Stephen Birch and the Kennecott Copper Mine

"The story only began with the finding of the riches, then the question was, how to bring it out from its fastnesses?"

“One should not underestimate Mr. Birch’s ability as a financier and high grade business man, even on Wall Street. While he organized the Morgan-Guggenheim Alaska Syndicate, he was not a mere employee therein — he was the third member of the Syndicate and furnished the ideas and the rules upon which its copper trust and business was based. He furnished these ideas and plans and carried them to success, while the New York partners merely furnished capital.” —James Wickersham, in a letter to Ernest Gruening, 1938

Frontier historian and photographer Clarence L. Andrews wrote in his magnum opus history of the northland, The Story of Alaska (Lowman & Hanford Co., Seattle, 1931), “The copper of that region had been known for more than one hundred years before the discovery was made. Baranof knew of it and collected metal from the Indians to cast a bell (1795). The finding of the Mountains of Red Metal was one of the parts of the story of the Trail of Ninety-Eight, when the gold-seekers passed through the Copper River Valley in the effort to reach the Klondike, and some of them tarried and found copper. Not only were the rich deposits of copper glance and bornite discovered in those stupendous mountains threaded with glaciers, but pure copper in masses of tons in weight, silver in nuggets, and placer gold. The story only began with the finding of the riches, then the question was, how to bring it out from its fastnesses?” 

 An exploratory party formed by R. F. McClellan in 1898 made the original location of the huge copper deposits. In the late summer of 1899 the Nikolai group of copper mines on a branch of the Chitina Fork of the Copper River was located, and in 1900 explorations culminated in the discovery of the Bonanza mines some 200 miles northeast of Valdez. Mining engineer Stephen Birch was in Valdez when the exploration company returned there in the fall of 1900. He was greatly impressed by their reports of the unique outcrop of the Bonanza, and when one of the owners needed cash he bought a small interest in the mine.

In a slim biography titled Ghosts of Kennecott: The Story of Stephen Birch (©1990, Elizabeth A. Tower, Anchorage), 1996 Alaska Historian of the Year Elizabeth Tower told of Birch’s childhood, which would play a large role in his future: “Birch was born in 1872 in New York. He was the second son out of six children. His father was a Union Army sergeant who died when Stephen was only ten years old. Three years after her husband's death, Stephen's mother moved her six children from Brooklyn to Mahwah, New Jersey, to be near relatives. The young Birches quickly became friends with the children of their neighbors, Theodore Havemeyer, the vice-president of American Sugar Refining Company, and his wife Lillie. Mrs. Havemeyer took a special interest in young Stephen, providing financial assistance for his education at Trinity School, New York University, and the Columbia University School of Mines.”

In early 1898 Stephen Birch was working with an engineering team that was surveying for the New York City subway system when he read news of the Klondike gold rush. He decided to go north and, while his friends and family scoffed at the idea, his childhood friend Mrs. Havemeyer took him seriously, and as a result, her son H. O. Havemeyer II and several associates not only offered to pay for his trip north, but made arrangements for a proper connection so there would be no concerns about his safety and welfare. Their intervention on his behalf resulted in young Mr. Birch arriving in Valdez in the early summer of 1898 with a letter of introduction to Capt. W. R. Abercrombie, who was mounting an expedition to explore routes to the Interior of Alaska. Birch was assigned as one of two civilian horse wranglers and packers designated to accompany Lieutenant P. G. Lowe north to the Fortymile River via Mentasta Pass, with the goal of locating a route from Valdez to the Yukon. 

The first stage of the trip was over the treacherous Valdez Glacier, and Lt. Lowe detailed the hazardous trip in his offical report: “By zigzagging I was enabled to find points along the crevasses narrow enough for the horses to jump over. In many places the snow covered the ice, and the crevasses were not discovered until some of the horses had gotten a leg or two in them. Every horse managed to get one of two legs in a number of times, and they practically hung by their ‘eyebrows.’ At times it required the prompt and united efforts of the entire party to rescue them. After some floundering the expedition managed to get through, but we had not an inch too much snow under us.” 

The small party of men traveled north via Copper Center, up the Copper River to the Slana, across Meiklejohn Pass and into the Tanana River drainage, overland to the Fortymile, and they reached the Yukon River on September 25. Three weeks later they arrived at the White Horse Rapids, then traveled across the White Pass Trail and reached the end of construction of the new railroad over the pass. Gratefully climbing aboard, they rode the last 12 miles into Skagway. At the end of the journey Stephen Birch returned to New York, but he knew he would return the following summer. Meanwhile, he continued his studies at the Columbia University School of Mines, financed by his old friend, Mrs. Havemeyer. 

In the spring of 1899 Capt. Abercrombie received an order: “Capt. W. R. Abercrombie, Second Infantry, commanding Copper River Exploring Expedition, accompanied by Stephen Birch, guide, will proceed at once to Fort Keogh and Livingston, Montana, there inspect, accept, and brand such pack horses, not to exceed 30 head, as come up to the required standard. On completion of this duty Capt. Abercrombie, accompanied by Guide Birch, will proceed to Seattle, Wash. The travel enjoined is necessary for the public service.” 

So Stephen Birch returned to Valdez as a horse-packer. The government was building a military road through Keystone Canyon and over Thompson Pass, which gave Birch more opportunities to explore the Copper River country. Returning to his studies at Columbia University that winter, Birch was once again in the Valdez area in the summer of 1900. 

Addison Powell, resting his chin in hand second from the left, with friends and a large nugget of copper found on Nugget Creek, in the Wrangell Mountains, summer of 1902. [Photos are from Addison Powell’s book, Trailing and Camping in Alaska, Wessels & Bissell, 1909]

On July 22 two prospectors in the McLellan partnership, Clarence Warner and “Tarantula” Jack Smith, were prospecting in the Mt. Blackburn area, at the headwaters of the Kennicott River, when they made a fabulous discovery, a huge outcropping of copper ore which they named the “Bonanza.” Returning to Valdez that fall, they set about searching for investors for that claim and others, and Jack Smith described the Bonanza find to Birch: “Mr. Birch, we’ve got a mountain of copper up there. There’s so much of the stuff sticking out of the ground that it looks like a green sheep-pasture in Ireland when the sun is shining at its best!” 

Stephen Birch believed Smith, and when the opportunity arose to buy an interest a few weeks later, Birch made his move and purchased a one-eleventh share in the claim. He returned to Valdez in the early spring of 1901 to personally inspect the claims, describing the trip in a 1940 letter to Ernest Gruening: “In April, 1901, I started in with R. F. McLellan. There were no trails in the country and we had to travel on foot a distance of more than 200 miles. It was a hard trip as I think of it now, but mining engineers are prepared for that kind of thing.”

Birch liked what he found, and the following winter he traveled around the country to find the other shareholders and purchase as many options as he could. After a visit to the claims by mining experts from New York and California, Birch retraced his journey to exercise his options and purchase the claims from the prospectors, once again with backing from his friends, the Havemeyers. In total, Birch bought 21 claims and in 1903 he consolidated them as the Alaska Copper and Coal Company. 

Equipment and supplies had to be hauled in by boat and horse team to the remote site at the base of the Kennicott Glacier, so Birch began looking into options. In the summer of 1904 he surveyed routes for a railroad, and over the next couple of years he continued developing the prospects while searching for investors. With his friend Judge James Wickersham, Birch went to visit Daniel Guggenheim, who was interested in mining properties and planning to go to Alaska in the early summer of 1906. Upon his return to New York, Guggenheim joined with the House of Morgan to form the Alaska Syndicate, which would provide development capital for Birch’s plans. The Syndicate purchased a 40% interest in Birch’s Alaska Copper and Coal Company, the Copper River and Northwestern Railway, and a 46.2% interest in the Northwestern Commercial Company, whose steamships could transport the copper ore to a smelter in Tacoma, Washington, which the Guggenheim interests already owned. Stephen Birch was named one of three Managing Directors of the Alaska Syndicate, in charge of the Kennecott Mining Company. As the Syndicate set about building a railroad from Cordova up the Copper River and between the Miles and Childs Glaciers, Elizabeth A. Tower described what Stephen Birch was doing in her book, Ghosts of Kennecott

“Birch forged ahead with development of his mine. All supplies for buildings and tramways were brought by pack train over Marshall Pass from Valdez to the Copper River, where they could be loaded on boats and carried up the Copper, Chitina, and Nizina Rivers. In order to assist construction of the mine and upper reaches of the railroad before completion of the bridge between the glaciers, the steamship Chittyna was carried over the pass in pieces by pack train during the winter of 1907. In 1907 Birch and his workmen built the general manager’s office and a storehouse, and the next year they added a sawmill, bunkhouse, blacksmith shop, and the tramway terminal. When the railroad tracks reached Abercrombie Landing on the lake in front of Miles Glacier, Birch was able to send ore samples by boat to meet trains that carried them to the port at Cordova. Foreseeing the eventual need for a settlement at the junction of the Copper and Chitina Rivers, Birch homesteaded a site for the town of Chitina in 1908.” 

The Kennecott mines were among the nation’s largest and richest, built upon an ore deposit whose quality was unequaled anywhere. On April 8, 1911, the first trainload of copper was shipped from Kennecott in 32 railroad cars, valued at $250,000. Five years later, in 1916, the mine produced $28,042,396 worth of copper and was classed among the nation’s largest. On April 12, 1915, the Guggenheim and Morgan interests formed the Kennecott Copper Corporation, with holdings to include the Kennecott Mines Company, the Copper River and Northwestern Railway, the Alaska Steamship Company, and Stephen Birch became the first president of the corporation. 

On June 24, 1916, at the age of 44, Stephen Birch married the daughter of a prominent Minnesota family, Mary C. Rand, almost 15 years his junior. His lifelong friend H.O. Havemeyer II was Birch’s best man. Stephen Birch planned an elaborate honeymoon trip to Alaska for his bride, complete with a specially remodelled room on the steamship Mariposa, a private railcar on the CR&NW Railway, and a slendid cottage at the Kennecott mine, in anticipation of spending several weeks in Alaska. But Mary Birch insisted on returning to New York almost immediately, and there is no record of her ever returning. 

The couple had two children, also named Stephen and Mary, but in 1930 Mary Birch died of cancer when they were only 12 and 13. Stephen moved to a 730-acre estate near where he’d grown up in New Jersey and his sister Emily moved in to care for the children. The Kennecott Copper Company continued to prosper, and Stephen Birch continued acquiring properties. 

When the Kennecott mines were closed in 1938, after producing an estimated $200 million worth of copper, the profits had provided the capital for the corporation to purchase mines in Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and South America, and the Kennecott Copper Corporation became the nation’s largest copper company and an international force in the metals market. 

In his autobiography of his northland travels, God’s Loaded Dice (Caxton, 1948), Edward Morgan wrote, “Of all the many sourdoughs I met in my 30 years in the North, Birch was the most romantic and inscrutable figure. Thirty-odd years ago a prospector warming his beans in a skillet over a fire on the Arctic trail, he became a millionaire many times over, a power only less potent in the political world than in the mining world, and the most outstanding personality in all Alaska. Yet in New York, where he worked eighteen hours a day when not traveling over the country inspecting his vast properties, his name meant less to the general public than that of a fairly prosperous broker on Wall Street. And that was as Stephen Birch would have it. Years ago Jack London and Rex Beach told me that, attracted by the glamour of his Alaskan exploits, they had asked Birch’s permission to write his life. He refused them with so much finality that they did not insist.”  ~•~