Copper Country

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June 27th 2018
Published: June 27th 2018
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Quincy Mine, Keweenaw National Historic Park, Hancock, Michigan

This one small peninsula, in the northern reaches of Michigan, is the primary source of copper that fueled the electrification of the United States, and indeed, the world. Over 14 billion pounds of copper was mined from basalt seams in the earth in multiple mines scattered around this 75 mile wide spit of land that juts into Lake Superior. Native Americans originally found the copper here and, discovering it could be hammered and molded into both tools and pretty ornaments, traded both raw and finished copper as far south as Alabama and north into Canada. Large amounts of it were found and became important parts of the Hopewell culture of Southern Ohio and the Ohio River Valley.

The copper was so pure that a 7000 pound boulder of nearly pure copper became a legendary secret. It was found in a stream and, for decades, Native Americans guarded it like treasure. Finally, European explorers found it and, in 1843, the entire peninsula was ceded by the Indians, who had no concept of land ownership, to the young, and expanding, American government. That boulder now sits in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington. But

That’s a Man-car on the right
the land transfer set off a mining craze that lasted a century. At first, copper was mined from surface pits, but eventually elaborate underground mining systems would stretch deep into the seams of several copper lodes buried deep in the basalt and conglomerate sedimentary rocks that form the ancient bedrocks here. The Quincy mine’s main shaft extended more than 9000 feet down a 57 degree angle. The bottom of the mine was more than a mile beneath the surface.

By the 1870s, mining was so important that immigrants, yes, immigrants, were being brought over from Europe to fill the labor requirements. Because of the isolation on this peninsula, companies had to provide strong incentives to attract people to this hard life. Company towns were constructed, housing was built and rented back to the miners. Especially attracted to this kind of work, for some reason, were Croatians and Scandinavians (Finns and Swedes). The area is ripe with names that reflect these origins.

Working conditions weren’t exactly great. They worked 10 hour shifts, six days a week. And the shift didn’t start until they had descended to the work area, which might take an hour. Dust from blasting rocks, noise from explosions and the drills they used to create holes in the rock for explosive powder, and the more than occasional fall, had its effects on health. On average, one man a week died on the job and countless more suffered hearing loss, and lung disease. In 1913, after the mining companies started to make economizing moves to compete with southwestern open pit mines, the miners organized a strike.

Eventually, the copper became too expensive to extract and the mines ended up closing shortly after World War II. (As I usually do, I bought a book at the visitor center that outlines the history of the peninsula so I will probably have more details to add as I read it). Since that time, the peninsula has been struggling to redefine itself as a vacation destination, with some success. We are here, and so are hundreds of other tourists and campers.

After sleeping in yesterday, we did a couple loads of laundry, and then headed back to the Mariner in Copper Harbor for a pizza lunch. We ordered the large Garlic Parmesan Chicken Bacon pizza. We couldn’t finish it, which we expected, but reheated in the nuker - it was a great before-bed supper. Our primary task for the day was to drive the fifty miles back down to Chassell and pick up the girls. But we have one more park in Michigan on our list that we wanted to see, the Keweenaw National Historical Park. so we left after lunch for the visitor center in Calumet, Michigan. There we gathered our usual planning information and tried to map out a strategy for seeing this park.

Historical Parks are, typically, a collection of sites all related to a common cultural theme or geographic area. This one is about the history of the Keweenaw Peninsula, and, especially, the copper mining that dominated the area for a century. This park also reflects one of the organizing principles of Historical Parks which is that it tends to be a cluster of sites, most of which are not operated by the Park Service. NPS provides an umbrella of sorts to tie these different organizations and attractions together, but most of them charge their own admission fee and provide their own services.

In this case, there are 21 different sites bound into the park and scattered over a 75 mile range from the tip of the peninsula (Fort Wilkins, where we are staying, is part of the park), down to locations in three additional counties at the base of the peninsula. If you chose to visit all 21 you would certainly achieve a complete understanding of this section of Michigan, but I suspect it would take you at least a week or two.

So you have to sample, picking those places that look most interesting to you. The visitor center in Calumet can help you with that sampling. There we learned that the two big places, with the most relevant exhibits and stuff to see are the town of Calumet itself, and the Quincy Mine, located 12 miles south of Calumet, on the northern edges of Hancock. Since we had to drive through Hancock to pick up the girls, we decided to defer the town of Calumet to another day (probably tomorrow), and drive on down to the Quincy Mine and do the tours involved there.

You can’t miss the mine. The Rockhouse is an imposing structure, right off of US 41 that is at least six stories tall. You can see several of the surface structures on your own. But to get the most information, and to get a rough idea of what the life of a miner was, you need to take the underground tour. It will cost you $25 ($22 for seniors), but it is well worth it.

Part of the guided tour includes a look at the hoist. This is essentially a giant pulley, powered by a large steam engine, that pulls the cables up and down that raise and lower both the miners, and the copper ore. Over time, there were several of these, but the biggest one, and the largest hoist in the world, was the giant one built in 1918. It has been restored and the tour gives you a look at this monster and how it worked. Standing at least 40 feet, it is really a giant coiling machine, around which the two inch thick cables wound and unwound to raise and lower the buckets that carried stuff up and down the shaft. The cable was more than 13,000 feet long, indicating that the company had plans to carry the mining operation even deeper into the seams of the copper-lodes. The machine was powered by huge steam engines which used the

Cog Railroad down the slope
steam twice to increase efficiency of operation. Braking was provided by a giant shoe, originally wood, but later changed to metal because the wood wore out too quickly. There was an elaborate communication system consisting largely of signals transmitted along, of course, copper wires.

The best part of the tour, though, is underground. You board a cog railroad - one of only two operating in the country right now - that takes you down a steep incline. At the bottom, you get into another tram that takes you into a very dark and wet horizontal passage. This passage has been enlarged to accommodate people, but originally it was only used to drain water out of the mine. The tram takes you more than 2000 feet horizontally into the mine where you join up with the vertical shafts that were part of the mining operation. Inside this dark wet place, the tour guide shows you exactly how the copper was mined, demonstrating the deafening sounds of a pneumatic drill, and showing just how dangerous, and demanding, the mining work could be. Oh and, by the way, it is only 43 degrees down there. This is definitely one of the most interesting tours of this kind I’ve ever been on.

Afterwards, we drove on down through Hancock and Houten to Chassell to pick up the girls. I don’t know who was more excited, the girls or us. But there was lots of barking and licking. They were fine, but let us know they weren’t happy to have been left alone. We’ve declared a down-day today to spend some time with the dogs and rest up from our vacation from our vacation. Hopefully, I can get some writing and pictures on Isle Royale posted.

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A Copper Nodule - almost pure

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