Diving Alaska's Historic Ellamar Copper Mine

Three—Anthill and Picture Window

On our next dive, we descended the shot line and found that our scrap iron ballast weight had landed right at the peak of the Anthill. This made sense, since the angle of repose would be dictated by where the material that spilled over the edge of the cliff had come to rest on the bottom. Because the poly line hung vertically in the water column, we could now see how the rock face had deceived us on our earlier dives. As we descended, we watched the rugged cliff face fall away from the bright yellow line and recede into the haze. By the time we got to the bottom at about 50 feet, we could guess from the orientation of the Anthill which way the cliff face lay—even though it was a short distance away, we couldn’t see it. The walls of the Glory Hole formed an inverted bowl that grew wider as they dropped, rather than curving inwards toward the bottom.

We tied off our cave reel to the poly shot line and secured a safety loop to a hefty chunk of iron debris half-buried in the muck a few feet away. I led, and Ken gamely chased my fins into the murk while he tended the line. We followed the slope of the Anthill down, and within six feet we came to the rock face of the cliff. This was supposed to be the so-called “daylight zone” where ambient light from the surface would still permit a diver to find his way to safety, even without a light. I turned to look back the way we'd come, but the bright yellow poly ascent line was already invisible in the murk. The eighth-inch strand of braided nylon line which played out from the plastic reel grasped tightly in my gloved hand would literally be our lifeline to safety.

We turned right and followed the intersection of the mucky Anthill and the rock face as they both sloped gradually away to our left. The backwards angle of the rock became increasingly pronounced, until it seemed to lift away from the mud. The contour of the rock became rougher. We could see cracks in the slate where pieces had fallen away, or been blasted out with dynamite by men like Alfred Doring, who had lost his legs—and then his life—thanks to a misplaced charge back in 1907.

We stayed high, initially keeping our left shoulders to the rock, but then shifting our attitude to a sort of modified ceiling walk as we entered what seemed initially to be a vast tunnel. I say “vast” because we could not see the bottom, and reaching our lights as far to the left and to the right as our arms would stretch, we could not see either side. It was this sense of not being able to learn the confines of the space we were in that was so disorienting; the half-hazy, half-silty water wouldn’t let us see further than about four feet to either side.

I wanted another tie-off with the reel, and I also hoped to establish some kind of visual reference before we progressed any further into this unknown passage. I turned to make sure that Ken was close behind, then altered course slightly to my left. With a few kicks, I could see the sloping wall of the tunnel and for the first time got a sense that we had indeed entered one of the mine’s old drifts—the horizontal passages that has been blasted out of solid rock more than 100 years before. The ceiling seemed to be about 6 or 8 feet off the floor, making the tunnel much higher than I expected. On the floor were a couple of anchor-sized boulders, so I dropped down and took a couple of secondary loops with the cave line. We were well away from the muck of the Anthill, and the bottom of the tunnel appeared to be comprised of course rubble with just a light dusting of silt.

Keep in mind that with a powerful dive light held at arm’s length, we could see only 3-4 feet beyond the reach of an outstretched arm. Beyond that was inky darkness.

Sketch of mine workings made by government geologist in 1910

I wanted to get a sense of the scale of the tunnel we’d found, so I left my boulder tie-off and swam to my right, toward what I imagined would be the opposite wall. The floor sloped up a little, but the wall was not where it should have been. This was strange, since we’d been descending along the sloping ceiling, giving the impression that we were getting deeper as we entered the tunnel, and here I was going up again? The water seemed to clear almost imperceptibly, and for the first time on the entire dive I could actually make out vague shapes in the space I had entered.

Still swimming at a right angle to my boulder tie-off, and following the rubble-strewn bottom that seemed to slope improbably upward, my light finally picked out the more-dark shape of an enormous boulder that must have been 10 feet around. Just past it, a little further into the tunnel, I could see a shallow indentation that appeared to closely match the size and shape of the monster rock. The sloping floor I’d been following had been formed by rocks and gravel falling from the ceiling and the opposing wall of the tunnel, like mortar crumbling from a brick wall, until at last the giant boulder lost the support that had held it in place and tumbled to the bottom of this passage.

The Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964 had measured 9.2 on the Richter scale, and to this day it counts as the third-strongest earthquake ever recorded, anywhere in the world. The epicenter was barely 40 miles from Ellamar. My rational mind guessed that this boulder—and other evidence of geological instability I expected to find—had probably cracked away from the overhead when the earth shook 45 years earlier.

My irrational mind, the one currently running Technicolor previews of me getting squashed like a bug on the floor of the tunnel, wasn't totally convinced the earthquake was to blame. I  knew I would not want to be anywhere in the vicinity when one of these monsters cracks from the ceiling!

Ahead, past another boulder sitting improbably in the middle of the passage, my light picked out a square opening roughly three feet on a side. It struck me as looking very much like an open window. I couldn’t tell if this was an opening that had been created by the miners intentionally, or if it represented a partial collapse of the rock that once separated the two tunnels. Naturally, I stopped and shined my light through the opening.

The view that presented itself on the other side of the tight passage reinforced my impression of the “picture window”. It seemed that I was gazing into a relatively spacious tunnel. Looking left and right, I could see a clear passage running in both directions. Although lit only by my light, I imagined that the water—unclouded by anything moving through it since the space first flooded 90 years before—was clear enough that I could see a whopping 20 or 30 feet.

Steamship taking load of copper ore at Ellamar dock, circa 1905-1908

I noted a couple of massive upright timbers, each supporting a horizontal wooden beam running across the width of the ceiling. Unlike the rough, cobble-strewn floor of the tunnel I was in, the bottom of this new passage was very soft and indistinct. I could make out no rocks or contours of any kind, only shapeless blackness. I couldn’t even be sure I was seeing the bottom at all—the illusion of looking down into a vast space was strong.

I was fascinated, and part of me wanted to shrug through the opening and go inside. What was this hidden tunnel? Where did it go? From the way it was oriented, it appeared that swimming in either direction would take me into a part of the mine that did not appear on the drawings and photographs I’d found from the early 1900s. Perhaps these passages had been excavated later? Maybe this was a part of the mine that had not been made available to the government geologist when he arrived to do his inspection and prepare his official report.

I looked at Ken, and shifted a little to my right so he could stick his head through the window and get the same view I’d just taken in. He shined his light in both directions, taking note of all the same features, then looked at me and signaled “OK” with a head nod that I took to mean “This is cool!” followed by a motion with both hands held palm-down in the direction of the mystery passage—an unmistakable “Hold off” motion. Exploring unmapped side passages accessible only though window-sized holes that may or may not be geologically stable was not part of our dive plan. We would discuss this on the surface, and plan an exploration for another dive.

We continued down the main passage, which jogged to our right—away from the Picture Window—then climbed slightly over what seemed to be a giant rubble pile. After about 20 yards, we found ourselves in a large room that seemed to mark the end of this tunnel. We tied off the line, cut it, and retraced our steps to the Anthill, our ascent line, and the surface.

Although we had not located a passage to the main shaft (which we hoped would later afford access to the deeper levels of the mine) we had gotten a taste of what conditions were like inside the tunnels. Plus, we may even have found an unmapped side passage for later exploration.