Diving Alaska's Historic Ellamar Copper Mine

Of the many gold and copper prospects around Prince William Sound which were developed during the heyday of 20th Century mineral extraction, almost all were located in hills and mountains high above sea level. Amazingly, three separate mines were located at or near tide line, with shafts and tunnels reaching hundreds of feet below the level of the sea. Giant pumps were kept working around the clock, draining the mine tunnels of the icy saltwater that poured constantly into them. When the mines petered out and were closed, these pumps grew silent and the sea intruded a final time, flooding the mine workings and hiding them underwater, forever.

I have long had a fascination with ghost towns, abandoned factories, mills, mines, and industrial sites of all kinds. Although I much prefer to explore them on dry land, my experience diving shipwrecks and old docks has shown me that some of the coolest and least-visited historical spots are underwater. Especially here in Alaska, where the cold water limits underwater exploration to those who have special training and equipment.

When I learned that the second-biggest copper mine in Prince William Sound (and the third-largest copper producer in all of Alaska) was one that had been flooded by seawater, it seemed natural for me to dive it if I could.

In 2009 I led an expedition to explore the flooded ruins of the Ellamar Copper Mine, and my team became the first people to explore these sunken passageways since the mine closed almost a hundred years before. We braved ice-cold water and inky darkness to find a route into mine workings not seen since before the First World War. The article on the following pages is my first-hand account of our adventure.