King Copper: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska

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King Copper: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska


The park is the largest in America. It contains 9 of the 16 tallest mountains in the United States and the largest sub-polar ice field in North America. It can only be reached by driving 120 miles over the old railroad roadbed. Half of the distance is unpaved gravel washboard road studded with railroad spikes that work up to the road surface in the summer. There's a funny 30-second video of the road. Imagine three hours each way.

Mining buildings on a hillside

We get lucky and have a clear day to see the nearest mountains. On the way in, we see native people netting Sockeye salmon in the Copper River. The dip nets turn slowly on the river banks and drop an occasional Sockeye into wire baskets.

In 1898, Edison and Tesla were fighting it out over whether alternating current or direct current should be used to electrify America. No matter which one prevailed, copper would suddenly become a much more valuable metal.

At the same time, a huge copper deposit was discovered near the Kennecott Glacier in what is now the park. To extract the metal and bring in mining equipment, the men from Kennecott Copper built a railroad that spanned 200 miles of glaciers, rivers, and mountains down to Cordova on the coast.

Some of the copper deposits here were 98 percent pure. The nuggets are incredibly heavy. By 1938 the area was mined out. The last copper train left Kennecott on November 11, 1938.

The gravel road into the park ends at the old Kennecott copper mine. Huge piles of cables, twisted rails, gears, and abandoned smelters remind you that this was the industrial age and the age of steel.

You can walk up to the glaciers from the mining camp and into the backcountry. A small airport outside the park offers fly-in service from Anchorage.

Here are some pictures of the park and mining camp.

 Wrangell-St Elias National Park, Alaska Wrangell-St Elias National Park, Alaska Wrangell-St Elias National Park, Alaska

See the video at this Youtube address, or view below in Pliny.

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