17 October 2010

Comparing one great historic Alaskan project to another

The previous project which even remotely touched the Alyeska Pipeline for economic impact and longevity was the Kennecott Copper Mine and its Copper River & Northwestern Railway. From early construction until its final demise, the project lasted 32 years--now two years less than the present-day oil pipeline which has potential to last far longer. 

Just think, at one time, over seven decades ago, with the rest of the valley not even knowing, the engineers at Kennecott had already given up on any possibility of extending the life of the mine any longer. They knew that 1938 was it. Then the end would come, not just for the mine, but the railroad as well, and most of the economy of the Copper Valley with it. The Alaskan residents did not have such a strong stake in Kennecott Copper as they now do in the oil which pumps out of the North Slope oil fields. In fact, most of them had no idea what was about to happen to their fragile economy.

When Kennecott sent its final train load down the line on November 10, 1938, many people along the line did not realize it was the Last Train Out. There would be no other to follow. They thought that Kennecott would be back for yet another year. After all, the extent of the great Kennecott copper deposits was not pubic knowledge. But the valley was economically doomed until the oil pipeline came along 36 years later. By the next year--1939--this would become obvious.

The possibility to return remained at least until the railroad bed deteriorated to the point where it was no longer even close to economical to fix it. The last caretaker did not abandon Kennecott until 1952. Even years later in the late 1960s a latter-day mining company conducted extensive exploration with core sample drilling inside those same abandoned mines, especially on the Mother Lode side where it was still believed that a large vein of copper might lie hidden just out of sight of the old Kennecott company that no longer existed.

The abandoned Kennecott mill in 1946: Even then most everything was left in place--just in case. This is one of my best pictures of the mill, taken by W.A. Richelsen, last superintendent of Kennecott, who took an inspection trip to the site in that year.  Yes, there is a link to a much-larger image here. GREAT photo, is it not ? 

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