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The Kennicott Copper Mine

There's something uniquely American and somewhat chilling about a ghost town. The abandoned buildings tell the tale of the lives that were lived there, their triumphs and the tragedies. Kennicott, Alaska is one such ghost town. It all began in the year 1900 when prospectors, Jack Smith and Clarence Warner, spotted what looked like a large patch of green grass on a mountainside next to the Kennicott Glacier. Little did they know, they had just discovered the richest deposit of copper ore ever found! The area was sold to 3 of America's wealthiest families and together they formed the Kennecott Copper Corporation, which the mining company misspelled from the town of Kennicott.

From 1905-1911 they painstakingly built a railroad from the coast of Alaska to the steep jagged peaks of the Kennicott mines. At the time the world needed copper. Ships and automobiles required copper; homes needed copper pipes and the era of electricity brought the need for copper wire.

The town of Kennicott quickly grew to support 20 families and about 300 workers. About 4.5 miles down the mountain from Kennicott, the town of McCarthy sprang up due to the fact that alcohol and prostitution were outlawed in Kennicott. It's no surprise then, that McCarthy grew into a major town with a hospital, school, bar and a brothel.

The mine operated 365 days a year. Seventy miles of tunnels were blasted from the Kennicott mountains and 3 miles of aerial trams were constructed to bring the copper rich ore down from the mountain. Just how rich was it? Typical copper ore contains 10% copper, but Kennicott ore was an astonishing 85% copper. The rest was limestone. To extract the copper from the limestone a 14-story concentration mill was used.

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There were four stages to process the ore. First it had to be crushed into marble sized rock and finally into sandy gravel. Then it was concentrated on huge gravity tables. Next it was sent to the leeching tanks where it was covered with ammonia to dissolve the copper from the limestone. The very fine concentrates were taken to the flotation room where it was dumped into large tubs filled with eucalyptus oil. The flow of air through the oil made bubbles and the copper attached to the bubbles forming a froth that could be skimmed off. Ninety-eight percent of the copper was extracted from the limestone which was a feat in itself.

The copper was taken by train to barges that shipped everything to Tacoma, Washington. Over its 30-year operation, $200 million in copper was extracted making it one of the richest concentrations of copper ore in the world to this day. By 1938 the mines were mostly depleted, and the town was abandoned. The town's folk left mostly all their belongings as well as all the mining equipment behind. Kennicott became a virtual time capsule of the mining era.

It is ranked as one of the U.S.'s most endangered landmarks by the National Trust for Historic Places. In 1980 the area was designated Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and is America's largest national park. The Kennicott mines may be a closed chapter in Alaska's history but it is a relic that is being preserved for future generations to come.

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