McCarthy Road and the Kuskulana Bridge

We departed Glennallen in the Jeep early Thursday morning, August 2, leaving the RV behind for a few days while we went on an excursion to the remote Kennecott copper mill company town and its sister sin-city, McCarthy. The 65-mile drive from Glennallen to Chitina, where we stopped for gas at a 24-hour automated station, took a little over an hour on the well-maintained Richardson and Edgerton Highways.

But for the most part, the pavement stops in Chitina at the beginning of the 62-mile McCarthy Road, although 18 miles of the road are now paved. From there on, the McCarthy Road is mostly a graded road all the way to its terminus at the Kennicott River. The McCarthy Road came into existence in the 1960s, some 30 years after the right-of-way of the Copper River & Northwestern Railroad over which it traverses was abandoned in 1938. The CR&NW was a 196-mile standard gauge railroad built between 1906 and 1911 that connected Cordova on Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska with the copper mines and mill being developed simultaneously at that time on Bonanza Ridge, deep in the Wrangell Mountains.

The railroad was designed by “Big Mike” Heney, the builder of the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush vintage Yukon & White Pass Railroad that we traveled on when we were in Skagway. Heney’s plan in 1906 when he started construction in Cordova was to take the railroad to Eagle in the interior of Alaska, following the Copper River north from the Gulf to Chitina, but that project ran into problems due to a border dispute between the U.S. and Canada. Simultaneously, the owners of the newly-formed Alaska Syndicate, the New York financiers, JP Morgan and the Guggenheims, owners of the mine at Bonanza Ridge, determined that Cordova was the best outlet for shipping their copper ore off to Tacoma, Washington, for smelting. They bought Heney out, changed the route, and spent $23 million completing the railroad to bring it to their mine and mill on Bonanza Ridge – now called Kennecott – from which they successfully extracted enough copper ore to make over $100 million in profit, roughly $1 billion in today’s dollars.

At Chitina, there was a tunnel just before the railroad bridge over the Copper River, but after closure of the Kennecott mill and abandonment of the railroad in 1938 when the ore ran out, the tunnel was blown up, creating a narrow pocket canyon for a one-lane road to pass through. Sometime in the 1960s, the old tracks were pushed aside and the railroad bed was used as a road. In 1971, a new bridge over the Copper River was constructed by the Alaska Highway Department and the railroad bed was covered with gravel to make a better driving surface. It’s that road we were driving on.

Here’s a photo of the braided Kotsina River delta at its confluence with the Copper River, just past the bridge. From here, the McCarthy Road heads east along the north bank of the Chitina River.

Seventeen miles from Chitina, the McCarthy Road crosses the Kuskulana River, 238 feet below, on a 600-foot-long steel-girder railroad bridge constructed in 1910. The construction crews were working around the clock in the winter of that year in absolutely brutal conditions, often in darkness by the glow of acetylene lights, the thermometer reaching below -50°F. The crews strung a cable across the canyon that they used to transfer construction materials and equipment and men across the camyon so they could build simultaneously from both sides. Amazingly, they completed the bridge in a mere two months, finishing on New Years Day 1911!

After the railroad was abandoned in 1938, automobiles precariously crossed the Kuskulana Bridge on old wooden decking laid over the steel with no protection from a fall off the edge to certain death. In 1988, the bridge was re-decked, still with wood, and guardrails were also installed. Even with the guardrails this is a hair-raising crossing.

When we were in Glennallen, we stopped at the Wrangell-St.Elias NP Visitor Center and a ranger there gave us a CD-ROM with a narrated tour to listen to as we drove the McCarthy Road. At the Kuskulana Bridge, the narrator invited travelers to explore the catwalk under the bridge, saying that you “might need a hand from a friend to climb up to the catwalk.” We parked after crossing, then hiked down to the base of the bridge. The way up to the catwalk begins at the concrete foundation you see where the wood trestle ends and the steel girders begin.

“Might need a hand from a friend” could be the understatement of the year. I doubt anybody but us has tried getting up on that catwalk since the snow melted around here! After boosting Dale up, I scrambled up the slick, 6-foot high foundation as Dale squeezed through the criss-crossed girders to get to the catwalk.

We made it, only to find out that getting up on the catwalk was the easy part. Walking out over the river, unsure if the catwalk was maintained anymore or if it might come unbolted and launch us into the roiling waters below was the real test!

After scrambling back down and catching our breath, we continued our drive, stopping briefly in hopes of finding grazing moose in this slough over permafrost a few miles further down the road. No luck.

We passed another railroad bridge at Gilahina River, this one built of wood by 6,000 men and completed in just 8 days. Finally, after about 2 hours after leaving Chitina, we reached the parking area, then the pedestrian bridge across the Kennicott River.

From the pedestrian bridge, I took this photo looking up river at the Kennicott and Root Glaciers; we will hike on the Root Glacier later in the day.

Although we will be staying 5 miles up the road from the pedestrian bridge in the mining company town called Kennecott, the town of McCarthy is just a little over half a mile from the bridge. The two towns and the mine developed together in the early 1900s, Kennecott for living quarters and McCarthy, well, for making the work endurable. Back in the day, McCarthy was lined with saloons, restaurants, bordellos, hotels, pool halls and shops, everything a single young miner could ask for. It looks little different today, with the exception of the new outhouse.

While the bordellos and pool halls are gone now, the hotel, saloons and restaurants are still there. We, however, are staying in the company town up the road with the “respectable” folks for the next 2 nights at the Kennicott Glacier Lodge in rebuilt mine managers’ and mill foremen’s apartments.

Happy to have arrived, we sat on the veranda overlooking the rock and silt covered Kennicott Glacier while eating lunch.

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