In August 1900, two prospectors, Jack Smith
and Clarence Warner, spotted a green patch of hillside that looked like good
grazing for their pack horses. The green turned out to be part of a mountain of
copper ore. They, together with nine friends, formed the Chitina Mining and
Exploration Company. Shortly after this time, a U.S. Geological Survey geologist
found a sample of ore that analyzed as containing 70% copper as well as silver
and traces of gold. Stephen Birch, a mining engineer just out of school, was in
Valdez when members of the Chitina Mining and Exploration Company arrived in the
fall of 1900. Birch, who knew wealthy people in the northeastern United States,
bought the prospectors' interest in the mine for $275,000. Within twenty years,
the find proved to be the richest known concentration of copper in the world.
Development of the mines began immediately. Ore was taken out by pack horses on
a trail to Valdez. Political battles over the mining and subsequent railroad
were fought in the office of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt between
conservationists and those having a financial interest in the copper.
In 1903, additional financing for the mining came from the Guggenheim family and
J.P. Morgan, who formed the Kennecott Copper Corporation in 1903. The
corporation and company town were named after Kennicott Glacier in the valley
below, which was named after Robert Kennicott, a naturalist who explored in
Alaska in the mid-1800s. A mistake was purportedly made on some paperwork when
Kennecott Mining Company was formed, forever spelling it with an "e". Today all
the natural features of the area still carry the original Kennicott spelling
with an "i", while man-made features associated with the old mining “camp” are
spelled Kennecott. When the residents are collectively referred to, the spelling
Kennicott is usually (and colloquially) used.
Kennecott had five mines: Bonanza, Jumbo, Mother Lode, Erie and Glacier.
Glacier, which is really an ore extension of the Bonanza, was an open-pit mine
and was only mined during the summer. Bonanza and Jumbo were on Bonanza Ridge
about 5 km, (3 miles) from Kennecott. The Mother Lode mine was located on the
east side of the ridge from Kennecott. The Bonanza, Jumbo, Mother Lode and Erie
mines were connected by tunnels. The Erie mine was perched on the northwest end
of Bonanza Ridge overlooking Root Glacier about 6 km (3.7 mi) up a glacial trail
from Kennecott. Ore was hoisted to Kennecott via the trams which head-ended at
Bonanza and Jumbo. From Kennecott the ore was hauled mostly in 140-pound sacks
on steel flat cars to Cordova, 196 rail miles away on the Copper River and
Northwestern Railway (CRNW).
On April 8, 1911, the first ore train hauled $250,000 of 70% copper ore. In
1916, the peak year for production, the mines produced copper ore valued at
In 1925 a Kennecott geologist predicted that the end of the high-grade ore
bodies was in sight. The highest grades of ore were largely depleted by the
early 1930s. The Glacier Mine closed in 1929. The Mother Lode was next, closing
at the end of July 1938. The final three, Erie, Jumbo and Bonanza, closed that
September. The last train left Kennecott on November 10, 1938, leaving it a
ghost town. In the 27 years of operation, except for 2˝ years of shutdown,
Kennecott produced 4.625 million tons of ore averaging 13 per cent copper valued
at roughly $207,000,000 with an estimated profit of $100,000,000. In addition,
the silver by-product from this operation brought in another 4˝ to 9 million
dollars in revenues.
From 1939 until the mid-1950s, Kennecott was deserted except for a family of
three who served as the watchmen until about 1952. In the late 1960s, an attempt
was made to reprocess the tailings and to transport the ore in aircraft. The
cost of doing so made the idea unprofitable. Around the same time, the company
with land rights ordered the destruction of the town to rid them of liability
for potential accidents. A few structures were destroyed, but the job was never
finished and most of the town was left standing. Visitors and nearby residents
have stripped many of the small items and artifacts. Some have since been
returned and are held in various archives.