For centuries, Athabascans hunted in the area of McCarthy. Chief Nikolai and his band of Athabaskan Natives had a summer camp at Dan Creek, 15 miles east of McCarthy, where they collected copper nuggets from Dan Creek. Their permanent camp was on the Copper River at the village of Taral near Chitina where they fished for salmon.
Copper was discovered between the Kennicott Glacier and McCarthy Creek in 1900, after which Kennecott mines, Kennecott Mining Company, and company town of Kennecott were created. Due to a clerical error, the corporation and town used the spelling of "Kennecott" instead of "Kennicott," named for Kennicott Glacier in the valley below the town. The glacier was named after Robert Kennicott, a naturalist who explored in Alaska in the mid-1800s.
Partly because alcoholic beverages and prostitution were forbidden in Kennicott, McCarthy grew as an area to provide illicit services not available in the company town. It grew quickly into a major town with a gymnasium, a hospital, a school, a bar and a brothel. The Copper River and Northwestern Railway reached McCarthy in 1911.
In 1938 the copper deposits were mostly gone and the town was mostly abandoned. The railroad discontinued service that year. Over its 30-year operation, U.S. $200 million in ore was extracted from the mine, making it the richest concentration of copper ore in the world.
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 70's for adventure and the big money of the Trans Alaska Pipeline project. In the 80's, 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 was always at least one family living in the McCarthy area from 1953 to the present day.
The old mine buildings, artifacts, and colorful history attract visitors during the summer months. The Kennecott and McCarthy area ranks as one of the United States's most endangered landmarks by the National Trust for Historic Places. Emergency stabilization of the old buildings has been done and more will be required.
In an attempt to disrupt the Alaska pipeline, 39-year-old Louis D. Hastings, armed with a .223-caliber Ruger Mini-14 semi-automatic rifle, murdered six of the 22 citizens of McCarthy on March 1, 1983. The victims were Maxine Edwards, Harley King, Les and Flo Hegland, and Tim and Amy Nash. He also wounded two people. In July 1984, Hastings was sentenced to 634 years in prison.