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From the July & August 2006 issues of ACCent, the newsletter of the Anchorage Coin Club:


The Great Alaska Copper Rush!

By Mike Nourse


    Yes, I did say copper. And I didn't mean to say gold. We really did have a copper rush up here, and it was really getting going one century ago just about 150 air miles East of Anchorage in what is coincidentally known as the Copper River Valley.


The Copper River. Taken in March 2006 from mile 21.6 of the Edgerton Highway.

It may seem hard to believe that such a fuss was made over lowly copper since we as coin collectors are so used to looking at copper as a base metal with no particular value to the metal itself. The reason for that disregard for this metal is because we are used to dealing with it in such small quantities that the metal value really is inconsequential. Even the huge cartwheels coins of Great Britain and Russia in the late 1700's to early 1800's had at most a few ounces, while copper prices are quoted in pounds or more often in tons. Quick, how much is an ounce of copper worth? Even if you are good at math, you still have to think about it for a second or two to divide the current price of over $3 per pound by 16 to get the price per ounce, or convert to troy pounds then divide by 12 to get the value per troy ounce so that you can compare it against silver and gold. Are you done yet?
Now you may think copper does not matter since you only collect silver and gold coins. Unless you are only collecting bullion silver and gold coins such as the American Eagle series, then the coins you have almost certainly have some copper in them. This is the case because pure silver and gold are too soft to be used in coinage without an alloy of some other metal. In the United States, the alloy metal of choice was copper. Even our nickel five cent piece is seventy five percent copper though it is hard to believe by looking at it. So, like it or not, you almost certainly have some copper in your collection. Darn those copper spots on my $20 gold piece!
Back to the great Alaska copper rush. Copper really is a base metal compared to silver and gold. Since it's price is often quoted in terms of dollars per ton, it is a safe bet that you are going to need a lot of tons of the stuff to make any kind of serious money. It just so happens that we had a lot of tons at the Bonanza mine near McCarthy, above the Kennecott Glacier. Copper was discovered in the area in 1885, and the Bonanza mine was finally claimed and surveyed in 1900.


This is what is left of McCarthy today.


There was virtually unlimited copper available at the Bonanza mine, but the real trick was to figure out how to get it to market. The mine was about 100 miles from the coast across the huge Chugach mountain range with its tall peaks and valleys completely filled in with ice. The area is infested with mosquitoes in the short summer and freezing cold in the winter. Of course there were no roads at that time, and few possible passages through the mountains.
The obvious solution at the time was to build a railroad, as the automobile was still in it's infancy and incapable of hauling the substantial amounts of material necessary. Railroads had been considered since 1898 though their goal was to go from the coast to the gold fields several hundred miles north on the Yukon River. River boats would then be able to carry miners up and down the river to the various gold fields.
Surveys found that there were three promising points along the coast from which to build rail lines: Valdez in the West, Cordova in the middle, and Katalla a bit further East. All three locations had both positive and negative attributes, and therefore different companies started building rail lines from each of the three places. Katalla seemed to be the most promising, since it was located on a huge high grade coal field, and coal was needed for running locomotives and for smelting copper from the ore. There was even oil in Katalla. The downside was that Katalla was very exposed to the storms of the Gulf of Alaska and suffered from persistent winds and high seas. Cordova had a reasonably well protected port and was only 75 miles from the Katalla coal fields. Valdez had the best deep water port because both Cordova and Katalla were located near the mouths of rivers which dump a lot of silt, but building from Valdez meant going through the very narrow and dangerous Keystone Canyon and no access to the Katalla coal field.
Things got started in summer 1906. That summer there were three railroad construction projects underway in Alaska; the Copper River Railroad Co. began a line from the newly created town site of Cordova to head up the Copper River, and the Alaska Syndicate, run by the Guggenheim Brothers and J. Pierpont Morgan, was building up from Valdez through Keystone Canyon. Unrelated to the copper mines was a railroad being built by the Alaska Central Railroad from Seward to the Susitna Valley. The obvious result of all this construction was a severe labor shortage, during which the railroads made a sport of attracting workers from the competing lines.


There is still a section of the railroad tunnel remaining in Keystone Canyon, about 18 miles from Valdez.

Things got shaken up a bit in late 1906 when the Alaska Syndicate bought the rights to Abercrombie Canyon from the Copper River Railroad company. This canyon was the key to building a railway up the Copper River as it is a narrow area with only room for one set of rails to fit through. Shortly thereafter, the Alaska Syndicate purchased the remaining assets of the Copper River Railway and renamed their venture the Copper River and Northwestern (CR & NW) Railroad. After this purchase, the construction was stopped on the line from Valdez, which was only built to a few miles out of town, approaching Keystone Canyon. For the moment, work would be concentrated in Cordova, though they quickly abandoned that idea and concentrated on building from coal rich Katalla.
By 1907 there were 5,000 to 10,000 people jamming Katalla looking for work, and the place was a real boom town. The Alaska Syndicate was working on two lines from Katalla at once: the main line up the Copper River going to Kennecott and a short spur to the nearby heart of the coal and oil fields.
With the Alaska Syndicate seemingly having abandoned the idea of building a railroad from Valdez, the newly formed Alaska Home Railway, run by Henry Reynolds, decided to try building from that town. The stumbling block for the Alaska Home Railroad was that the Alaska Syndicate still held the right of way to Keystone Canyon and there is no other way out from Valdez. The Alaska Home Railway tried to purchase the rights to Keystone Canyon, but the Syndicate would not sell, as building from Valdez was their backup plan if Katalla did not work out. Alaska Home Railway tried to take the canyon by force, and the Alaska Syndicate guards that were keeping an eye on the canyon opened fire on the group, killing one person.
The Alaska Syndicate still would not let go of Keystone Canyon, and it actually did not really matter any more since Henry Reynolds had run out of money and could not pay the Alaska Home Railway workers any more. The workers ended up having to go to Katalla to work for their former competition, the Alaska Syndicate.
Things weren't going much better in Katalla that summer of 1907, where persistent gales and stormy weather made it dangerous or impossible for supply ships to land. Success in Katalla depended upon construction of a 2000 foot breakwater to protect their harbor. Workers labored on the breakwater all summer, but a big storm came up in November of that year and destroyed all of their work along with the town dock and part of a railroad trestle which was under construction. After that, it was decided that the Alaska Syndicate would cease work in Katalla for the winter and return in spring of 1908. The winter would be spent on building the line from Cordova, up the Copper River to Abercrombie Canyon, through the narrow gap between the Childs and Miles Glaciers, then East to Kennecott.


The Childs Glacier. Taken May 2006.

The Alaska Syndicate never did return to Katalla. Thousands of people lived there waiting for the Spring construction season, but it never came. Hope was kept alive though, as there were still definite plans to build a spur off the Copper River and Northwestern to the coal fields in Katalla, but that never happened either. There were other attempts to build railroads from Katalla or really get a significant coal mining operation going, but none ever lasted very long. The population of Katalla, which had been as high as 10,000, steadily dwindled throughout the 1910's as hope was given up.
Meanwhile in Cordova, railroad engineer Michael J. Heney was brought out of retirement in late 1907 by the Guggenheims to build the Copper River and Northwestern railroad from Cordova. There were 450 people working on the railroad in winter of 1907 - 08, a number which grew to 3,000 during the summer of 1908. The goal was to reach the crossing of the Copper River near the Miles Glacier at mile 51 by that October. At this point, it became fairly obvious that the main railroad line would be built from Cordova to the copper mines at Kennecott and on from there to the Yukon river. Cordova had won out based on having a well protected deep water harbor along with the possibility of tapping into Katalla's coal and oil. However, the entire enterprise depended upon the construction of a bridge across the Copper River between the Miles and Childs glaciers.
Due to the conditions in the area, the Miles Glacier bridge would have to be the strongest bridge ever built. It would be pounded year round by building sized icebergs along with huge waves created by ice collapsing off the front of the glacier. Then there is the persistent rapids of the Copper River, the extreme winds that can plague the area, and the weight of the ice that will build up on the bridge each winter. And there was always the danger that the Miles Glacier, located a mile away, would surge forward and wipe the bridge off the face of the earth without even hesitating. The Miles Glacier alone is larger than all of the glaciers in Switzerland combined, so no structure of any kind can withstand it's advance. Many engineers thought it would be impossible to build a lasting bridge here, but bridge engineer A. C. O'Neel would prove them wrong.


The Miles Glacier. Taken May 2006.

Summer 1908 work came up a bit short with 47 miles of track laid, 4 miles short of the goal. Time was of the essence since a law was on the books requiring that a railroad line be completed within four years after the beginning of construction. Temporary tracks were laid on the frozen ground for those last 4 miles to bring supplies to the river for the bridge construction starting in spring.
In March 1909, temporary tracks were laid across the ice of the Copper River so supplies could be brought across allowing the line to continue to be built on the other side of the River that summer. One locomotive was left on the far side of the river to work on construction there. Supplies during the summer of 1909 were brought up to the bridge construction site by sternwheeler steamships on the Copper River. These supplies were used to build the railroad from the bridge construction site at mile 51 out to the Tiekel River at mile 101 by fall.
The Miles Glacier bridge would have three piers and four spans of 300, 400, 400, and 450 feet. Holes were cut through the nine foot thick ice of the Copper River in March 1909 to begin digging three holes down to the bedrock for the piers to stand on. Digging continued through late fall of 1909, and the piers themselves were constructed during the winter of 1909 - 1910. The piers were ready by early spring 1910 for the four spans, but the steel was delayed by two months. Three of the spans had to be built while the river was still frozen thick enough to support temporary posts which would hold up the bridge spans while they were being built.
The steel arrived on April 10 of 1910. Working a 16 hour shift, span 1 was completed in 13 days and span 2 was finished in only 6 days. It was a gamble to start building span 3 this late in the season because the ice would give way soon. Span 3 was the longest at 450 feet, and with one final push in the form of working 40 hours straight, it was completed less than 12 hours before movement of the Miles Glacier would have caused the ice holding it up to give way and destroy all of their work. The fourth and final span of the bridge was built in a different way which did not require temporary posts, and was completed on June 19, 1910. The impossible bridge had been built by bridge engineer A. C. O'Neel.


The Million Dollar Bridge crossing the Copper River. Taken early August 2005.

Now that the Miles Glacier bridge was completed, it was time to get to work laying track. Besides, there were still more bridges to be built further down the line. Time was of the essence, since a law was in place which required a rail line to be completed within four years of the beginning of construction, and that four year deadline was coming up in early spring 1911. Chief engineer Michael J. Heney knew that as much work as possible had to be done during the summer months, and the line was completed through Chitna at mile 132 by fall 1910.


The downtown Chitna area. March 2006.

Another look at downtown Chitna. March 2006.

Once again, work continued on the rail line through the winter, especially with the four year deadline looming. Two large bridges had to be built; the Kuskulana Gorge bridge and the Gilahina bridge. The Gilahina bridge would be the longest wooden bridge on the rail line at 880 feet, with a height of 80 to 90 feet. Both bridges were built in the dead of winter when daylight is only a few short hours and temperatures held steady at 30 to 60 degrees below zero, not counting the wind chill. Wood splits from the cold at those temperatures, and dynamite had to be used to dig holes for the wood pilings.


The Kuskulana Bridge. It is 525 feet long and crosses 238 feet above the river below. August 2004.


The Gilahina Bridge is mostly still standing but it is unstable and out of repair. Taken August 2004.

The amazing effort by the railroad workers allowed construction to be finished on time. The rail line was completed at the end of March, 1911. On a warm, sunny day of 38 degrees above zero, the final spike, made of copper of course, was driven in the afternoon of March 29th. Sadly, chief engineer Michael J. Heney had died that winter and did not get to see the completion of the railroad. The rail line had cost $20 million to build which includes $1.5 million for the so called Million Dollar Bridge which crossed the Copper River between the Miles and Childs Glaciers.
Meanwhile, there was still the issue of getting coal from the coal fields at Katalla (remember Katalla?). Coal could be used for running the railroad engines, heating buildings, powering ships, and smelting copper. Prior to 1904 the law in Alaska was too restrictive to allow coal mining, but the law was liberalized to allow claims to be made that year. Coal mining was still not allowed, but at least claims could be made. The waiting game had begun. In 1906 the laws concerning coal mining were further tightened, and in 1907 Chugach National Forest was created by Teddy Roosevelt, which forever locked up parts of the Bering River coal field near Katalla.
It was an endless struggle from the claim holders in Katalla to get the laws changed to allow coal mining. They even went as far as to have a Katalla coal party in 1911. After six years of waiting to have their coal fields opened to mining, they shoveled a coal shipment from Canada overboard in protest. Unfortunately for them, it was too late. That year the Guggenheims converted the Copper River and Northwestern steam engines from coal fired to oil fired. They also determined that a copper smelter would not be built in Alaska. The high grade ore would be shipped to smelters out of state and the lower grade ore would simply be left in the ground. In the end, coal would continue to be imported from other states and Canada. A few holdouts stuck around Katalla as late as 1917, but there was never to be a rail spur from the Copper River and Northwestern to Katalla, and the town was slowly fading away.
The town of Kennecott, on the other hand, was not fading away, at least not yet. While the railroad was being built, work was underway from 1908 through 1911 to be ready to produce copper ore when the railroad was completed. Supplies were brought up the Copper River by a river steamer named Chittyna (the original name of Chitna). The buildings had been built and the equipment was in place. This allowed the first train full of ore to leave Kennecott just one week after the copper spike had been driven. That first train arrived in Cordova on April 8, 1911 to a huge celebration. It must have been quite an event!
From this point on, it was to become business as usual, with trains making the trip from Cordova to Kennecott on a regular basis. Four years later, in 1915, there were three round trips made each week, and the mine was now turning a profit. Full production was reached in 1916 when 120 million pounds of high grade ore was removed from the mine, with a value of $32 million. One has to wonder how many of those 120 million pounds made it from the smelters in the Northwest down to San Francisco to be minted into shiny new 1916-S Lincoln cents?


The copper ore processing plant at Kennecott. August 2004.

The mine became even more profitable over the next few years as World War I greatly increased the demand for copper and other metals. During the war, $2 million of copper was being shipped to the smelters in Washington state. In addition, the train was a tourist trap, carrying numerous passengers. The most popular part of the trip was of course the million dollar bridge, with it's close up views of the Miles and Childs glaciers. Even President Harding took a trip on the CR & NW railroad during his visit in the early 1920's; the first President to visit Alaska.
Meanwhile, in Katalla, a railroad had finally been built from near Carbon Mountain to the docks in Katalla by the Alaska Anthracite Railroad in 1918. The railroad hauled about 20,000 tons of coal from mines to Katalla, but it was never profitable. It only lasted 4 years and was closed in 1921. The new industry in town was oil, and during the 1920's and early 1930's, around 1,000 barrels of oil were being produced and refined each month. The oil was for local consumption with some being used in Cordova as well. One night shortly before Christmas in 1933, the refinery was accidentally burned down by a watchman trying to keep warm. That put an end to the oil industry in Katalla, as well as the city itself. The population shortly thereafter dropped to zero, and has never risen above that number since.
The Alaska Syndicate, run by the Guggenheim brothers, made a fortune from the Bonanza mine and the Copper River and NorthWestern railroad. However, like everybody else, they were hit hard by the depression. The reduced economic activity caused the price of copper to collapse to levels where the whole operation was running at a loss. It would turn out that 1932 would be the last year that the railroad would be run in the winter. Mining continued for three more years, but summer 1935 would be the end of mining activities. It was just too expensive to keep the mine running when there were new lower cost mines opening in Chile. The buildings in Kennecott were simply abandoned, and have never been used for mining since then, even though there is still a great deal of high quality copper ore still in the ground.
The railroad was kept active, just in case mining might resume. However, prices remained low throughout the 1930's. In September 1938 an application was filed to abandon the CR & NW railroad, and it was accepted in January 1939. The CR & NW would be known from that time forward as the Can't Run & Never Will. The last train had run on November 11, 1938. If only they had kept the dream alive for a short while longer, World War II would have provided an incredible fortune to the Alaska Syndicate as the price of copper skyrocketed. We are all familiar with the famous copper shortage during that war which led to the production of our 1943 steel cents. In the final analysis, a total of $28.6 million was spent on the railroad and the mines, and about $210 of copper was removed, obviously a huge money maker for the Guggenheims.


Looking down on the Kennecott area from near the top of the ore processing building. The four smoke stacks are coming out of the power plant. The hills below the buildings are actually the Kennecott Glacier, covered with gravel.

Unlike Katalla, Cordova survived the end of mining in the area. Cordova happens to be an area with great fishing, and canneries were built to process the large catches. Cordova survives to this day due to a healthy fishing industry. Not so for Kennecott and McCarthy, which have also been abandoned other than as summer tourist spots. Chitna survives today though it is hardly a boom town any more. There is a small population living there, but it probably would be a ghost town as well if it was not connected to the highway system.
The rail lines did see one final use. During World War II an air strip was cleared from the flats 13 miles from Cordova. There was still a locomotive on hand, so it was used for transportation from the city to the air strip until the rails were removed and a road built in 1945. The process of removing the rails and replacing them with a road continued, and reached the Miles Glacier bridge in 1958. Construction continued past the bridge with the intention of eventually connecting Cordova to the road system, but the 1964 earthquake caused one end of span 4 to drop into the Copper River. At 2 million pounds, it was too heavy to be put back on the pier. It would sit there for over 30 years before finally being placed back on the repaired pier, but even now the road just turns into a narrow trail a short distance after you cross the million dollar bridge, and there does not seem to be any hurry to continue building the road.
Cordova is accessible by ferry and airplane though, and they have a wonderful museum there where one can see artifacts from the CR & NW railroad. It is a fascinating place and it only costs $1 to get in. On top of that, you can drive out to the bonanza mine during the summer. It is a great drive with spectacular views of the Wrangell Saint Elias mountains, and beautiful colors in the fall. You drive as far as you can, and you reach a parking area shortly before a river. You can only cross the river on a foot bridge and then you catch a van ($5) on the other side which takes you to the mine. There are regular tours which are well worth it as you get to climb all the way up through the large ore processing building, which is still in pretty good condition and is being restored. It all makes for a fantastic trip, especially if you have some knowledge of the history of the great Alaska copper rush before you go!


The Million Dollar Bridge. May 2006.


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