Photographing Alaska’s vanishing boomtowns

London-based photographer Paul Scannell trekked across Alaska to capture traces of its mining history

Photo courtesy of Paul Scannell

The byways of the United States are dotted with “historic villages” and other domesticated recreations of frontier life. When London-based photographer Paul Scannell came to Alaska, he went looking for the real thing. Thriving copper-mining and gold-prospecting towns sprang up across Alaska after the completion of the Copper River and Northwestern Railway in 1911. Twenty-seven years later, the abrupt closure of the Kennecott copper mine led many workers to abandon their homes, leaving furniture, clothing and vehicles to a slow decay. In “Abandoned Alaska: Copper, Gold, and Rust,” Scannell captures the details of mining life, preserved for nearly a century by their isolation in the Alaska wilderness.

“There’s an almost universal fascination with derelict buildings,” Scannell said. “I don’t know anybody who doesn’t want to see a photograph of the Titanic on the bottom of the ocean — I don’t know anybody who doesn’t raise an eyebrow to that.”

Much of Scannell’s usual work consists of photographing high-priced London residences, pristine spaces that lack the whiff of history. Scannell prefers shooting run-down Victorian or Georgian houses that seem to have only just been vacated by their prior residents — dwellings with a history that can almost be tasted on the air. At seven mining sites around Alaska, Scannell found living spaces shielded from disruption by freezing temperatures and their remote cliffside locations.

Photo courtesy of Paul Scannell

“I felt like I was in a ‘real’ museum,” Scannell said. “It’s important to be able to really see those places, isn’t it? It’s not a caricature. When you go to some museums, you come across a caricature of the past, whereas this was real.”

The eight-month process of assembling “Abandoned Alaska” had Scannell scrambling up icy bluffs to enter precarious mountaintop outposts, some of which were already half-collapsed. In a bunkhouse at the former Erie Mine, Scannell’s camera captured a casually discarded rubber boot, an empty jam jar and a still-unburnt candle. At the once-prosperous Jumbo Mine, bunkhouse interiors leaned at an alarming angle, seemingly threatening to disintegrate into a pile of timber at any moment.

“I simply couldn’t believe what I found,” Scannell said. “The Erie bunkhouse, for example — that it could still exist on the side of that cliff. And it could be gone at any moment.”

With extensive assistance from Patt Garrett, a volunteer at the McCarthy-Kennecott Historical Museum, and from other area residents, Scannell stitched together his photographs with historical background details and anecdotes from his travels. Scannell intends to make a habit of visiting Alaska, he said.

“Abandoned Alaska: Copper, Gold, and Rust” can be purchased from Arcadia Publishing, a publishing house specializing in photographic histories of American communities.