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The Hearts Gone South, but mine stayed in McCarthy

Last Updated on September 2, 2020

McCarthy Alaska is the small town forgotten by the world and hidden in the Alaskan mountains. It’s located in America’s Largest National Park Wrangell—St. Elias National Park and Preserve. We got there accidentally and suddenly discovered its charm. The Hearts Gone South band was performing that day, and mine heart stayed in McCarthy forever.

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hearts gone south band in front of golden saloon mccarthy alaska

„(…)All your begging and your pleading
it ain’t gonna change my mind
so you can go on and kiss the girlie that you got on down the line
you can go and say goodbye, to everything we had
cuz boy, your actions have got me hopping mad…”*

hearts gone south band member in mccarthy alaska

Our Story

In our ears sounded the melody of the original The Hearts Gone South country song. The Golden Saloon was completely empty, when we crossed its doorstep early afternoon. Suddenly it started to slowly fill up with the local audience. And even with four-legged friends. If you consider that only a few dozen people live in the town, we appreciated the company of dogs. After a couple of cheap local beers, the atmosphere got more cheerful. Everyone knew each other perfectly. Dances in the rhythm of the country music began. The band from North Carolina made exceptional and very natural contact with the audience.

It was too bad to leave this place. One of the most magical places in Alaska! And we were planning to get there only for 5 minutes …. But our plans turned out to be wrong, and we changed our minds… In McCarthy lives only a few dozen residents and there are several houses. We wanted to get there on the way back from the Kennicott mine to take a couple of photos.

TRIPTIP: The best places & photo locations in Alaska you will find in our Alaska Travel&Photo Guide.

dancing hearts gone south in golden saloon mccarthy alaska
hearts gone south performing in golden saloon mccarthy alaska
hearts gone south performing in golden saloon mccarthy alaska

But then we spotted the buildings of the town: Johnson’s Historic Hotel and The Golden Saloon and decided to stay a little bit longer. Magic! With a dramatic story, unfortunately. Abandoned wooden houses, hidden in a deep forest, in the mountains, far from civilization, whispered about the old days …

McCarthy lies 5 miles from the Kennicott Mine. The story connects these two places – Kennicott is a ghost town, and McCarthy has a year-round population of just a couple of dozen people.

Little History

The Kennecott copper mines and camp were established about 1908 across from the Kennicott Glacier, five miles north of McCarthy. An early misspelling named the mine and mining company Kennecott. The town, river, and glacier are spelled, Kennicott.

In 1911, the Copper River & Northwestern Railway carried its first carload of ore from Kennecott to Cordova. No gambling or drinking were allowed at the town of Kennicott. Nearby McCarthy developed as a colorful diversion for the miners as a place where miners could enjoy “wine, women, and song.” It provided a newspaper, stores, hotels, restaurants, saloons, a red-light district, housing over 800 residents.

Kennicott became a company town with homes, a school, hospital, gym, tennis court, and silent movie theater. Over its 30-year operation, $200 million in ore was extracted from Kennecott. It was the richest concentration of copper ore known in the world. In 1938, the mines closed, and both towns were abandoned.

A number of the buildings from that era are still used in McCarthy and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

mccarthy alaska
old car in mccarthy alaska
ma johnson hotel mccarthy alaska
old car in  mccarthy alaska

The population of McCarthy and Kennecott fell to almost zero until the 1970s, when the area began to draw young people from the many who came to Alaska in the ’70s for adventure and the big money of the Trans Alaska Pipeline project. In the ’80s, after the area was designated, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park (1980), it began to draw some adventurous tourists to the new national park. The few people that lived there began to provide a variety of tourist services. There has always been at least one family living in the McCarthy area since 1953.

Then a vast tragedy happened. In an attempt to disrupt the Alaska pipeline, 39-year-old Louis D. Hastings, armed with a rifle, murdered six of the 22 citizens of McCarthy on March 1, 1983. He also wounded two people. In July 1984, Hastings was sentenced to 634 years in prison. This case and the town of McCarthy were showcased on the Discovery Channel’s Alaska Ice Cold Killers episode “Frozen Terror.”

This tragedy is still alive in the memory of the people of the area.
We walked between wooden houses, shocked by the history of this place. Abandoned old cars stand on the side of the road as flower beds. Wooden abandoned houses threaten with emptiness and fluttering with torn curtains. A few buildings are only inhabited. They are colorful, finished with artistic decorations. They attract attention. We enjoyed the silence and beauty of this place.
For us McCarthy is an absolutely magical place that we highly recommend!

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Before you go – Practical Information

Read our previous post about Kennicott Abandoned copper town because the story connects both towns.

Getting to the town is an adventure itself because the gravel road is challenging. However, it is worth the effort. The city is located among the mountains and glaciers of the largest national park in the USA – Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. The drive is approximately 7 hours from Anchorage and 8 hours from Fairbanks, and the final 2-3 hours are on the scenic, rugged McCarthy Road.

When planning our dream trip to Alaska, we used the following books:

The MILEPOST 2020: Alaska Travel PlannerMoon Alaska: Scenic Drives, National Parks, Best HikesMoon Anchorage, Denali & the Kenai PeninsulaDeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer: Alaska
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Where to stay and where to eat?

In McCarthy, you will find lodging, restaurants, saloon, essential services, the fascinating McCarthy-Kennecott Historical Museum, and outfitters that will take you on a range of activities, from glacier trekking through whitewater rafting to flight-seeing trips to the national park.

We highly recommend The Golden Saloon with great food and an authentic atmosphere, and Alaskan made draft beers. 

You should also visit the beautiful hotel Ma Johnson’s Historic Hotel

Sources of information:
*Lyrics „You Ain’t Sleeping Here Tonight” from Little Things by Hearts Gone South https://heartsgonesouth.bandcamp.com/track/you-aint-sleeping-here-tonight
https://www.travelalaska.com
https://www.alaska.org
https://en.wikipedia.org
https://todaysalaska.com

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the van escape

Hi, we are Agnes & Chris! Welcome to The Van Escape! We are travelers, photographers, and bloggers. Our goal is to share travel & photo experience and inspire you to outdoor adventures through America. We love wildlife, off the beaten path places, soaking in hot springs, and van life. We also like cities by night and tasting local food & wine. We give you ready itineraries, hints, and essential tools to prepare you for your unforgettable lifetime journey. We only describe the places we have been, which we know and recommend without hesitation. All photos are also ours. We are so glad you’re here!

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