31 October 2010

Ch 3, Pt 2 : "Closing Day at Bonanza" from "Legacy of the Chief"

Chapter 3: Closing Day at Bonanza, pt 2

Reinforced tower near top of Bonanza tram --Cordova Museum

Once the railway arrived at the Bonanza lower camp, the old era came to an abrupt end. The railroad brought with it the modern world of a neatly laid-out company town of painted frame structures. Everything one could possibly want could be found either at the new town of Kennecott or at the nearby community of McCarthy. If the stores did not have a particular item, the Sears and Roebuck catalog could be counted on to fill the need or desire.

McCarthy. Good old ‘anything-goes’ McCarthy. About to become one of our casualties. Dead. Gone. History. They don’t even know it yet -- and they’ll never know what hit ‘em when that last train of ours pulls out.

W.A. chuckled to himself as he worked his way up the interior mill stairwell, headed toward the tram terminal floor on the twelfth level. Because W.A. had made a career out of Kennecott, he had participated in every major event which occurred over the years.

I know this camp and mine system inside and out--more so than anyone alive except Bill Douglass himself. Now I’m quickly becoming the obsolete key to a dead mine.

W.A. stepped into the tram bucket.

There’s barely room to sit down in this narrow steel tub. Not too safe or comfortable, to say the least. What a way to take a scenic trip.

Many engineers had come and gone, but W.A. had been a part of Kennecott almost from the beginning. He arrived fresh from the Colorado School of Mines in 1915. That was the year that the Jumbo took off with the discovery of the single richest copper deposit ever found. The number-crunchers figured it had a value of thirty-five million dollars--far more than the final cost of building the railroad.

He worked his way up from surveyor to the position of Chief Engineer--a job he held for so many years that other engineers came and left in frustration, waiting for W.A. to move on so they could advance. Now W.A. was the site superintendent

I’m the last one standing. They had to make me superintendent. There was no one else left. What an irony. I finally made it to the top and now I have to be the one to shut down my own camp.

W.A. watched the ground move away from him as the tram bucket he was riding began to lift smoothly toward the first tower.

It was a 1,500 foot gap where the cable crossed the canyon at the far end of the break-over. The small creek was 300 to 400 feet below his bucket. It had become usually gusty over Bonanza canyon. Due to the length of the crossing in combination with the rising wind, an unnerving swing developed in this long stretch of cable.
Riding the Bonanza aerial tram --Candy Waugaman Collection

At one time there had been a corporate representative here referred to as the manager. The very first had been Stephen Birch himself. A long line of managers had come and gone since then. Mr. Birch himself had retired. There was no longer a manager here--not since 1932.

Stannard was the manager who had ordered the construction of the Stephen Birch house as a honeymoon cottage for the visiting couple in 1916. Mary Birch was thoroughly and annoyingly unimpressed. The couple ended their Alaska honeymoon early. After that the white house on the hill served as the manager’s residence, though it remained largely unoccupied.

Imagine that. Here’s one of the most influential and powerful men in the territory, if not the country, maybe even the world. Yet his own bride was so stuck in her debutante, spoiled rich-kid city-girl ways that she threw one tantrum after another. She hated Alaska. She hated the mines. She even hated the railroad and its special Kennecott car which was specially built just for her. And she was thoroughly unimpressed with the cottage built especially for their honeymoon. What an embarrassment for all of us. It must have been hell for Stephen. The whole affair just killed his interest in Alaska. That was it for him. Too bad.

It had been an incredibly exciting twenty-two years in some of the most spectacular country in the world. Richelsen had participated in many mineral investigations for Kennecott in the Chitina and Nizina Valleys--and even in the Nabesna area. In the last few years, he had headed several of these prospects, including the promising one at Glacier Creek where they built a sizable, if temporary, camp. The engineers thoroughly investigated one prospect after another only to be disappointed. No extensive copper or other mineral veins were ever found outside of the original Kennecott claims or that of the adjacent Mother Lode properties.

It was not for lack of trying. The Kennecott corporate office had sent many consulting engineers into the field. Each one had come in search of one more big find--something which would extend the life of Kennecott and its Copper River and Northwestern Railway.


CR and NW--Can’t Run and Never Will-- indeed. Those pioneering men built one of the greatest wilderness railroads ever. It was born of the copper and it will die of the copper--or the lack of it.

Those idiots. We could hardly believe the political foolishness of that Wilson administration which chose the wrong railroad line to extend to Fairbanks. We built this railroad of ours far better than anything they could ever have even dreamed. Now we have to kill it along with the mine. Those jackasses. It should not have ended this way.

He ducked instinctively as his ore bucket passed under the third tower.

Leave it to the government to screw it all up. Listen to me. I’m sounding bitter. Too many years here. Too big an investment. I’ve been here most of my life. God, how I hate to see it die!

He began to consider the hazardous nature of hard rock mining in the territory. The wilderness was everywhere. It began mere yards from the railroad right-of-way. The land proved rugged enough to challenge even the hardiest of men. Mining was by its nature inherently dangerous. The company, for insurance purposes, routinely predicted the number of mining-related accidents which would occur in any given year. It was usually very close.

Numbers. To them it’s all numbers. Our engineering is first rate and our predictions prove it, for we have almost always been right. Between our crackerjack geologists and those number-crunchers, we’ve accomplished an ongoing miracle up here. I can’t imagine a better organized company than ours. It works well, but I’ll be so happy to get away from that part of it, if I ever do.

Kennecott had proved to be an unusually safe place for miners to work. The company track record had been very good compared to other big Alaskan operations. The large gold mining operations near Juneau--the Treadwell, the A-J and the Gastineau were notorious killers. Not Kennecott. So far this year there had been no fatal accidents at all. Kennecott would be pulling out of the Wrangells with a record free of fatalities in its last two years of operation.

There had been one catastrophe which had long troubled not only W.A., but everyone else who had been at Kennecott at the time. Even though it had been over a decade since the disaster at the Mother Lode camp, the calamity continued to reverberate in its own peculiar way all these years after it should have faded away.

Kennecott was on the verge of completely abandoning the area. With the mine shut down there would be no one left to remember the series of events which took the lives of those five unfortunate souls. It was the loss of the junior engineer that W.A. found most troubling. It hit too close to home.

Without us being here, even his name will soon be forgotten. We were the only family of our beloved junior engineer. I still find myself holding much of the blame for that catastrophe. What a shame it all was.

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