This aerial of McCarthy is from 1974. The town sits at the toe of Kennicott Glacier in Wrangell-St. Elias National Preserve. Photo by Nancy Simmerman
The following edited excerpt is printed with permission from the book Cold Mountain Path: The Ghost Town Decades of McCarthy-Kennecott, Alaska (Porphyry Press, 2021).
The Hermit Kingdom – March 1983
On my first trip to McCarthy, I sat in the noisy fuselage of a small Cessna while dawn filled the white mountains below. We landed on a remote airstrip under a sun with no warmth. Snow boots squeaked in single-digit cold. A shoveled path led toward a house of plywood and Visqueen plastic, where locals gathered once a week to wait for the mail plane. The path was blocked by police tape. I held my Anchorage Daily News reporter’s pad in my ski glove, but there seemed to be no locals to interview. The wounded had been flown out. I stood on the runway talking to an Alaska state trooper and a national park ranger. Authorities had not yet released the names of the dead. Laid out carefully in the snow were three heavy vinyl black bags.
Like most people who had lived in the north for any amount of time, I’d heard of McCarthy. It was a boomtown back in a picture book era of copper mines and ore trains, abandoned now—but not entirely. After the Great Depression, after the Kennecott Copper Corporation left and the rails were torn out, a small, isolated community had carried on, into the modern pipeline era, as a kind of rumor. McCarthy had a reputation as a hermit kingdom, contrary and self-reliant, where settlers tougher than the rest of us were salvaging, in postapocalyptic fashion, the rusted relics of a profligate past.
I looked around. This cold periphery of the modern world seemed utterly cut off—no stores, no phones, no law enforcement. Tiny, backward McCarthy, accessible by small plane or a rough summer road, was the only human settlement inside a protected mountain wilderness much bigger than Switzerland.
A trooper pointed into the woods. I walked twenty minutes along the crusted ribbon of a snowmachine track until I found a few false-front buildings. Barking dogs drew me to Bonnie Morris’s small log cabin, snowbound in a grove of bare poplars. Furs hung from pegs by the door.
There weren’t two dozen people living in the whole valley that winter, Bonnie said. She told me about two young newlyweds up toward the Kennecott mining camp, just home from their honeymoon. Bonnie had brought them a mincemeat pie with a heart carved on top. There was an older couple who opened their home as a community center on mail day every week. And Maxine Edwards, who lived across the river. She taught Bonnie how to turn deprivation into an elegant dinner party. Maxine caught a ride to mail that day on Bonnie’s dog sled. Bonnie’s lead dog was in heat, so she handed off her outgoing envelopes and turned homeward. Maxine promised to stop by for cookies later on.
Bonnie and her boyfriend, Malcolm, never heard the mail plane buzz the town. That was unusual. Maxine never stopped by. Eventually, Bonnie and Malcolm went up the creek to cut cabin logs and smelled smoke, and that was unusual, too, so far from town. They heard a few gunshots, but those were not unusual sounds in the woods around McCarthy.
After dark, making dinner by kerosene lamp, they tuned in the Christian station in Glennallen—the only radio signal they could get—and learned that six people had been killed in McCarthy. No names. They counted through their neighbors.
“About that time the helicopter came circling overhead, shining its beam down into the woods,” Bonnie said. “We thought there was somebody still out there. We were huddled under the bed. Finally the troopers found us. We were the only light, the only surviving couple in town.”
When I got back to the airstrip, a local man, middle-aged and gentle-voiced, stood beside the propeller of the chartered Cessna, speaking with the troopers. He looked perfectly comfortable on that bright, cold afternoon in a navy watch cap, a heavy quilted jacket and overpants, and sunglasses.
Jim Edwards had lived in McCarthy longer than anyone alive. He had flown out here as a young man, not so many years after the last train left the country, and the old-timers he met then, the ones who stayed when everybody left, now lay in the local cemetery. He helped bury them.
Then he raised a family of his own, at a homestead just across the river. When his son and daughter grew up and moved away, he and his wife opened their home to the young people who started moving into the valley. Nothing’s simple here, he said, so the simplicity-in-nature crowd never stuck around long. But good people had made this their home.
This was always a special valley, Jim Edwards told me, with a gleam of unextinguished pioneer hope. He was the ghost in Alaska’s rearview mirror. McCarthy could get through this, he said.
The city beckoned. Jim Edwards’s story would have to wait. I had to fly back over the mountains, sketching out in the noisy little plane a tale about a lone gunman and a heart carved in a mincemeat pie. I could already picture my dramatic arrival in the newsroom just before deadline.
Jim Edwards asked for a favor. His voice trembled. Would I track down his son, who worked in a hangar at Merrill Field? He wrote a note on my reporter’s pad and tore off the page and folded it.
Flying above the summits in the sinking light, I was buffeted, more torn by conflicting emotions than I had ever been on a newspaper assignment. Thrilled, with the impervious zeal of a cop reporter, to be bringing my editors a story from a lost world. And terrified to be carrying the news to Jim Edwards’s son that his mother was dead.