Wrangell-St.Elias National Park - History

Be informed before embarking into our beloved national parks.

Who Were Wrangell and St. Elias?

The Wrangell Mountains were named after Baron Ferdinand Petrovich von Wrangell (1796-1870), who was a Russian Naval officer, arctic explorer , and government administrator. He was highly critical of the sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867. Lt. Henry T. Allen was the one to actually name the Wrangell Mountains during his exploration of the Copper Basin in 1885.

The St. Elias Mountains were named by explorer Vitus Bering(1681-1741). Bering was a Danish explorer under Russian employ who oversaw the exploration and mapping of the far reaches of Siberia and headed an expedition across the sea (which later was to bear his name) to Alaska. In 1741, Bering sighted massive coastal mountains on July 16, which was the feast day of Saint Elias and eventually the mountains came to be called Mt. St. Elias.

A Brief History of Wrangell-St. Elias Nat’l Park

Archeological evidence indicated that humans entered the Wrangell Mountains about 1000 AD. The Ahtna people settled in small groups along the course of the Copper River. A few Upper Tanana speakers settled along the Nabesna and Chisana Rivers. The Eyak people settled near the mouth of the Copper River on the Gulf of Alaska. Along the coast, the Tlingit people dispersed, with some settling at Yakutat Bay.

The first Europeans in the area were Russian explorers and traders. Vitus Bering landed in the area in 1741. Fur traders followed. A permanent Russian trading post was established in 1793 on Hinchinbrook Island near the mouth of the Copper River. A competing post was established in 1796 at Yakutat Bay. Reports that the native people used pure copper tools inspired early Russian explorations of the lower Copper River. The upper river was not reached by outsiders until 1890, when the Copper Fort trading post was established near Taral (downstream of Chitina). A party that departed Taral in 1848 with the intention of reaching the Yukon River was killed by the Ahtna, ending Russian exploration.

The U.S. acquired Alaska from Russia in 1867, but it took the discovery of gold in the Yukon Territory in the 1880s to spur interest in the Wrangell Mountains region. George Holt was the first American known to have explored the lower Copper River, in 1882. In 1884, John Bremner prospected the lower river. That same year, a U.S. Army party led by Lieutenant William Abercrombie attempted to explore the lower river, and found a passage to the country’s interior over a glacier at Valdez Arm. In 1885, Lieutenant Henry Allen fully explored the Copper and Chitina Rivers, eventually crossing the Alaska Range to the Yukon River System and eventually reaching the Bering Sea.

While exploring the Chitina River region, Allen sought out Chief Nicolai, chief of the Copper River Ahtna, at his hunting camp at Dan Creek. Allen and his men were at risk of starvation, and Nicholai rescued them by sharing food supplies. Allen also saw the Ahtna’s copper knives and tools, and some believe that Nicolai showed Allen the source of the native copper.

In 1899, William S. Abercrombie blazed a new trail from Valdez through the Chugach Mountains at Thompson Pass and onward. For the first time, the Copper River headwaters were relatively easy to access. Abercrombie sent Oscar Rohn up the Chitina River, as well. Rohn encountered prospector James McCarthy and named a creek after him in exchange for supplies. He also named the Kennicott Glacier after another explorer and described the valley in detail. His report spurred a great deal of subsequent geological surveys in the region. A year after his 1899 report, prospectors Clarence Warner and Jack Smith discovered Kennecott’s uber-rich Bonanza copper deposit.

The prospectors sold their claims to 28-year old Stephen Birch, a mining engineer from New York sent to Alaska to look for investment opportunities for the wealthy Havermayer family. Birch, confident that money could be made, set out to gain clear title to the claims and obtain financial backings from the Guggenheims and J.P. Morgan.

Construction of the 196-Mile Copper River and Northwestern Railroad (jokingly called the Can’t Run and Never Will) from Kennecott to Cordova began in 1907. The railroad would allow supplies to come into the mines and ore to go out.

The construction challenge was massive. The railroad had to span rivers, mountains, and active glaciers on its way to Kennecott from the coast. Construction of the railroad was awarded to Michael J. “Big Mike” Heney who had completed the famous Yukon and White Pass Railroad from Skagway . This fierce Irishman ensured the first trains rolled into Kennecott four years later. In the meantime, Stephen Birch had been busy. Despite the inhospitable terrain, he had managed to transport enough equipment into Kennecott to begin mining. When the train finally arrived, he loaded it with copper ore valued at $250,000. With the key link complete, production ramped up.

Kennecott was a company town. Most miners lived in company housing and everything revolved around mining operations. The town was a “dry” town and miners were not allowed to bring their families. Nearby, the town of Shushana Junction began developing. This small town eventually changed its name to McCarthy and became the site of a turnaround station for the railroad. McCarthy was quite a miner and railroader town, with all the “entertainment” a young man on the frontier might want. Restaurants, hotels, saloons, pool halls, a dress shop, shoe shop, garage, hardware store, and red light district all served more than 800 people in the area. Kennecott and McCarthy coexisted for the 27 years that Kennecott operated. Traditions from those days, such as the 4th of July ball game, are still carried out today.

By 1938, after selling a staggering $200 million in ore, the rich copper deposits were depleted and the mines of Kennecott and with this the railroad-ceased operations. Because of high transportation costs, the mill town was abandoned along with almost everything in it. Dishes were left on tables, medical records were left in the hospital, and mining equipment was abandoned in situ. In the years that followed, several groups attempted to resume mining operations in the area, but the high cost of transportation from such a remote area proved too much. Things became pretty quiet until the 1970s when tourism began to develop.

Approximately 25%, or 5000 square miles, of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve is surfaced by glaciers. This amounts to about 60% of the glacier ice in the entire state of Alaska.
History of the National Park

Though it would take decades to come to fruition, the first seeds leading to the creation of Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park were sown almost as soon as the last train left Kennecott. After a flight over the area in 1938, Ernest Gruening, Director of U.S. Territories at the time and later Alaska’s governor and a U.S. Senator, recommended the area as a national park or monument. In a memorandum to the Secretary of the Interior, he described the area: “The region is superlative in its scenic beauty and measures up fully and beyond the requirements for its establishment as a National Monument and later as a National Park. It is my personal view that from the standpoint of scenic beauty, it is the finest region in Alaska. I have traveled through Switzerland extensively, have flown over the Andes, and am familiar with the Valley of Mexico and with other parts of Alaska. It is my unqualified view that this is the finest scenery that I have ever been privileged to see.”

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter declared the area a National Monument because of its cultural and scientific significance. When Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980, the area became part of the 13.2 million acre Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the largest in the U.S. Wrangell-St. Elias is one of the four contiguous conservation units spanning some 24 million acres that have been recognized by the United Nations as an international World Heritage Site. The original 1978 designation included Wrangell-St. Elias and Kluane National Park Reserve in Canada’s Yukon Territory. In 1993, both Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve and the Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park in British Colombia were added to that designation. Altogether, it is the largest internationally protected area in the world.

"As long as I live, I'll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I'll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I'll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can."
— John Muir