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Alaskan copper mine, once giant of America

During a time when America needed it most, Kennecott provided the copper necessary to support the first electrical revolution North of 60 Mining News – January 7, 2022

"During the two decades preceding and those following World War I, when the United States produced more than half the world's copper, the mines at Kennecott, Alaska were among the nation's largest, and contained the last of the great high grade copper ore deposits discovered in the American West. Just as mining technology was gearing up to exploit the low-grade ores that remained in the West, the Kennecott mines exposed an ore deposit of quality unequaled anywhere in the twentieth century." –excerpt from Historic American Engineering Record, 1987.

In an era where copper has been elevated to the status of "new oil" due to its importance to the global transition to electric vehicles charged with renewable energy, retrospect into this world-class Alaska mine that fed copper into America's first electric revolution seems appropriate.

Since the craze of electricity at the turn of the 20th century, it was quickly discovered the necessity of copper, proving vital to the industrial revolution. Dynamos, alternators, motors, and the miles and miles of wiring that was only possible because of copper, it has been a quiet ally behind most of the modern innovations that society exploits today.

Perhaps at no more opportune a time, as copper became extremely valuable due to inventions requiring electricity, one of the most significant discoveries in American history would be made in Alaska during the summer of 1900.

Discovery of the century

As far back as the 1700s, Russian explorers had been aware of the presence of copper in Alaska due to copper knives among the natives on Kayak Island.

Only in 1847, when exploration made its way through the Copper River, by wintering at the mouth of the Chitina, did Russians investigate the river beyond its mouth. But, unfortunately, the early expedition had antagonized the "Copper River Indians," who consequently turned on them and killed the entire party.

It would not be until a decade later that Westerners would ascend the Chitina River, which was the source of copper used by the Natives.

However, little exploration would further happen until the stampeders of the Klondike Gold Rush.

In 1898, four thousand prospectors would land at Valdez in Prince William Sound, crossing the coast range over the Valdez Glacier, and would then hobble up the Copper River Valley investigating as they journeyed.

Only a few would succeed, and as a result, a great deluge and the sacrifice of many lives, the Army and the United States Geological Survey would try to explore, map, and describe the trails and mineral resources of Alaska. Thus, in 1899 Captain William R. Abercrombie put USGS geologist Oscar Rohn in charge of exploring and mapping the Chitina Valley.

Rohn became the first man to record the area known as Kennecott in detail. He named the Kennicott and Root Glaciers and described basic geologic structures that he believed held copper ore – Chitistone limestone and Nikolai greenstone.

He analyzed the volcanic contact zones and favorably compared the Nikolai greenstone to the Lake Superior greenstone that had produced the richest copper in the United States. Furthermore, he summarized that further exploration was needed and encouraged a more involved economic survey.

That same year, claims were staked at the site of the Nikolai mine at the head of Nikolai Creek. The ore at Nikolai averaged greater than 25% copper.

As a result of this activity, the importance of Valdez as a year-round seaport entry for both Alaska and possibly the Yukon was widely publicized.

Confusing and contradictory stories have clouded the truth of the discovery of the Bonanza ore deposits adjacent to the Nikolai mine. But it is consistent that two men in August of 1900, Jack Smith and Clarence Warner of the McClellan party, discovered the green cliffs of outcropping malachite that, legend has it, they mistook for grass for their horses.

Recognizing the ore on closer inspection, the two men staked out their claims.

It is attributed that the original location of the huge copper deposits in the region was made by the party formed in 1898 by R.F. McClellan. Although after failing to find anything worthwhile along the Copper River tributaries that year, the men from Minnesota reorganized for one more go of it.

Thus, in late August of 1899, the group discovered the Nikolai cluster of copper mines on the right limit of the Nizina, a branch of the Chitina River about 180 miles east of Valdez. Subsequently, the Chitina Exploration Company was formed, and more exploration was carried on until Smith and Warner's discovery of Bonanza some 20 miles from the Nikolai Mines.

Bonanza controversy

Around this same time, a young New York mining engineer by the name of Stephen Birch had heard of the potential of Alaska's minerals and used his considerable connections to attach himself to Captain Abercrombie's staff in a civilian capacity.

A tale passed around by old-timers was that the military man was none too happy about the request from Birch and that some further pressure had to be exerted before the well-connected young adventurer was accepted. However, afterward, Birch traveled extensively with the troop and kept in close touch with the prospecting activities.

Old journals and historical accounts for the eventual Mining Hall of Fame Inductee show that Birch was in Valdez when the members of the Chitina Mining and Exploration Company returned in the fall of 1900.

He was greatly impressed by their reports of the unique outcrop of the Bonanza, and when the owners needed cash, he bought a 1/11 interest.

Often described as energetic, determined, and individualistic, Birch never diverted from his drive to obtain complete control of the deposit. With the backing of his initial, powerful investors, he succeeded, paying $25,000 each to the other owners.

Birch continued to buy shares of the claim. However, without a way to transport the copper from America's Last Frontier to a market craving new sources of this conductive metal, it was practically worthless. Furthermore, it was often said at the time that building a railroad from the coast, across mountains, mighty rivers, and moving glaciers would be impossible.

Yet, Birch's influential and affluent connections would pull through once more.

With the support of his investors, Birch formed the Alaska Copper and Coal Company but then was promptly sued by others claiming ownership of the deposit. This launched protracted litigation between the newly-formed Alaska Copper and the Chitina Exploration Company that had already sold many of its shares to Birch.

Two contradicting stories come about from this litigation. First, in the Copper River Mining Co. vs. McClellan court case that was eventually appealed and rejected by the Supreme Court, it is stated that the decision by famed Alaskan ally, Judge James Wickersham, was in favor of McClellan. Thus Chitina won the case-opening the way for future developments.

However, another account shows that Alaska Copper won the case as it had legal title.

"From 1901 to 1904 the Chitina Exploration Company, which claimed to have grubstaked the prospectors, and the Copper River Mining Company, which claimed legal title, dragged the suit through territorial and federal court and were denied judgement in their favor. The Supreme Court of the United States refused to hear the case." –excerpt from Historic American Engineering Record, 1987.

So, without further obstacle, Birch would begin one of the largest transformations of a remote Northern region. But he would need considerable funding. Lucky for him, he knew just the right people.

The Alaska Syndicate

It quickly became apparent that to construct a railway from the port of Valdez to the Bonanza mine nearly 200 miles away, he would need funding. So, in 1905, Birch gained support from John Rosene of Northwestern Commercial Company, who agreed to construct the railway.

While Birch fought his litigations, a major player in the eventual development of Kennecott, a man by the name of Meyer Guggenheim and his seven sons merged in 1901 with American Smelting & Refining Company (ASARCO) to gain a monopoly on the lead and silver business in the United States. Turning their sights to Alaska, the USGS assays of the Bonanza ore at over 70% copper and 14 ounces of silver per ton tempted their appetite for greater expansion.

Birch first met with J.P. Morgan Jr., W.P. Hamilton, and Charles Steele of J.P. Morgan & Co. in March 1906. Two months later, he met with Daniel Guggenheim, who was already convinced to back the railroad.

As a result of Birch's efforts, in June of that year, Guggenheim "joined with the house of Morgan to form the Alaska Syndicate with the specific goal of developing Birch's copper mine," and would go on to become one of the three managing directors of the syndicate.

The Alaska Copper and Coal Company, wielding its newfound capital and political clout, was reorganized as the Kennecott Mines Company.

Between the year of its formation in 1905 to 1911, the syndicate spent roughly $25 million (equivalent to more than $730 million in today's dollars) to build the mine and mill works, the 196-mile railroad and organized a steamship line that connected the copper port of Cordova with ASARCO's Tacoma, Washington smelter. All occurred prior to even the first shipment of copper.

Finally, on April 8, 1911, the first trainload of copper, worth $250,000 (roughly $7.3 million in today's dollars), was shipped from Kennecott in 32 railroad cars.

Despite its apparent successes, the Alaska Syndicate faced intense scrutiny from Alaskans in favor of increased autonomy over their own affairs.

The Syndicate continued to buy up hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness, which gave rise to the notion that Alaska was "First a Colony of Russia, then a colony of Guggenmorgan."

Ultimately, it was the keen financial insights of Morgan and the mining interest of the Guggenheims that brought attention to Alaska and eventually Kennecott. As typical businessmen in the 19th century, bribes and promises to win favors in politics were rampant. However, their methods were seriously challenged by Judge Wickersham, who led Alaskans against monopolism.

Therefore, on April 12, 1915, the Kennecott Copper Corporation was formed by Guggenheim and Morgan interests, with Birch becoming the first president. He oversaw that the transfer of the Alaska Syndicate holdings went to the Kennecott Mines Company, including the Copper River and Northwestern Railway, the Alaska Steamship Company, and the Beatson Copper Company.

Thus, taking most of the heat off of becoming a monopoly.

From 1915-1922, Kennecott ranked third to seventh in production of all the mines in the U.S. With the building and operation of the mines and their supply line – the Copper River and Northwestern Railway – this was the largest, most costly, and complex mining enterprise ever established in Alaska.

By 1916, production had reached over 100 million pounds of copper worth almost $30 million, or about $443 million at current copper prices. By then, Kennecott was classed among the nation's largest mines.

Lode exhaustion and national landmark status

Kennecott's significance, however, lied in the fantastic quality of its ore.

Despite the general assumption that Alaska's gold was preeminent, no single Alaskan placer gold district or gold lode entity was as productive in mineral wealth as Kennecott.

The phenomenal profits from this extremely rich Alaska copper mine provided the capital needed to fund Kennecott's purchase of the Bingham Canyon Mine in Utah and the Utah Copper Company, as well as the Braden Copper Company and other low-grade mines in Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico.

By the 1930s, while the deposit in Alaska was nearing exhaustion, the corporation had expanded to become the nation's largest copper supplier and an international force in the metals market.

At the peak of operation, approximately 300 people worked in the mill town, 200-300 in the mines, with Kennecott supporting its own self-contained town, including a hospital, general store, school, skating rink, tennis court, and recreation hall, and even a dairy.

While the mines were in operation, Kennecott was a place of long hours and hard, dangerous work. However, paying salaries higher than those found in the lower 48 states, Kennecott was easily able to attract willing people to live and work in this remote Alaskan mining camp.

Miners often worked seven days a week, coming down only for the rare holiday or to leave Kennecott for good.

The Kennecott business organization had met the shifting realities of the mining world, and although the Kennecott deposit, while rich, proved limited in extent. Thus, the operation was closed in 1938, after having produced an estimated $200-300 million worth of copper in 28 years.

In June of 1998, 50 years later, the National Park Service acquired many of the significant buildings and lands of the Kennecott Mines, now regarded as a historic landmark, and began the effort to stabilize and restore the buildings.

Today, the mining camp is little changed since its closing over 70 years ago and provides visitors with a window into the lifestyles, technologies, and work environment of the early 20th century.

Every building painted red with white trim, the all-wood frame Kennecott company town remains a complete unit in an inspiring natural setting. There are no non-contributing structures, and all were built from 1907 to 1925 and range in conditions from excellent to ruinous.

The Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark is roughly an eight-hour drive from Anchorage. The camp and untold lodes of copper-rich ore left behind by the historic mining tucked away within the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.


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