McCarthy, Alaska: Frontier Town with an Inglorious History
It took 23 years but I finally made it back to McCarthy, Alaska, a town deep in the Wrangell Mountains. When I was first there, the place was a virtual ghost town, abandoned by the thousands of miners who came seeking fortune in the Kennecott copper mine. From 1900 to 1938, an astounding supply of high-grade copper ore kept the mines working full steam. When the ore was gone, the owners abandoned the mine, the mill, the bunkhouses and kitchen. You could still see tools and artifacts of daily life left behind by the fleeing miner and owners.
In 1995 I flew into McCarthy with my husband and toddler son. The small plane carried us above expansive ice fields and glaciers in the Wrangell Elias National Park about 250 miles from Anchorage. Two glaciers still flow within walking distance of Kennecott and a fine day hike will bring you close enough to touch the icy surfaces. An ice chunk moving down the Kennecott River past our campsite proved just how cold it is there in July.
The Richest Copper Mine in the World
On our first visit, we walked Inside the Kennecott mine buildings and could see abandoned furniture, medical supplies and other detritus left behind when the mill closed. Our guide, Chris Richardson, described how men slept in the bunkhouse beds in shifts, one man taking over when the other went to the mine. He told us how laborers endured temperatures of fifty below zero to build a railroad over a grueling mountain terrain to transport the copper to market.
A Deadly Day in McCarthy
Most of all, Richardson talked about the winter day in 1983 when a local resident massacred six of the 22 people in McCarthy, part of his futile plan to stop the Alaska oil pipeline. Richardson was shot in the head by the assailant and lived. He relived the details of the attack daily, haunted by the question of why he survived while good people died.
As we walked the mine’s crumbling ruins, you could sense the ghosts of copper miners and laborers. But when I looked into Chris Richardson’s sharp dark eyes I could feel the trauma he experienced in this isolated mountain town. I knew I wouldn’t see him on this second trip to McCarthy as he died in a house fire more than a decade ago.
Restoration of Mine Buildings by the National Parks
Today, most visitors to McCarthy and the Kennecott Mine appear to be unaware of the massacre. They come instead to see the glaciers and the mine facilities that have been restored by the National Park Service.
Where Chris Richardson once led a handful of visitors around the ruins, park rangers roam. Kiosks describe the mine and the living conditions and tourists pose in front of newly painted structures in Kennecott. This June, the park service opened an interactive exhibit bringing to life the workers and the families who lived in Kennecott during the mining operation years from 1911–1938.
The McCarthy Road
We took it slow when we drove into McCarthy. The 60-mile dirt road is notorious and we didn’t want to bust another tire on Alaska roads. The road runs along the bed of the old railroad and old wooden ties and spikes still surface. We picked up a CD disc available at the National Park Service visitor’s center and enjoyed its account of the monumental challenges and heroic efforts that went into building the railroad.
Once it snows, the road is not plowed and stays largely shut down through the winter. We arrived in early July and the sun was out all day. We parked on the banks of the Kennecott river and took the footbridge to cross into McCarthy town.
History, Hiking and Honky Tonk
The local museum focuses on daily life in this isolated community that sprang up to offer liquor, women and other amenities to the men in the mine. The mine administrators brought their families and a small professional class tried to lead ‘decent’ lives amid the ribaldry. Today, behind the Old West-style façade of a few buildings, you can find hand-made jewelry and crafts, burgers, salads and beer. While we were there a country band from Tennessee got people dancing at the local saloon.
You can walk or talk a local shuttle five miles up the mountain to the Kennecott Mines and from there hike to the Root Glacier (3 miles). Or, weather permitting, hike up 3800 feet to the Bonanza and Jumbo Mines.
Just outside McCarthy we hiked to a moraine field with mounds of glacier ice covered in gravel. Ice cool pools of water with chunks of ice floating in it dot the landscape.
We spent four days in McCarthy before heading back out the road, which we traversed without problem.
Valdez: Vistas to Die For
At the main road we took a left and swung down to Valdez, a port on the Prince William Sound. The ride down was astonishingly beautiful: massive glaciers and ice fields on one side giving way to towering waterfalls on the river side.
A fishing town and the terminal of the Alaska oil pipeline, Valdez is a thriving community that is tied to the sea.
We only stayed a few hours then retraced our steps. The clouds had disappeared and the sun was shining, exposing the majestic snow-covered Wrangell Mountains, including Mount Blackburn, the 5th tallest peak in North America.
Once again, we saw the beauty of Alaska.