Diving Alaska's Historic Ellamar Copper Mine

Two—Bowels of the Earth


I have always been fascinated with shipwrecks, ghost towns, abandoned factories, and other forgotten remnants of the past. I first learned the story of the Ellamar copper mine while researching the shipwreck of the S.S. Saratoga, a 300-foot iron steamer that hit a rock off Busby Island and sank while outbound from Ellamar with a load of copper ore in 1908. At the time, I didn’t realize the mine’s so-called “Glory Hole” was situated in the inter-tidal zone and might permit underwater access to the long-abandoned mine workings.

The flooded Glory Hole and remnants of the cofferdam at high tide today

The sheer rock face of the Glory Hole is exposed at low tide

I visited Ellamar for the first time in 2008 while filming a spear fishing episode for Alaska Outdoors Television with my expedition partner Ken Koga-Moriuchi. We did a preliminary exploration dive on open-circuit air—which was all we had with us—and found what appeared to be an underwater entrance to a horizontal tunnel that had been exposed when the Glory Hole was excavated a century earlier. Short on time and lacking cave gear, we reluctantly turned the dive at the inner edge of the cavern zone but vowed to return one day with rebreathers and cave-diving equipment for another look.


We had a full year to research the mine’s history and prepare for what we hoped might be a major push to the enormous amphitheater at the 200-foot level. In July 2009, we returned equipped with closed-circuit rebreathers and mixed gas, which would allow us extended dive dives at greater depths—and in greater safety—than breathing air from a scuba tank with conventional open-circuit gear. Joining Ken and me was our friend and past expedition partner Ursa Lively, whose many technical diving skills unfortunately don’t include rebreather or cave training. She would explore the Glory Hole with us using open circuit equipment, but Ursa had no intention of pushing beyond the cavern zone.


We based our dive operations from my 27-foot cabin cruiser Obtainium which we anchored in Virgin Bay, just 100 yards offshore from the rusting remains of the cofferdam. At anything above half-tide we could motor our inflatable across the shallow rubble and into the tidal pond that now fills the Glory Hole.


The beach that rims the mine pit consists of rubble left over from the stamping operation, where the ore was pounded to bits by giant, steam-driven hammers to break it into small enough pieces that it could be scooped into ore carts and loaded onto ships. The rough-edged rocks are vaguely coppery in color, with streaks of rust from iron oxidation. At low tide, a sheer 15-foot wall of rock is exposed inside the Glory Hole. An enormous school of spawning pink salmon—which had taken a wrong turn and entered the pond by mistake—circled the hole in a giant arc as they sought an exit that would take them back to the open sea.

Underwater, visibility is helped not at all by the mountains of rubbish that have been pushed over the side and left to decompose in the festering pit. About 30 years ago, long after the mine buildings and machinery had fallen into ruin, the owners of the property decided to spruce up the place by clearing much of the land and subdividing it into recreational lots. The remains of the old mine buildings were scraped into giant heaps with a tractor and torched to incinerate most of the wood and other combustibles. As the fires burned down, the smoking rubble was pushed down the beach and over the rim of the Glory Hole, plunging out of sight into the tidal pond below.


It’s hard to estimate the amount of fill disposed of this way, but by exploring around the perimeter of the pit, and following the contours of the muck-covered mountains of junk until they dead-end against the rock face more than 75 feet underwater, it’s clear that one hell of a lot of trash was dumped into the ocean. There are bed frames, oil drums, chain-link fencing, and an array of unrecognizable (but apparently incombustible) material that made us think of diving an underwater Superfund site.


The murky, toxic-looking sludge at the bottom of the Glory Hole has settled on the bottom in the shape of a sloping hill, with a crest that parallels the rocky ledge from which the junk was pushed. We called this underwater ridge the Anthill, and it would prove an important aid to our underwater navigation as the week’s dives progressed.


During our short open circuit dive here the previous year, Ken and I both experienced a sense of disorientation once we got deep enough for the surface light to fade into a murky green haze. The vertical rock face that we were swimming along seemed to gradually slant, then turn into an overhead, without us ever getting the sense that we were entering a tunnel or even leaving the cavern zone. This time, our plan was to definitively locate the entrance—or entrances—to any tunnels that might still be exposed above the slope of mud and debris that had been pushed over the edge of the Glory Hole back in the 1970s.


Recalling our semi-disorientation during our first dive the previous year, Ken and I figured we’d use the slope of the rock wall as a reference. If we did a Spiderman crawl down the underwater cliff, it stood to reason we’d need only to repeat the process with an upward orientation, and we’d easily reach the surface. The problem was that with so little light, and about 3 feet of visibility, once the vertical wall started sloping under the ledge it became very difficult to tell which way was up. Ken and I both got the feeling we could easily crab-walk our way into a mine tunnel without realizing it. It became obvious that navigation—and orientation—were problems we needed to solve before we went any further.


Ursa came up with a solution was so simple, we kicked ourselves for not thinking of it beforehand. We took a hefty chunk of iron debris from the beach and tied it to a bright yellow half-inch poly line. Standing on the edge of the Glory Hole, more or less where we thought the entrances to the tunnels should be—if they were still exposed—we lowered the shot line down the face of the rock wall until the line went slack. Then we pulled back a foot or so and laid the rope straight up the beach, tying it off above the high tide line so there would be no question that a diver following it in a silt-out would end up safely at the surface. We were ready to try again.