Abandoned Alaska: 12 Ghost Towns & Ruins of the Last Frontier

(Abandoned Alaska: exploring the ghost ruins of the Last Frontier)

Alaska may be part of the United States, but there’s an undeniable sense of mystery and adventure surrounding this northernmost outpost of America. It’s unlike any other state for a whole bunch of reasons, from wildlife and climate to terrain and seemingly endless winter nights. But one thing this wild land does have in common with its southern neighbours are the ghostly ruins of mankind’s past endeavours. From once-booming mining camps and ghost towns to defunct hotels, military structures and even modern shopping malls, the Last Frontier is a repository of derelict places both old and recent. The state’s motto may be north to the future, but in this article we’re definitely returning to the past. With that in mind, let’s explore some of the most haunting abandoned places in Alaska.

Alaska’s Abandoned Kennecott Mines

Abandoned Alaska: The historic Kennecott Mines

Abandoned Kennecott Mines in Alaska, USA

Rusting old car near the Kennecott Mines (Images: Sewtex; Icewedge; AlaskaNPS)

An abundance of valuable ore hidden in the Alaskan wilderness was discovered in 1900 when two prospectors saw what they initially thought was a green field. But the field was in completely the wrong place. The green colour came from malachite, a green substance used in dyes and decoration. Less than a year after the prospector’ discovered the copper-based mineral, surveys confirmed that the area straddled one of the most valuable patches of copper in the world.

The Kennecott mines were founded amid a raging debate over the value of the copper and the value of the wilderness around it, but money proved a powerful incentive. Between 1980 and 1938, the five now abandoned Alaska mines near Kennecott – Erie, Mother Lode, Jumbo, Bonanza, and the open pit mine Glacier – produced more than 1.1 billion pounds of copper. Nothing lasts forever, though, and eventually the mines ran dry. It didn’t take long for Kennecott and its mines to be closed down, and once the last train pulled out of the station on November 10, 1938, it was the end of the line for Kennecott’s mines. The derelict buildings that remain, nestled amid inhospitable terrain, are an arresting sight, and determined travellers can still visit the abandoned Alaska ghost town today.

Bering Hill Chapel, Adak Island

(Image: Paxson Woelber)

The old Bering Hill Chapel is just one of countless abandoned buildings on Alaska’s Adak Island. When Wired talked to a photographer who had ventured there, he was in awe of this wild place. The photographer, Ben Huff, summed it up in a short and simple statement, stating: “It’s devastatingly beautiful.”

We featured the old Adak Island chapel in 2015, when we reported that the nearby city was trying to secure financing to restore the relatively sound religious building. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen any updates on the simple yet attractive structure since then, but Adak Island is far from forgotten. It was home to around 5,000 people just a few decades ago, and the Bering Hill Chapel was attached to the naval outpost (see below). Built by the United States Army Corp of Engineers at the height of the base’s operation – 1944 – the now abandoned Alaska chapel was used for around 40 years by the men stationed on this remote and beautiful island. Closed in the 1980s and damaged in 2012, it still stands as a reminder of the power of faith to those who live on the edge of the world.

Abandoned Alaska: Bremner Historic Mining District Ruins

The Bremner ruins are among Alaska's most intriguing mining ghost towns

Explore the Bremner Historic Mining District

Abandoned Alaska ruins in the Bremner Historic Mining District (Images: NPS Alaska Region 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

The Bremner Historic Mining District was settled in the heyday of Alaska’s mineral rush, and the haunting remains of this major part of Alaskan history sit just north of the Bremner River. In 1902, it was the site of a major gold discovery, and soon the precious metal brought prospectors and adventurers flocking to the north country.

Now on the US National Register of Historic Places, Bremner still contains historic mining camps and a smattering of small ghost towns and ruined structures. Most of the active mining was done between 1934 and 1941, and while operations began to taper off after that, some miners simply left their equipment, their cars, and their homes right where they sat. The resulting ruins is an eerie time capsule spread out over the four historic Bremner mines, a mill, and the transportation network that connected them.

Each camp in the deserted Bremner Historic Mining District – Grand Prize, Lucky Girl, Yellow Band, and Sheriff – has its own assortment of buildings and ruins, and the most intrepid rural explorers can head out there to hike, trek, and camp, an adventure that takes you right into the heart of Alaska’s gold mining history.

Derelict Buckner Building, Whittier

Alaska's abandoned Buckner Building in Whittier

The Buckner Building

Inside Whittier's derelict Buckner Building

(Images: FairbanksMike 1, 2, 3; davidd)

Whittier is a fascinating place in its own right, and Gizmodo took an up-close-and-personal look at this strangely designed settlement. People live here, yet there are only two main buildings (and a handful of small ones) in this remote village that was constructed as a post-war military base. Too remote to even be useful as a Cold War base, it was abandoned by the military then reclaimed by a small community of people who set up in one of the buildings, the Begich Towers. Housing everything from the grocery store to living quarters for the whole town, that building is still occupied. It overlooks the remains of the Buckner Building, but few people venture there.

Atlas Obscura took a closer look at Buckner, reporting that it too was designed as an entire town in a single building. It was a military base with a bakery and commissary, a photo lab, kitchen, barbershop, and rifle range. They made allowances for entertainment, too, including a library, bowling alley, and movie theatre. The Buckner Building was also abandoned when the military left. But it seems that any chance of communal living being reintroduced here was destroyed by damage that stemmed from the Big Alaska Earthquake in 1964.

For years, the abandoned Alaska building attracted the curious and graffiti artists alike. But as of 2016, the derelict Buckner Building has been officially fenced off, and trespassers can now be fined or forced to appear in court. It’s a safety issue at this point – the building is falling apart – and it seems that Buckner’s heyday has passed.

Abandoned Igloo City Hotel

Abandoned Igloo City Hotel (Image: Murray Foubister)

The Igloo City Hotel isn’t exactly an igloo. Nor has it ever served as a functioning hotel, and there are no cities nearby. This pretty much explains the fiasco that was the Igloo City Hotel. According to Kuriositas, the odd-looking mound rising out of the Alaskan landscape was built in the 1970s, and the story behind just why it was developed in the first place has faded with time. The general consensus, though, is that it was originally designed as a four-storey hotel that was never finished. Nothing but the outer shell stands, and its interior sits open to the elements.

It’s understood that developers ran out of money when they came up against building codes that they were unable to meet, and the property passed through several other owners before being abandoned. Atlas Obscura says that the abandoned Igloo City Hotel is so big that it can be seen from 30,000 feet above, and while it’s attracted a fair share of curiosity-seekers, it’s never their final destination.

Abandoned Independence Mines

The abandoned Independence Mines of Alaska

Independence Mines

(Images: An Errant KnightSwitchbladesista; Kimberly Hack 1, 2)

Mining put Alaska on the map, and the defunct Independence Mines still stand as a reminder of how difficult settling this vast, pristine territory was. Now the Independence Mine State Historical Park, the ghostly buildings that survive were once two separate entities. The Alaska Free Gold Mine of Skyscraper Mountain and the Independence Mine of Granite Mountain were bought and combined by the Alaska-Pacific Consolidated Mining Company in 1938. By 1941, 204 people were toiling in the mines to produce millions of dollars worth of gold.

By the time World War Two broke out, resources were scarce. Gold mining was no longer a priority, and the Independence Mines began mining a mineral called scheelite for the war effort. But there wasn’t enough scheelite to keep the mines open, and Independence was shut in 1943. Opened briefly after the war, the now abandoned Alaska mines were never able to turn a profit again and they were officially closed in 1951. Today, the empty timber buildings are preserved by the State of Alaska as a historical reminder of the industry that built the state.

Abandoned Foodland Shopping Circle, Fairbanks

The abandoned Foodland Shopping Circle in Fairbanks, Alaska (Image: RadioKOAS)

Carrs-Safeway is one of Alaska’s major supermarket chains, founded by a California transplant named Laurence John “Larry” Carr. After opening his first store in 1950, he eventually began to expand. When he did, the Foodland Shopping Circle in Fairbanks was one of the first locations. But after Carrs was acquired by Safeway, the corporation found themselves the target of an anti-trust lawsuit that led to the divesting of seven stores, including the Foodland Shopping Circle. The doors of the distinctive round building finally closed in 2000. After standing vacant for some time, the building is once again opened for business.

Now it’s the Co-op Market Grocery & Deli – Alaska’s only co-op. With more than 3,100 investors, it’s clear that this is exactly what the area wanted, and it’s successfully given one of Fairbanks’s landmarks new life.

Empty Ruins at Naval Air Facility Adak, Adak Island

Abandoned military buildings at Naval Air Facility Adak

(Images: NPS Alaska Region; Paxson Woelber)

It’s hard to imagine, but Adak Island sits at a midway point between United States soil and Russia. Built in 1942, it was originally meant to be a strategically located military base for attacks on Japanese-held islands, and later became an important location during the Cold War. Even after Cold War hostilities ceased, the base was still used as a reconnaissance station. It was eventually decommissioned in 1997.

Wired reports that about 110 people stayed on after the abandoned Alaska base closed down. It’s a hard, expensive place to live, and they’re surrounded by the crumbling buildings, bunkers, homes, and military equipment that was simply left to decay. While various old US Army buildings are now empty, the Adak Airport remains in use as one of the largest aviation facilities in the Aleutian Islands.

Historical photograph of a B-24 Liberator bomber at Naval Air Facility Adak, Alaska

Dozens of ships moored off Naval Air Facility Adak in Alaska (Images: US Army Air Forces; US Navy)

The broader future of Adak Island’s 200 residents stands in the balance, however, as those living there struggled to sustain their way of life. The Alaska Dispatch News even reported that those who are left have struggled “to keep the lights on”.

Abandoned Polaris Building, Fairbanks

The abandoned Polaris Building in downtown Fairbanks, Alaska

(Image: via Google Street View; RadioKAOS)

One of the more modern abandoned places in Alaska, the Polaris Building was completed in 1952, and was the tallest building Fairbanks. It still is, at 11 storeys high. First filled with apartments, the shuttered building has over the years been home to restaurants, a hotel and other businesses. Struggling by 2000 and foreclosed on in 2003, there have been a handful of plans to restore the ailing structure, but the Polaris Building is dogged by problems.

According to the Alaska Dispatch News, the asbestos, black mould, and green fungus that have taken over the top floors have made restoring the Polaris Building – and reopening it – next to impossible. It was officially condemned in 2012, and even though agreements were made to tear it down, the abandoned Alaska building that locals call an eyesore was still standing five years later. Demolishing a structure like the Polaris Building isn’t an easy matter, and according to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, the EPA is supposed to be stepping in to assess the contaminants within. This has meant a temporary stay of execution for the derelict Fairbanks landmark.

Abandoned Treadwell Gold Mine Office Building

The abandoned office building of Treadwell gold mine in Alaska (Image: Mfwills)

In its heyday, the Treadwell gold mine – named for founder John Treadwell – was one of the largest in the world. It had more than 2,000 employees, five mills, and four mines with shafts that reached depths of up to 2,400 feet. The operation began with a partnership that formed in 1881, and the end came in a big way. Three of the abandoned Alaska mines – the Mexican, the 700-Foot, and the Treadwell – started leaking water. Within hours, the shafts collapsed and killed a mule and a dozen horses that were working deep underground. No men were lost.

The final mine, the Ready Bullion, functioned until 1922, overseen briefly from the cement structure known as the New Office Building. Built in 1914, the New Office Building hasn’t weathered the Alaska elements well. According to a 2010 survey (pdf) by the City of Juneau, the windows are gone and the walls are deteriorating along with the surviving sections of roof. It has, however, fared better than the wooden structure that was once attached to it.

Treadwell gold mine in Alaska

Treadwell: a now abandoned Alaska gold mine (Images: Wikipedia; T.A. Rickard; late 19th/early 20th century mining at Treadwell)

Back when the mines were still functioning, the attached general store had what was considered to be the largest collection of goods and merchandise in Alaska. But the old company store was destroyed when a fire (pdf) swept through the compound in the 1920s. The concrete office building may have survived that catastrophe, but there’s no telling how long it will continue to withstand the fierce winters of the Last Frontier.

Abandoned Hardware Store, McCarthy

An abandoned hardware store in the small town of McCarthy, Alaska (Image: James Brooks)

McCarthy, Alaska is as tiny a town as you’re likely to find, with a 2010 census population of 28. It might seem like there’s not much going on in such a small town, but McCarthy has an incredible history going back to the discovery of copper in Dan Creek. When Kennecott was founded nearby, it was a company town where alcohol and brothels were outlawed. Welcome to McCarthy, where miners could get everything they couldn’t find in Kennecott.

After mining stopped in the late 1930s, McCarthy struggled on. By the 1970s, it was virtually a ghost town, until a rush attracted at least a handful of people searching for the adventure that a true frontier town provides. In doing so, they joined the single family that had lived there since 1953. It was also the site of a tragic shooting, were one man killed six residents in a bizarre attempt to stop the construction of the Alaska pipeline. Now McCarthy – along with the landmarks left behind from its time as a booming mining town – attracts tourists during the summer months. The neglected buildings that remain are considered among Alaska’s endangered historical landmarks.

Pilgrim Hot Springs Ghost Town

Our Lady of Lourdes Mission in the abandoned Alaska ghost town of Pilgrim Hot Springs (Image: Dr. John Cloud/NOAA; Our Lady of Lourdes Mission)

Like its name suggests, the ghost town of Pilgrim Hot Springs didn’t have its roots in mining at all. Instead, the now-abandoned Alaska settlement was founded on the site of mineral springs. In 1917, the timber buildings were bought and gifted to a Jesuit priest. Eventually, the site became the home of Our Lady of Lourdes Mission, but almost as soon as the mission was built, it became important for another reason. When Spanish flu broke out in Nome, the orphans left behind by the deadly disease were sent to Pilgrim Hot Springs.

An abandoned orphanage in Pilgrim Hot Springs ghost town, Alaska (Image: Sir Mildred Pierce; an abandoned orphanage at Pilgrim Hot Springs)

Because of its natural waters, Pilgrim Hot Springs became something of an oasis. Gold miners from Nome would head there for a bit of R&R, and not long after the Spanish flu epidemic, they realised just how valuable a place it could be. A school, living quarters, and a greenhouse were built, and even though it officially closed in 1941 due to a dwindling population and buildings that were in dire need of repair, it remained popular with members of the military serving nearby. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, the decaying remains of this once life-saving community undeniably retain an eerie beauty.


About the author: Debra Kelly




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