Diving Alaska's Historic Ellamar Copper Mine

One—A Short History Lesson

Nestled at the base of a mountain on the shores of Prince William Sound—the northernmost body of the Gulf of Alaska—sits all that remains of the once-thriving community of Ellamar. It was there, on the secluded shoreline of Virgin Bay, that a pair of prospectors stumbled upon an outcropping of high-grade copper in 1897. They staked a claim, then moved fifty yards up the beach—well above the high tide line—and sank a shaft 100 feet deep. With dynamite, diamond drills and shovels they excavated a horizontal tunnel back toward the deposit of copper, and began extracting the rich ore for shipment to the smelter at Tacoma.


Within ten years of its discovery, the workings of the mine had been extended to include a shaft 600 feet deep, with a network of horizontal drifts branching off in various directions every 100 vertical feet. In the first decade of the 20th Century, a bustling community grew up around the mine as the workings grew more extensive and the property’s copper-fueled profits soared.


Ellamar’s population boomed. There were dormitories for the single men, houses for the supervisors and their families, a general store, several churches, and—by one account—a dozen saloons. The mine employed more than 100 men, and operated year-round except for a week-long shutdown at Christmas.


The copper ore scraped from beneath Ellamar’s remote wilderness landscape was exceptionally high grade, making the mine an extremely profitable enterprise. Besides copper, the ore contained significant traces of gold and silver. A stamping mill and an aerial tram were constructed, allowing the ore to be efficiently transferred from the beach to waiting steamships for transport to the smelters at Tacoma, Washington.


The biggest portion of the lens-shaped ore body was encountered at the 200-foot level of the mine. The miners excavated a chamber 240 feet long, 90 feet wide and about 20 feet high, hauling the rubble back to the main vertical shaft where it could be hoisted to the surface. But after a decade of active work in the mine, the richest deposit of copper-bearing rock remained out of reach. This was the green-tinged outcropping of ore that protruded from the beach, washed by the 15-foot tides of Prince William Sound. The mining men could not simply blast the steeple of copper-laced rock; to do so would mean flooding several miles of subterranean tunnels with a torrent of icy seawater.

To extract the remaining copper, the miners built a wooden cofferdam during the winter of 1909-1910. The idea was to completely rim the ocean side of the ore-body with a 20-foot-high wall to exclude the seawater. The barrier was built of vertical iron beams driven into the rock, with stout wooden timbers laid horizontally and heavily caulked to make the entire structure as waterproof as possible.

By 1912 copper production at Ellamar was in decline. The rising subterranean groundwater, extensive surface run-off, and seawater from the constantly leaking cofferdam flooded the 600- and 500-foot levels of the mine, and massive pumps were required to keep the 400-foot level open for work which briefly resumed there in 1913. With the rumblings of war in Europe in 1914 and the economic uncertainty brought by the conflict—and later the restrictions on civilian shipping and non-essential industry—Ellamar’s fate was sealed. The mine closed, the pumps grew silent, and the once-thriving community was abandoned. Water filled the network of shafts and tunnels, and the Glory Hole turned into a saltwater pond with a reversing tidal stream connecting it to the ocean waters of Prince William Sound just a few dozen yards away.

View of the Glory Hole with wooden cofferdam visible at its rim

When the tide was high, water surrounded the oval-shaped cofferdam on three sides. To observers, looking down at the structure from the deck of a steamer berthed at the adjacent pier, the effect was a bit like gazing into a small-scale Roman Coliseum from above.


It leaked, but the structure held. With the ocean tides now restrained by the cofferdam, work commenced to blast out the portion of the ore that lay between the surface and the older workings at the 100-foot level. Between 1910 and 1913 workers pulverized the rock, excavating a giant, basin-shaped “Glory Hole” inside the walls of the cofferdam. They mucked out the copper along with thousands of tons of waste rock which was pounded to bits by the immense steam-driven hammers of the stamping mill.


As the pit grew deeper, the excavation exposed the shallower horizontal tunnels of the older levels of the mine, like cutting through a block of Swiss cheese to reveal the holes inside. A detailed drawing of the mine workings prepared by a government geologist in 1910 shows a spidery network of tunnels beginning at 75 feet and extending down to 600 feet, all intersecting at the main shaft. The immense cavern excavated at the 200-foot level is clearly visible, with off-shoots actually extending under the bottom of the Glory Hole and probing beneath the walls of the cofferdam, more than a hundred feet beneath the adjacent seafloor.

View of the cofferdam from a steamship docked at the Ellamar pier

Prologue


Alfred Doring had a narrow escape from death while working in the tunnel day before yesterday. He had put in some shots and one of them went off prematurely, the shock throwing him against the wall of the tunnel, and flying rock catching him about the legs, crushing them so badly that they will have to be amputated. He retained presence of mind enough to crawl from the tunnel before the balance of the shots exploded. Another miner was just leaving the tunnel as the charge went off, and he was picked up and thrown bodily down the hill by the concussions but escaped without a scratch.


Valdez Daily Prospector—June 6, 1907
Days later, Alfred Doring died in hospital at Valdez