Preserving Kennecott Mill Town and Mines

Kennecott Mill Town and Mines
     Occupying thousands of acres, the Kennecott mines are located in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in southeast Alaska. After discovering copper deposits in 1900, J.P. Morgan and the Guggenheim interests helped create a railroad system that would connect the mines and transport the copper. Kennecott Copper Corporation finally opened in 1911 and closed in 1938. The mines and mill population consisted of about 600 men and twenty families. Three hundred men worked in the mill town and 200-300 miners. Kennecott mined the region's copper and profited handsomely until economic conditions brought mining operations to an abrupt end in 1938. The mining town remains inactive until this day.

     Kennecott entered the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 and became a National Historic Landmark in 1986. In 1998, Kennecott joined Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, established in 1980 by the Alaska Native Interests Land Conservation Act (ABILCA). Because of its National Park status, visitors have access to Kennecott mill town and mines, which is distantly located on the outer edge of the park. Visitors have to travel approximately 3-4 hours to get to the outside of the park. Yet, Kennecott is only four miles away from McCarthy, a historic but small mountain community. Visitors have to park outside the Kennecott/ McCarthy area, take a foot bridge over the Copper River, and then a shuttle to Kennecott or McCarthy. Residents own private property within the park, but since the only bridge across the river is privately controlled, drivers crossing the bridge have to purchase a pass.

     During our stay in Kennecott and McCarthy, we toured the mine for three days. The first day we learned about the archeology and historic preservation. After reading surveys and reports released by NPS, I expected to find a ghost town with crumbling shacks. To my surprise, a couple of buildings were completely preserved. These buildings included a school house and manager's office.
Kennecott school house, currently used by NPS staff
Kennecott Administration building, open to visitors
      Our guide Phillip explained the process used by NPS to decide which buildings should and should not be restored. Usually buildings that are in relatively good condition and critically important to the mine are restored, while building in an advanced state of disrepair are left alone. Phillip explains the process in this video.

      Hired as a seasonal employee over the summer, Phillip oversees all construction and modifications at the mill. He helps preserve and protect artifacts and buildings. Phillip explained how NPS classifies historical buildings in Kennecott: buildings capable of preservation and buildings incapable of preservation. 
Copper Refinery, currently being preserved since it is a central building
      While some buildings can be preserved, other buildings have deteriorated too quickly and cannot be preserved. In other words, the NPS would consider it to be infeasible and too costly, especially if the building was not central to the mining operation.

Kennecott Hospital, unable to preserve
Part of mill system, won't be preserved
Bonanza Mine, not preserved
     Other than preserving buildings, Phillip oversees the collection of artifacts on and outside the grounds. Most of the artifacts in Kennecott are where they were found. After receiving outside donations, the NPS needs to know the context of the item, before placing it in the mine and mill town.

Temperature thermometer for engine boiler, originally stolen and brought back. The thermometer possesses context since it was there previously
At the end of our stay, I was pleasantly surprised with Kennecott and the NPS. After reading previously published reports, I expected to visit a ghost town. A couple of buildings are preserved and more are being stabilized. The NPS plans to interpret more of the buildings as they are preserved, but the process is slow, since the work takes so long. I look forward to revisiting and seeing a greatly improved, visitor friendly historic site. It's really exciting to see such progress in action.
Sarah Vining

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