Written by Brian Turner
In the heart of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska is a feat of human ingenuity that will make your jaw drop. The old Kennecott mill town is perched on the edge of a glacial moraine, in the deep interior of the nation’s largest national park. The Guggenheims and Morgans financed the construction of the self-contained mining town in the early 20th century and brought in the railroad to boot. It was all to take advantage of a geologic wonder in the mountains above – one of the richest copper deposits ever recorded.
Kennecott was abandoned in 1938 and relics of the company town were left behind largely intact. The mill town was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1978 and soon after was surrounded by the new 13 million-acre Wrangell St. Elias National Park. But while the Park was being protected for its scenic beauty, most of Kennecott remained in private ownership and was not being maintained.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation listed the Landmark among America’s 11-Most Endangered Places in 1990 and 1991. The listing helped the Friends of Kennecott secure over $500,000 in state and federal funds to stabilize the 14-story mill building, by far the most recognizable and photographed structure in the Park.
The listing also encouraged the Park Service to preserve and interpret this vital part of America’s legacy. With help from the Conservation Fund and a substantial donation from the successor mining company, the agency acquired most of the complex in 1998 and embarked on the daunting task of stabilizing and rehabilitating more than 18 buildings over the next 11 years. The National Park Service used the talented local labor pool to not only save costs, but give the community a sense of investment in the resource. Visitors can now tour Kennecott, lodge at the site, and hike to the nearby glacier and mountain slopes to see old bunkhouses, remnants of mining trams, and leftover chunks of the fluorescent green and blue rock that made the mine famous.
On Labor Day weekend 2009 the park held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to commemorate the challenging work that had been accomplished and recognize the substantial amount of work yet to complete. The National Trust Western Office participated in the ceremony and celebrated the efforts of park staff to preserve not only the nation’s incredible natural beauty, but the cultural resources on those lands that will tell our shared stories for years to come.
You can view more of my pictures of Kennecott and surroundings here.
Brian Turner is the regional attorney at the Western Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.