Wrangell St. Elias: The Alaskan syndicate

In 1900 prospectors Clarence Warner and ‘Tarantula’ Jack Smith were exploring next to Kennicott glacier. Jack Smith wrote the following letter to Stephen Birch.
‘Mr. Birch, I’ve got a mountain of copper up there. There’s so much of the stuff sticking out of the ground that it looks like a green sheep pasture in Ireland when the sun is shining at it’s best.”

The only problem, of course, was transportation. How do you get the green fields of copper out and to market? Well Birch started working on that by constructing a railroad the two hundred miles from Valdez, Alaska to the Bonaza Mine.

In 1906 it became apparent that Birch would need more financial support to create the railroad. With that he reached out to J.P. Morgan and Simon Guggenheim and the Alaskan Syndicate was formed. Building a railroad out to the Bonanza mine was no simple task. Birch hauled an entire steamship, piece by piece, over the mountains from Valdez to the Copper River so that they could begin mining ore before the railroad was completed. Between the difficult terrain and the forty below zero degree temperatures the railroad was an engineering miracle. It was completed four years after construction began and shortly after it’s completion it brought $250,000 worth of copper ore out in its first load. Over the life of the Kennicott Mine it is thought to have made $200 million, or $3 billion in today’s dollars.  There was little love for Guggenmorgan or Morgenheim, as they were called in political cartoons. After their copper investments they controlled a large part of Alaskan steamship and rail transportation in addition to a large part of the salmon industry.

The Alaskan Syndicate causes me to have a lot of different feelings. On one hand they were relentless in their pursuit of profits. They saw an opportunity, seized it and made a lot of money. On the other hand, their railroad is what became the McCarthy Road, and they are responsible for opening up this beautiful place to the world.  It’s not a new story. What happens when the environment meets a titan of industry? Quite frankly, industry usually wins. Lucky for us, they ran out of copper to mine in 1938 and left it alone afterwards. What would Kennicott look like if they found gold? I am typing this post on my Apple computer, and will post it using my iPhone. I realize that the rare earth metals found in Africa are what helps make these products works. I realize that our desire for these products is what motivates and incentivizes industry to go out and do these things. How do we change that cycle? Will we stop before it’s too late? We always want more, more, more. When will we say enough is enough is enough?