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Chitina, a tiny settlement on the Edgerton Highway, has a history rooted in the copper mining boom years of the early 1900s.
Chitina’s story begins with the first big copper discoveries in the summer of 1900. Two men, Clarence Warner & Jack Smith, were directed to the Kennecott Glacier area (quite a ways from where Chitina eventually sprung up) by the Ahtna people. Here, Smith and Warner discovered high grade copper and staked a dozen claims. As was common in this type of mining, the original claims were then bought up and consolidated under a conglomerate that was financed by four major U.S. banks, including the famous Guggenheims. This conglomerate was known as the “Alaska Syndicate.”
The copper in the Kennecott mines was incredibly rich. An average load of ore was 70% pure and estimates showed enough copper for 6-10 years of production. Even though the potential was so rich, getting the ore to market was a major hurdle for the Alaska Syndicate. The company determined that it had to build a railroad from the Kennecott copper to the ocean and Cordova became the terminal for the railroad. Railroad construction began in 1907.
Now, we come to Chitina! Chitina sprang to life when the rails reached it in 1910. It became a small, bustling Alaska town. Chitina became an important junction town that year when a road was built connecting Chitina and its railroad to the Richardson Road. A wagon from Valdez met the train on a regular schedule, picked up mail, and delivered it along the road to Fairbanks. Tourism businesses picked up passengers in Chitina in wagons – and later in cars – for tours that included sightseeing over Thompson Pass and Keystone Canyon.
In April 1911, the first copper rolled down the new railroad, through Chitina, on its way to Cordova. Early in the development and operation of the Kennecott mines, there was some question about the viability of the mine since it was so expensive to build the railroad and other mining infrastructure. But, new copper discoveries in the region and skyrocketing copper prices during the War years made it a very lucrative business enterprise.
After World War I, copper prices dropped radically. 1932 was last year that the railroad ran in the winter. In 1933 and 1934 very little mining took place. And, in 1938, the Kennecott mining company applied to abandon the railroad. Families moved out of Kennecott, McCarthy, and Chitina, leaving the buildings behind, often full of their household goods.