MY FIRST TRIP to the remote mountain community of McCarthy, Alaska, was as a police reporter in 1983 for the Anchorage Daily News. The local mining ruins had been the scene of a devastating mass shooting that left six people dead.
I stepped from the plane onto the snowy runway that day and wondered, “Who are these people? What brought them here, to live in an isolated ghost town?”
Whatever it was, someone had hated them for it.
Not long after, I returned to the spectacular valley near the Canada border and built a recreational cabin of my own. McCarthy was starting to stir, as the only settlement inside Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the largest park in North America.
I soon fell into reporting another local story, about a struggle between park rangers and the charismatic leader of a large pioneer family who called himself Papa Pilgrim. The twisting tale of his children’s escape from their terrifying Old Testament prison became my national bestselling book, “Pilgrim’s Wilderness.”
Even after all that, I felt the valley had one more story to tell — the saga of the place itself.
The National Park Service is there today to tell the physical story of this crown of the continent, which reaches across the border into Yukon Territory and includes the world’s third-largest ice field and 15 mountain summits taller than any in the Lower 48. Park exhibits also tell the story of the Kennecott Copper company, a 200-mile railroad and an audacious era of frontier capitalism.
But memories were fading of the “ghost town decades” — that period between the final copper train’s departure in 1938 and creation of the national park in 1980. The abandoned town had been surprisingly busy — although half dead, with alder trees clawing at its foundations, it brimmed with the irrepressible energy of borderland dreamers, con men and escape artists.
Working with Porphyry Press, a micropublisher based in McCarthy, I spent the past few years researching and writing a history of that rambunctious half-century. “Cold Mountain Path” tells how the 1983 killings brought that era to a close, but also looks back further to examine my earliest questions: Who were these people? Many of them, it turns out, had ties to Seattle. That’s how it was in territorial days. (Kennecott’s copper ore was shipped to Tacoma for smelting.) One of the most surprising stories from those forgotten decades is the one adapted here, of a Seattle family unburying its own profound connection to a ghost town in Alaska’s wilderness.