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July 11, 2011 / Jim Fenton

Alaska Day 4: Kennecott and McCarthy

This article is part of a series about our recent vacation in Alaska. To see the introductory article in the series, click here.

Viewing Kennecott Mill

Kennecott Mill

It rained quite a bit last night, so I was glad not to be taking a hike first thing in the morning.  Instead, following breakfast, we took a 2 1/2 hour tour of the Kennecott Mill, which described the crushing and separation of the copper ore from surrounding limestone. The mill building is 14 stories tall, built on the side of a hill, and is said to be the largest wood-frame building in the United States. The local copper mining and milling operation was a marvel of management, a huge investment but enormously profitable in its 27 years of operation. A chemical extraction plant was also built that used ammonia to dissolve the copper to separate it from the limestone. The concentrated ore was shipped to Tacoma, Washington for smelting and refinement.

Kennecott Mill Machinery

Machinery in Kennecott Mill

After the tour, we spent some time in the local craft shop, then had an excellent pizza lunch from a pizza shop housed in a bus. We then took the local shuttle bus to McCarthy, the other village in the area, about 4 miles to the south. While somewhat touristy due to the park, McCarthy has more of the feel of a local working community and a less developed feel than Kennecott.

McCarthy has a fine museum with many pictures and artifacts of the area during its heyday. In remote areas like this, departing residents often leave their things behind rather than have to transport them out, so the museum had a great source of things to put on display.

McCarthy, Alaska

"Downtown" McCarthy, Alaska

McCarthy has more of the things that a minimal community needs to have: a general store, a fire department, a couple of places to eat, and of course a saloon. Having just had lunch while waiting for the shuttle bus, we weren’t ready for the recommended French fries at “The Potato”, but did enjoy an ice cream cone at the general store a little later.  We wandered down to the river, skipped rocks, and finally walked the half mile to the footbridge connecting McCarthy with the highway to Chitina where we caught the shuttle back to Kennecott.

We’re starting to learn a bit about land ownership and private enterprise in Alaska.  While the only public bridge connecting Kennecott and McCarthy with the outside world is the footbridge, I asked how the vehicles got there and learned that there in fact is a privately-owned vehicle bridge. The bridge is locked, and tolls are high:  reportedly $1000 a year for a key or $250 for a single trip. Obviously the expense of building a bridge is high, so the high price may be warranted. This is also made more practical by the lack of real estate taxes (and the lack of public services). Many see the high price as a benefit, because it has effectively kept tour buses out of the area. This is reminiscent of the private toll roads that used to exist in the lower 48 many years ago.

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