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William Cronon

Kennecott Journey

For my second shipboard lecture, I was eager to share with our company an essay of mine that in fact originated from my very first trip to Alaska in the mid-1980s. I first visited this land as a faculty member accompanying a group of Yale alumni on a cruise through Southeast that culminated with a flight to Anchorage and a visit to Denali. My wife Nan and I wanted to do some hiking once the Yale trip was over, so we arranged with a guide to spend several days hiking in Wrangell - St. Elias National Park, the largest such park in the United States -- roughly the size of Massachusetts! We began our hike with a visit to a ghost town called Kennecott beside an immense glacier bearing that same name. The trip to our trailhead involved driving more than sixty miles over an abandoned railroad bed to reach this former mining town in the heart of one of one of the deepest wilderness areas on the North American continent. I came away haunted by the place, and wound up writing an essay entitled "Kennecott Journey: The Paths Out of Town," which appeared in a book I co-edited entitled Under An Open Sky: Rethinking America's Western Past (W. W. Norton, 1992). Because the essay is one of the best I've ever written not just about Alaska but about my chosen field of environmental history, I wanted to share it with my shipmates as an example of the work I do and of what history can teach us about environmental change in this and other landscapes.

Although Kennecott is nearly 200 miles inland from the coast along which we've been cruising, and so might not seem only distantly related to the Harriman Expedition Retraced, in fact, it could hardly be more relevant. In 1900, a pair of prospectors discovered at this site one of the richest deposits of copper ore that the world has ever known. The result of their find was the construction of the great processing mill at Kennecott where the copper was prepared for shipment. To carry the ore south to the coast, the New York capitalists who financed the mines also constructed a railroad, and for the next thirty years, Cordova -- one of the towns we visited during the first half of our trip -- became the port connecting the largest copper mine in the world with the markets in the lower 48 where its product was shipped, sold, and used.

In my essay about this remarkable place, I offer a series of questions that can help unlock the environmental and historical secrets that give Kennecott -- and every other human place as well -- its many meanings. What are the characteristics of this ecosystem that enable plants and animals (including people) to live here? How fertile are its soils? How cold and wet is its weather? How long is its growing season? The list is almost endless. Among the most important such questions we can ask about how people live in any place is what parts of its ecosystem they consume for food. As one of my colleagues has remarked, environmental history begins in the belly. The miners who lived at Kennecott sustained themselves with meats and grains and other foods that reached the mine via the same railroad that carried copper to the coast... a very different relationship to the surrounding ecosystems from that the Native people, the Ahtna, for whom this land was home. I think you can learn an immense amount about people by exploring the boundary they draw between "useful" and "useless" things. What parts of nature do they use to sustain their physical and spiritual beings, and what parts of nature do they ignore? Just so do they create a unique human place in nature, a unique way of being in the world. The task of environmental history is to explore the choices human beings make about the places they inhabit, so as better to understand the effects we have on the world around us.

What is so remarkable about Kennecott is the way two substantial towns (Kennecott and McCarthy) sprang up here almost over night with the opening of the copper mines. For thirty years, these communities existed as colonial outposts of an urban-industrial world deep in the heart of the Alaskan wilderness. They created markets for wild game meat that resulted in the hunting out of the surrounding countryside, but for the most part the towns survived by exchanging the only local commodity that mattered to them -- copper -- for everything else they needed to survive here. Then, in the late 1930s, after the world market for copper collapsed and the local veins of ore began to give out, the Kennecott Copper Company simply pulled up stakes and moved on to new sites in Utah and Chile, leaving behind the pair of ghost towns and the abandoned railroad bed that now brings tourists from all over the world into the heart of this magnificent wilderness ... a wilderness that was once the world's largest industrial site for the production of copper for a culture suddenly dependent on a newly discovered form of energy, electricity, capable of being transmitted over a copper wire. The manifold ironies in that fact are among the things that most haunt me as I wander the landscape around Kennecott, and they were much on my mind as we docked at Cordova, where Kennecott copper was transferred onto ships to continue its journey to the south.

This lecture felt especially appropriate to me on August 10 when I delivered it on board the Clipper Odyssey because just the day before we spent an afternoon wandering around the ghost town of Unga in the Aleutian Islands. Because Unga was still fresh in all of our minds, I spent my final fifteen minutes showing pictures I had taken there and contrasting them with historic photos of that community. My "introduction to environmental history" thus also became an exercise in "how to read a ghost town," and we all contributed observations of things we had observed in Unga that might be clues to reconstructing the lives and activities of its former inhabitants.


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For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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