Wrangell - St Elias National Park & Preserve

Wrangell - St Elias National Park & Preserve

History of Wrangell - St Elias

Where History Meets Natural Resources

The old mining town of Kennecott offers one extraordinary piece of history in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Structures remaining at the mill site and mines represent an ambitious time of exploration and discovery in Alaska. Kennecott's high-grade copper ore was among the richest deposits ever found in the 20th century. The mountains to the northeast of the pres-ent townsite of Kennecott display a well-defined contact line between the Chitistone Limestone (the light- colored rock) and Nikolai Greenstone (the dark-colored rock beneath it). It is this limestone-greenstone contact that U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) geologists noted and reported around 1899 as the dominant formation along which copper ore bodies formed.

In the summer of 1900, prospectors Clarence Warner and "Tarantula Jack" Smith were exploring the east side of the Kennecott Glacier with this valuable information. As they drew closer to the limestone-greenstone contact, they could not miss the magnificent green cliffs of copper perches on the mountainside. Their discovery was staked as the "bonanza mine outcrop." A young and ambitious mining engineer, Stephen Birch, later purchased this claim. He was financially supported by some of the most influential families of the time, including the Morgans and Guggenheims. The mining company, originally called the Alaska Syndicate, became the Kennecott Copper Corporation in 1915. In its heyday, Kennecott was a self- contained company town, complete with a hospital, general store, schoolhouse, baseball field, skating rink, tennis court, recreation hall and dairy.

Copper mining brought early prospectors to travel to the land that is now Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, but it was the discovery of gold in Chisana that began the last great gold rush in Alaska. In 1913, thousands of stampeders made the treacherous journey through rugged country to reach the newfound mining district. Chisana soon became known as "the largest log cabin town in the world." This short boom lasted only a few years, but it made a big impact on the area.