Copper River & Northwestern Railway
The copper ore that filled the Copper River & Northwest Railway rail cars was discovered near what later became the town of Kennicott. Named after the nearby glacier of the same name, Kennicott is now a virtual ghost town and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986. It is considered the best remaining example of early 20th century copper mining. From 1911 to 1938, nearly $200 million worth of copper ore was processed in the mine, which is spelled Kennecott because of a clerical error. No gambling or drinking was allowed in the company town, so nearby McCarthy, about four miles away, became a destination for those seeking saloons and pool halls.
Both towns are located inside Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, on Alaska’s border with Canada’s Yukon. Wrangell-St. Elias is the largest national park in the United States, more than double the size of Denali National Park at 13.2 million acres. McCarthy, population 53, now provides travelers with restaurants, lodging and guided opportunities to explore the park’s wilderness and glaciers. Other options include rafting, glacier trekking, sportfishing, historical tours and flightseeing trips.
Visitors can reach the towns by plane, or by car via the Edgerton Highway, a short, 33-mile paved stretch of road between the Richardson Highway and the beginning of the McCarthy Road. Where the pavement ends sits the town of Chitina, and and from there you can either continue along the McCarthy Road by car or opt to take a quick flight into McCarthy. (Shuttle service to McCarthy is also available from Glennallen, a highway town about 30 miles north of the turnoff to the Edgerton Highway.) A Copper River & Northwest Railroad bed is the foundation for the unpaved McCarthy Road and provides travelers a chance to marvel at the soaring Chugach Mountains. A highlight of the trip is the Kuskulana River Bridge, a structure built in 1910 that spans 525 feet and a sizable gorge. The McCarthy Road ends at a footbridge across the Kennicott River, with a short walk to the town of McCarthy.
The copper from the Kennecott Mines was transported down the Copper River & Northwest Railway to Cordova, Cordova, where it would then be shipped to smelters in Tacoma, Wash. Located on the east coast of Prince William Sound, Cordova is now a fishing community with around 2,000 residents. It is accessible only by boat or plane, including direct flights from Anchorage and Juneau. Many visitors also elect to drive the Richardson Highway to nearby Valdez and then take a short flight or ferry ride over to Cordova.
Once you’re in Cordova, rent a car or take a guided tour down the 50-mile Copper River Highway. A former Copper River & Northwest Railroad bed, the mostly gravel road accesses the Copper River Delta, a hotspot for hiking, fishing and birding. The delta is a prime location during spring and fall migrations, with millions of birds stopping in the area to rest. Birders from around the world attend the Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival during the first weekend in May to witness the spring migration.
The highway is also a great way to see the magnificent Childs Glacier, which is one of the most active glaciers in Alaska. An observation deck lets visitors admire the glacier and watch for “calving,” which describes the phenomenon of massive chunks of ice breaking off the face of the glacier as it slowly advances and crashing dramatically into the Copper River.
Farther down the road is the Million Dollar Bridge, a four-span trestle bridge completed in 1910. The bridge was created as part of the Copper River & Northwest Railroad route and was perceived as risky because movement of the Childs and Miles glaciers could threaten it. The glaciers never overtook the bridge, but it was no match for the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake. After being severely damaged, the structure has since been rehabilitated and is now suitable for vehicle and foot traffic. With glaciers positioned up and downstream, it remains a stunning sight.
For more information on McCarthy and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, click here. To learn more about Cordova, click here.