The End of the Road

Kennicott-st-elias-angie-middeltonWrangell-St Elias is the largest national park in the United States with 13.2 million acres. It rises from the ocean all the way up to Mount St. Elias with an elevation of 18,008 feet. The park has multiple glaciers, volcanos and peaks along with rivers, creeks and natural springs. The park is six times the size of Yellowstone. It has four major mountain ranges which included nine of the sixteen highest peaks in the United States. There are glaciers larger than Rhode Island. Flowing from the glaciers are silt filled rivers.

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In the early 1900's copper was discovered in what is now Wrangell-St Elias. Ore was extracted from the copper mines from 1911 to 1938. This brought a lot of people to the area. Two towns, Kennicott and McCarthy were formed. In the 1920's about 700 people lived in the Kennicott-McCarthy area. The entire town of Kennicott was owned by the mining corporation. McCarthy was on private land and offered a place for Kennicott workers to spend their free time. In 1938 the mine and mill closed. The railroad that was used to transport the copper was abandoned, people were told to leave, and Kennicott became a ghost town.

After Kennecott Copper Corporation closed, a handful of McCarthy's residents stayed and a few homesteaders continued to live off the land around Kennicott and in the backcountry of Wrangell-St Elias. In 1940 a fire burned much of McCarthy and in 1943 the railroad bridge which provided the only land access to McCarthy washed out. In the 1950's there were several failed efforts to bring tourists into the area. Tourist were flown into McCarthy on DC-3s and were taken to the abandoned Kennecott Copper Corporation property in Model T's mounted on the abandoned railroad rails between McCarthy and Kennicott.

Over the years, a few people moved into the area. Some moved into abandoned buildings others made their own shelter. Some came for remoteness, solitude and/or self-reliance. Some came for the beauty of the area. Some came for the opportunity to live life unencumbered by societies rules. Some came with dreams of becoming rich by discovering new mineral lodes. Most left in the winter and returned in the summer. In the 1960's an airstrip was made in McCarthy. In the 1970's universities started bringing in people to study the geology of the area and a few young families moved to the area.

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Wrangell-St Elias became a National Monument in 1978. In 1980 it became a National Park and Preserve. Privately owned land was grandfathered within the park boundaries. Kennecott Copper Corporation is now a National Historic Landmark. The small communities of McCarthy and Kennicott began growing. In 1983-84 the residents built a river crossing system to allow land access to McCarthy. The system consisted of a hand-pulled tram carts slung from cables. The project was paid for by a grant. The cable tram provided the only safe land access to McCarthy-Kennicott. Tourism increased in the 90's and the care and maintenance of the cables and cart became more than the locals could deal with. In 1997 a footbridge was built to provide land access to the area.

The footbridge to McCarthy is at the end of a very potholed sixty mile dirt road. Today, the year-round population of McCarthy is approximately thirty people and summer residents are estimated at about two hundred. The park estimates that about 18,000 tourist visit the park each year. I do not know how many of these pass through McCarthy. Access for tourist is by air or the footbridge built in 1997. Residents can now access the area with a vehicle across a private very narrow gated (and locked) bridge.

So why am I telling you all of this? We visited McCarthy - info is coming in our next blog entry.

If you are interested in learning more about McCarthy-Kennicott, here are a few resources.

An online book Community and Copper in a Wild Land

Wrangell-St Elias National Park website

Wikipedia article about McCarthy

Discovery Channel has a reality type show about McCarthy - keep in mind this whole thing is scripted and made up by the director, however the setting is McCarthy and the people are real McCarthy residents. Edge of Alaska