The old Kennecott mill town -- a feat of human ingenuity that will make your jaw drop -- is perched on the edge of a glacial moraine, in the deep interior of Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, the nation’s largest national park.
The Guggenheims and Morgans (of J.P. Morgan fame) 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 and Preserve. 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 first listed the Kennecott Mines among America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 1990, and again in 1991. The listing helped the Friends of Kennecott secure over $500,000 in state and federal funds to stabilize the 14-story mill building, which is 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 Park Service 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.
According to Steve Peterson, the Senior Historical Architect at the Alaska Regional Office of the National Park Service, "All of the buildings have received new roofing and major structural repair, 10 have been fully rehabilitated, and many have been opened to the public."
As preservation work begins to wind down on the smaller buildings on-site, the Park Service will re-focus in the coming years on the continued preservation of the largest buildings at Kennecott -- for example, the 14-story Mill Building at the heart of the district, the foundation of which will soon be restored.
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