The year was 1900. Jack Smith and Clarence Warner, two prospectors, spotted a large green spot on the mountainside between the Kennicott Glacier and McCarthy Creek. What looked like a patch of green grass turned out to be one of the richest deposits of copper ore ever found!
Stephen Birch, a young mining engineer looking for Alaskan claims in 1901, was approached by Smith to make an inspection of his findings. Eventually, Birch got the backing of men such as the Guggenheim brothers and J.P. Morgan who bought the existing claims. In 1906 Kennecott Mines Company was formed, which later became Kennecott Copper Corporation. (The mining company was supposed to take the name of the glacier which was named after Robert Kennicott, an early Alaskan explorer, but the company name was misspelled. The town and glacier are spelled Kennicott but the mines and company are spelled Kennecott.)
The next hurdle was to transport the copper ore from the mines to the coastal town of Cordova, where it would be shipped to Tacoma, Washington, by the Alaska Steamship Company for smelting. Michael J. Heney, a master railroad builder, was called upon to oversee the construction of the Copper River Northwestern Railway. Construction began the Spring of 1908 at Cordova and stretched 196 miles to the Kennecott mines.
The CR & NW, though jokingly called "Can't Run and Never Will," did run; in fact, it transported approximately 200 million dollars worth of copper ore.
The town of Kennicott began to grow quickly until there were 300 people in the mill camp with 200 - 300 miners up in the mines about 3 miles away. A hospital, a store, grade school, dental office, dairy, and bunkhouses were built along with other buildings needed for the mines' operations. A recreation hall was provided which served the residents with a variety of entertainment. There were town dances, Christmas festivities, winter basketball games, picture shows, an ice-skating rink, ball field, and a tennis court to name a few! Kennicott was a company town with a reputation as being very proper and containing strict conduct rules.
Meanwhile, down the hill about 5 miles another town was being born. McCarthy, which was originally called Shushana Junction but later renamed, was also growing into quite a miners' and railroaders' town. Restaurants, pool halls, hotels, saloons, two newspapers, a dress shop, a photography shop, garage and auto repair shop, shoe shop, hardware store, and others sprung up. They provided services to more than 800 people in the area.
Because the Kennecott Copper Corporation couldn't compete with the falling prices of copper, they officially closed down the mines in 1938. Train service was also discontinued. November of the same year the last train left Kennicott for Cordova taking most of the remaining people.
A few years later the Company did an amazing thing! They voluntarily gave the CR & NW right-of-way to the federal government in 1941. It was given for the purpose of creating a public highway — a gift to the people of Alaska.
Today, McCarthy and much of Kennicott are privately owned. They are surrounded by the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve which was established in 1980. The area has about 50 year-round residents with more arriving for the summer tourist season.