Diving Alaska’s Historic Ellamar Copper Mine
Copyright © 2010 by Steve K. Lloyd
All Rights Reserved
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
(Less than a week later, Alfred Doring died at the hospital in Valdez.)
One—A History Lesson
Nestled at the base of a mountain on the shores of Prince William Sound—the northern-most body of the Gulf of Alaska—lays all that remains of the once-thriving community of Ellamar. On a secluded stretch of shoreline, 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.
Ten years later, 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 good 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 found 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 rock 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 couldn’t 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 over the winter of 1909-1910. The idea was to completely rim the ocean side of the ore 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.
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 looking down into a small-scale Roman Coliseum from above.
Although it leaked, the structure held. Work commenced to blast out the portion of the ore 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 and exposing 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.
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.
Two—Alaska’s Ellamar Pit Project (“AEPP”—rhymes with “Ape”—with apologies to WKPP)
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.
I visited Ellamar for the first time in 2008 while filming a spearfishing episode for Alaska Outdoors Television with my expedition partner Ken Koga-Moriuchi (Ken on Deco Stop). We did a preliminary exploration dive on open-circuit air—which was all we had with us—and found what we believed to be the 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 gear 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 mine’s enormous amphitheater at the 200-foot level. After a great deal of planning and preparation, in July 2009 we returned equipped with CCRs and trimix. Joining us was our friend and past expedition partner Ursa Lively (Snowbear) whose many technical diving skills unfortunately don’t include CCR or cave training. She’d explore the Glory Hole with us with doubles, but 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 shared a sense of disorientation once we got deep enough that the surface light faded to an indistinct 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 definitely locate the entrance—or entrances—to any tunnels that might still be exposed above the Anthill slope of mud and debris that had been pushed over the edge of the Glory Hole back in the 1970s.
It didn’t occur to us at first to utilize a shot line. Instead, we figured we’d use the slope of the wall as a reference. If we did a Spiderman crawl down the wall, 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 clear 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.
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 ascent 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. Turning to look back along our line, the bright yellow poly ascent line was already invisible in the murk. This was supposed to be the daylight zone… Riiight.
The cave reel gave us some peace of mind, and we turned right and followed the intersection of the mucky Anthill and the rock face as they gradually sloped away to our left. The angle of the rock became increasingly pronounced, until it seemed to finally 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 never really knowing 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 Salvo 21-watt HID held at arm’s length, we could see only 3-4 feet beyond the reach of an outstretched arm.
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, was not as certain.
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.
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.
Four—Down the Rabbit Hole
On one of our next dives, Ken and I split up to explore the blasted rock face of the Glory Hole in both directions, checking along the north side of the cliff for the presence of a second indentation that could mark another horizontal tunnel that might lead us to the main shaft. Ken explored along the 30-foot contour, still within the green glow from the surface, while I swam along the mud at the base of the cliff about 20 feet below him in near total blackness.
I started at the scrap iron drop weight, which sat where we’d left it at the top of the Anthill. Two feet off the bottom, our cave line ran to the right in the direction of the broad, dead-end tunnel with its intriguing breakdown passage. I moved toward the cliff, turning left as it came into view so that I swam away from the Picture Window tunnel, keeping the stone face to my right.
A few pieces of junk had slid down this side of the Anthill, and I was surprised to see an intact Johnson outboard motor, probably a 1960s vintage two-stroke, lying partially buried in the muck. Just past that, a large piece of corrugated metal roofing material half-leaned against the rock face. I passed it, my light moving back and forth along the cliff. I could make out a pitch-black shape nestled against the already-dark face of the rock.
I was learning what it meant here to see something even blacker than the regular darkness that encompassed everything—either a giant boulder, or an opening. I swam closer, and could make out a circular indentation in the cliff face. It was the mouth of another tunnel.
I looked at my gauge. The water depth was about 50 feet. I did some quick math, adding 15 feet for the earthquake upheaval, then—subtracting?—for the tide. Sixty feet maybe, not right for either the 75 or 100-foot level tunnels our old blueprints showed. Maybe the miners gauged the depth of each level from the surface of the shaft, which lay some distance up the hill above the beach. Would that make this the 75-foot level? Too many variables for a direct comparison, I concluded.
I unclipped my reel and looked around for a tie-in. I was back in the mudhole, with no visible rocks that would hold a tie-in. The outboard motor was too far away and too far down in the dark zone to make a good tie-in. I swam 10 feet or so to the top of the Anthill—the dim green light of the surface just visible in front of me—and found a steel bed frame lying upside-down in the mud. I shook it. Rust flakes came off in a coppery cloud, but the structure was solid. I took a quick loop with the line, then turned back toward the newly discovered tunnel entrance, my heart beating with the thrill of discovery.
A bit like Alice in Wonderland, I finned/tumbled into this flooded “rabbit hole.”
Unlike the relatively cavernous entrance of the first passage we’d found, this opening was much smaller and gave me the feeling of a space that had been carved only as large as needed for a man to pass. It did not seem to be a drift, where ore was removed from the rock. There was deep, soft silt on the floor, and I stayed as close to the ceiling as I could without dragging the back of my rig through the clinging tendrils of the soft orangey-brownish goop that grew from the overhead.
Algae? I thought, Those would need light for photosynthesis. Leaching minerals of some kind? Bacteria? My last biology class was a long time ago, but I could tell this stuff looked icky. Was I swimming in seawater, or aquifer, or something in between? I decided that I wouldn’t be slacking my thirst inside this tunnel.
To check the width, I stretched both arms out, and before I could straighten my elbows I felt the hard rock of the passageway brush against each hand. So maybe five by five—I thought, Those old-time miners were short bastards—reduced by a foot or more of muck on the floor. Hardly side-mount conditions, but definitely tight considering the silt and the creepy algae or mineral precipitate or whatever the hell this orange shit is that covers everything.
I started finning through the narrow tunnel. Several thoughts entered my mind in quick succession. One was that my buddies didn’t know where I was, and if I got stuck or ran into some other difficulty, the only chance I had of being found—or finding my own way out—was the thin nylon line I had attached to the bed frame just outside the tunnel’s entrance. I realized that following this passage to the end, alone, unplanned, was a dreadfully bad idea. I’d have to turn around. And to do that, I’d either have to find a tie-off for my reel or hold onto it and risk tangling in the line as I tried to rotate on a horizontal axis. Nothing in sight but silt-covered tunnel walls: No tie-in here.
Carefully, slowly, I began to make a 360-degree pivot turn. With the reel clenched in my left fist, I concentrated on keeping the line taut and clear of my fins as my axis changed. If the line got a belly in it and looped around a fin or light head, it would be a major bitch to try and sort out an entanglement in such cramped conditions.
What little visibility I’d had quickly turned to almost nothing. The flashing LED on my loop winked at me through the haze. Soft deposits that clung to the roof and walls of the tunnel billowed ahead of my light. My only sense of direction came from the tension on the line, invisible now in the drifting murk. The 80-cube bail-out cylinder clipped under my left arm clanged on an outcropping of rock hidden under a mound of orange goo.
A gentle tug, and I could feel my body move slightly in what I hoped was the general direction of the bed frame tie-off. I gave a little half-kick and felt the line grow slack. The right direction. A few turns on the reel, then I started back in toward the opening.
After what seemed like a very long swim, I reached the tunnel entrance and back-tracked to the ascent line. Following dinner that evening back on the boat, Ken and I spread the old mine diagram on the galley table and tried to puzzle out what we’d found.
The 1910 drawing showed two tunnels intersecting the walls of the Glory Hole—one at 75 feet and another, offset slightly from the first, at 100 feet. They ran roughly parallel—one on top of the other—terminating at the main vertical shaft about 200 feet back up the beach. Below these two passages, and also terminating at the shaft, five more tunnels spanned out in different directions, branching and interlacing in a spider web of adits, rises, drifts and ventilation shafts.
Judging from its orientation and size, I guessed that the narrow Rabbit Hole tunnel I’d found on my solo dive was either the 75- or 100-foot drift. Probably the 75, assuming that the massive amount of fill had blocked the entrance to the deeper passage. Neither Ken nor I could place the larger passage with the breakdown tunnel; it just didn’t fit with what the diagram was telling us. Fascinated, we planned two separate exploratory dives—one into each of the mystery passages we’d discovered—Picture Window and Rabbit Hole.
Five—Into the Unknown
Based on our initial exploration of the two tunnels, Ken and I agreed that the most likely route to the mine’s vertical shaft—and through that, access to the deeper 200-foot level with its network of passages—probably lay through the straight tunnel that I’d partially explored on my solo penetration. We planned a dive that would take us to the end of this passage, and which we hoped would reveal whether the shaft could be reached via this route.
Once again, Ken offered to take the number two spot. We splashed in the Glory Hole, following our yellow descent line down to the drop weight at the top of the Anthill. There, I looped a cave line around the thicker rope and swam diagonally down the slope, past the derelict outboard motor, and down to the twisted sheet of corrugated metal roofing.
I found the rounded entrance to the Rabbit Hole easily this time, and after exchanging OK signs with Ken, we entered the murky passage. About 50 feet in, I reached a wooden beam supported on each side by timbers. I hadn’t seen this structure before, which meant we’d already progressed further than the point at which I’d turned around on my initial dive. I tucked my arms to my sides and kicked under the wooden support that had been constructed a century earlier to support a section of the ceiling the miners thought might collapse. Comforting thought.
As I moved, I kept my light swinging around the perimeter of the passage, searching for signs of instability or a branch passage that might confuse us on our exit swim. But the dimensions of the tunnel remained a steady four or five feet in width, and about the same distance high. Reddish silt clung to the rocks, and blanketed the floor. Looking back between my fins, I could see Ken’s light a few feet behind me, its glowing orb already diffused by the cloud created by my careful movements.
Twenty feet beyond the timbered support, we reached a spot where the silt on the floor seemed to grow thinner, dropping away into a series of small holes. Looking more closely, I realized the gaps in the silt were caused by rotten timbers that had lined portions of the floor. The boards had broken and separated, and in a few places the gaps appeared wide enough for a streamlined diver to drop through to a chamber below.
I shone my light through one of the larger holes. The beam lit a cavern of indeterminate size, and the water that filled it seemed clear although I knew this was an illusion created by the flecks of silt filling the water on my side of the opening. I circled the hole with my light beam to make sure Ken had seen it, and continued on.
I could form only a rough estimate of how far we’d traveled. By intention, we were moving as slowly as possible in order to minimize our disturbance of the particulate in this cramped, non-flowing passageway. Thrusting my light ahead of me, its powerful beam sweeping the walls and ceiling of a mine tunnel that had not been visited by another human in a hundred years, I could make out only shapes a body-length ahead. Despite its narrow confines, the tunnel seemed to swallow the beam of my light. I clutched the reel in my left hand, glancing at the Hammerhead display strapped to my forearm. The gauge read 72 feet, but I’d never felt deeper. The tide had been high when we went in, but the tunnel we’d followed must have descended without us realizing it.
After a few moments, the drift grew almost imperceptibly wider. I hugged the left side as I swam, and little by little the wall that had been just off my right elbow grew farther away. I reached a stout vertical timber, probably 8 or 10 inches square, which protruded through the silt on the floor and disappeared into the haze over my head. I groped with my light, and could see other timbers set at regular intervals ahead. There may have been thinner boards set as diagonal braces—I couldn’t be sure.
I stole a glance at Ken to make sure he was close by, then passed my reel around the massive post and pulled the line taut. When it had tensioned, I took a half-dozen twists around the line and clipped on a line arrow pointing back the way we’d come. We hadn’t found a single tie-off point since we’d passed the first set of timbers near the entrance, and even though our passage had been straight through the tunnel, with no side openings, I felt a sense of relief knowing that we now had a well-secured line that would take us home.
I wanted to make sure that Ken got a good look at the wide area of the tunnel before our suspended silt drifted up and obscured his view. Keeping close to the wooden timber on my left, I reached back with my right hand and motioned Ken to come up alongside. A moment later he was next to me, probing the darkness in front of us with his own light. We could make out a framework of heavy wooden timbers, their dark shapes covered with a thick coating of orange-tiled silt that clung to each vertical surface, and lay dense as cotton on the horizontal ones. Just overhead, a greasy-looking halocline reflected the beams of our lights.
I gave my wing a small burst of air. My head rose above the misty layer, and I could discern a sharp increase in the water clarity. Right at the level of the halocline, the thick orange overburden clinging to the timbers changed noticeably. In the brackish lower level, it coated the timbers and nearby rock walls in thick, mossy tendrils. Above the halocline the growth was still prevalent, but much thinner.
Much later, I would read a TDS thread and watch a video about diving a flooded mine in Wisconsin containing great quantities of a similar orangey muck—must be a characteristic of flooded mines from this era.
After we’d popped our heads in and out of the halocline a couple of times, Ken and I moved ahead slightly and stabbed the blackness ahead with our lights. Although the upright shapes of the supporting timbers were fairly distinct (despite their thick coating of orange-tinged moss), the enormous drifts of silt on the floor made it difficult to distinguish what the tunnel was doing. There appeared to be a large rectangular hole in the floor, like an open elevator shaft or the cargo hold combing of a sunken steamship. The silt tapered evenly at the edges of this opening, clinging stubbornly to an angle of repose before dropping away into nothingness. Whether the passage we’d been following continued on or dead-ended at the shaft, we could not say.
Rising upwards and peeking above the thermocline, I could make out the hazy geometric shapes of the wooden timbers rising toward the surface and what was now the compacted plug of timbers and garbage that had been dumped in when the shaft was sealed from the surface. Looking down, past the mounded silt, we could see that the shaft was open below. We had found what I believe is the access to the deeper levels of the mine, including the gigantic amphitheater created on the 200-foot level when the rich deposit of copper ore was extracted more than a century ago.
But that discovery would have to wait. We checked our tie-off, cut the line, and exited the Rabbit Hole the way we’d come. Despite the care with which we had navigated the passage, our swim out took us through a complete silt-out, the thin white cave line providing our only connection to the outside world.
Ken and I agreed to leave further exploration of the mine—including a descent into the tantalizing void of the main shaft—for another expedition. Ideally, we would have at least two buddy teams, all on CCR and all with experience in the challenging conditions found inside the antique workings of the abandoned mine.
We were disappointed at the terrible visibility we encountered on every dive, and believe the heavy rains and extensive surface runoff during the week created conditions somewhat worse than we might hope to find on a subsequent visit. I believe we are the first divers ever to explore the mine, and I’m proud that we were successful in locating two separate tunnels from the Glory Hole, each leading to different sections of the mine.
We did explore the tunnel visible through the Picture Window, and found a large passage extending out of sight in two directions. We followed one, but turned the dive about 200 feet in due to the extraordinary amount of silt and overburden. Our depth at the turnaround was about 85, and the tunnel was descending. Nobody alive knows where it goes.
If I have an opportunity to explore the site again, the most tantalizing push would be to retrace our steps to the vertical shaft, then descend to the next level and begin scouting those passages. Our scale drawings from 1910 clearly show the route to the amphitheater, in addition to a tunnel that passes beneath the bottom of the Glory Hole and heads in the direction of the sea. The schematics call this the 200-foot level, but due to geological uplift and other factors, I think the actual water depth here would be in the 160-185 range.
On the other hand, maybe the Rabbit Hole and Picture Window are as far as anybody should ever explore in this place. In the dead of winter, when the mountain and beach are locked in an icy grip, the visibility inside the mine might be pretty good. But the mountains of silt are still there, along with the orange goop that hangs in the water like strands of DNA when a diver passes. Unless there’s an unmapped access tunnel, the only passage to the deep Amphitheater level is through the claustrophobic Rabbit Hole, down the maw of the vertical shaft, and sideways into tunnels that stretch mazelike into the flooded passages of time itself….
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The Ellamar Copper Mine is situated in a remote and beautiful corner of Alaska, and represents a slice of history that is off-limits to all but a select group of technical divers. If exploring the mine sounds like an adventure you might like to be a part of, please get in touch by PM.
But first, heed the words of Charlie Munger . . .