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  • Day55

    Kennecott Mill Town Tour

    June 26, 2021 in the United States ⋅ 🌧 54 °F

    The mill town and mines are an amazing relic from the 1900s. That the 14-story concentration mill, built on a steep, slippery hill, is even standing today is a testament to man’s ingenuity as it had to be stabilized by pulling it back with straps during the time it was in operation.

    Kennecott was founded after copper ore was found in the mountains against which the town sits. The prospectors who found the ore vein just wanted to make a buck — a million or so in this case — so they sold their stake to three families, including the Guggenheims and JP Morgans. They, together with Stephen Birch, a mining engineer, formed the Alaska Syndicate, which later became the Kennecott Copper Corp.

    The owners of the copper mine pulled up stakes in 1938 ... after the ore was played out. Then, a local man apparently started operating tours of the town and mill. This did not sit well with the owners of the mine, so they ordered the entire operation to be razed to the ground. Luckily, the contractor did little more than take away some of the machinery and defaulted on the rest of his contract.

    Kennecott is one of the private properties surrounded by the 13,000,000-acre Wrangell-St Elias National Park & Preserve. The National Park Service began buying up and restoring some of the buildings, including the concentration mill that is the jewel of the operation.

    Visitors can tour the mill town on their own. Many of the restored buildings are open to the public and have interesting exhibits. But, if one wants to enter the 14-story concentration mill, one must take a guided tour operated by St Elias Alpine Guides, the NPS concessionaire. So, that’s what we did today.

    Our two-hour tour included a walk through town and a hike up a hillside trail up to the top of the concentration mill. In places inside the building, there were no walls left ... leaving one with the odd sensation of looking out into thin air. The floors were rickety ... some at odd angles. There were steep ladders to negotiate as we made our way down 14 floors ... two of them were best navigated by going down backwards. No wonder one must be guided through the mill.

    There were about 30 people signed up for today’s 1:30p tour. We were broken into groups of 7-8 however ... down from the usual 15 due to pandemic precautions. Our guide Katie did a great job of not only explaining the mill operations, but also bringing alive the characters involved in the story of Kennecott.

    Here’s the gist of how it all worked.

    * The ore — an average of 1,200 tons per day — was mined out of five mines connected by tunnels, including the Bonanza and Jumbo mines, and brought down to the concentration mill by an aerial tramway system.

    * Since shipping of the ore was expensive, the material first went through a gravity concentration process to remove impurities such as limestone. This included a series of crushers and sorters that got finer the further down the process the ore traveled.

    * After the waste was removed, the concentrated ore was packed into burlap bags and stacked on open train cars, layered with salt to keep it from freezing. The trains then traveled across the valleys and mountains to Cordova where the bags of ore were put on ships bound for smelters in Tacoma.

    * For lower quality ore, ammonia leaching and flotation methods were used, thus getting the most out of everything that was mined.

    The mining operation — including the building of the mine and the railroad — cost over $100 million dollars. Was the operation profitable? Yes ... thanks to the by-product of silver that was separated out of the ore. According to Katie, about $100 million in copper was produced out of Kennecott ... and an equal amount of silver.
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