remarkable. We had a look around.
For the full story about the mine, the town and our visit, check out Ghosts of Kennecott: Exploring an Abandoned Copper Mine in Alaska.
A hint of one of the main reasons this place is unique is visible from the town itself.
The 14-story Concentration Mill is an absolutely massive wooden structure, even by today's standards. Ore would arrive via aerial tramway from much farther up the surrounding mountains, then get split and sorted into the valuable copper to leave by train at ground level.
The hundreds of employees, and even some families, called Kennecott home. On the right is one of the bunkhouses, on the left the hospital.
Today the National Park Service preserves the site, maintaining it but not repairing it, keeping this abandoned mine and town as is.
Those 6,000-foot peaks are over 5 miles away. Everything is huge in Alaska.
The wooden Concentration Mill was a remarkable feat of engineering, not just for its complexity but existing at all in this harsh environment.
The glacier, like nearly all glaciers, has receded significantly in the last 100 years. During the mine's heyday, the glacier was so large you couldn't see the mountains in the distance. Standing on the glacier let you see down onto the Concentration Mill.
The slow return to nature is one of the best parts of exploring the area. The Park Service will try to keep the buildings from collapsing, but won't try to return them to how they looked when new.
The scale of everything is awe inspiring. Every angle a postcard.
Since Kennecott was so remote, a day's travel from any significant town, many things had to be fabricated on site. This is the remains of the machine shop.
It certainly looks like it could fall down any moment. Good thing we're gonna head inside for a tour!
First, we've got to get up there. A narrow path up the mountain gets us to the top of the building.
Rusting equipment sits where it was left when the mine closed in 1938.
The ore would arrive here, via aerial tram. Sort of like a backwards ski lift, except for rocks. My dad heads in to join the tour while I loiter to take photos (and not at all wheeze from the hike up).
Looking back up the hill. Three mines supplied ore for the Concentration Mill: Bonanza, Jumbo and Glacier. All are about 3 miles away and 2,500 feet higher in elevation. That's well beyond that first rocky peak you can see on the left.
A not-at-all alarming amount of collapse.
Hard to imagine the glacier blocking the view from even this height.
Beyond those mountains is the Gulf of Alaska, about 100 miles as the crow flies.
In its roughly four decades of use, the mine produced $4-$6 billion worth of copper and silver, in today's dollars.
To aid exploration, the Park Service has made improvements to safety.
At this level the ore was crushed to smaller, more manageable pieces.
The white peak in the far distance is Mount Blackburn, the tallest mountain in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, at 16,390 feet. It's 24 miles away.
More ore sorting and crushing.
These were vibrating screens to separate small pieces that could skip more crushing.
The woodwork is incredible, though some of it is more recent National Park Service work to keep the building from collapsing.
High-grade ore bypassed the additional sorting levels and got a ride down its own special chute. This ore was shipped directly to the smelters in Washington.
More vibrating screens to separate the bigger pieces from smaller.
Yep, not creepy at all.
It's important to keep in mind that this wooden building was filled with massive vibrating machinery. It's remarkable it never shook itself to pieces.
Speaking of vibrating machines, this is a ball mill, which uses a rotating cylinder and metal balls to crush ore.
By this point, a little more than halfway down, the ore is in fairly small pieces.
As quiet as it all is now, I can't imagine how loud it was to work here.
Vibrating sorting tables were one of the last stages to separate out worthless limestone from the copper ores.
Some remainders from when the mine closed in 1938, plus nearly a century of dust and dirt.
A maintenance and repair shop, I believe. The tour didn't go over here; I may have wandered off.
The bottom of the chute for the high-grade ore.
The tank is a Dorr thickener, or Dorr agitator. It spins ore in an aerated liquid to further separate out the copper.
Looking down into the Dorr thickeners.
Another, even larger, ball mill.
Finally, after all that, the copper ore arrives here. It was packed into 140-pound sacks and loaded onto train cars for shipment down to the port in Cordoba, 196 miles away. From there it was sent down to Tacoma by boat for smelting. The remains of these train tracks and their many bridges can be seen throughout the area and on the drive in.
Such a remarkable building.
While the Concentration Mill was quite advanced for its time, a new method to get the very last of the copper was developed here at Kennecott, housed in this building directly across from the mill.
Called ammonia leaching, it liquified the copper out of the limestone.
The ammonia was then boiled off, leaving quite pure copper. This was bagged and shipped out with the rest of the mine's copper.
A photo circa 1968. The mine had been closed for 30 years and totally abandoned for 16. Two remarkable things to note here. First, how similar it all looks now, half a century later.
The second, look how much higher the glacier was in 1968. In the '30s it was more than twice this height.
While the mine is certainly a key attraction in the area, it's not the only one. A few miles up from Kennecott is the Root glacier. You can hire a guide to take you out onto the surface, but it's quite a hike.
On our last day, something a bit different...
In a remarkable grand loop from McCarthy south of Kennecott, we flew up over the Nizina glacier, over the Wrangell mountains, and then back down the Root and Kennicott glaciers. It was one of the most incredible moments of my life.
Here you can see the town of Kennecott. Not just the towering Concentration Mill, but on the right the long white roofs of the Kennicott Glacier Lodge where we stayed. Note the falloff down to the glacier.