One of the coolest places my son and I went on our UP road trip back in June was the Keweenaw Peninsula, that bit of land you see jutting out of the Upper Peninsula (peninsulas within peninsulas!) and into Lake Superior on the map.
My son has long been interested in geology and rocks (as long as a child can have been interested in anything) and so I knew that our trip would have to include a visit to a mine up in copper country. The geologic history of the Keweenaw (pronounced KEE-wah-naw, not ke-WEE-naw) is such that rich deposits of copper (and also lots of silver) were pushed up by lava flows some millions of years ago and glaciers from various ice ages scraped away the rock that was holding these deposits down, allowing the land mass to rise and the copper to be accessed. Thousands of years ago at the end of the last ice age, ancient Native Americans were already mining for copper in the region.
In the mid-1800s, large-scale mining operations began in the region and gave rise to many towns that retain some fabulous architecture from the period, including Houghton (home of Michigan Tech University) and Hancock, which are a bit like Minneapolis/St. Paul in that they are divided by a river and it gets wicked cold and snowy in the winter (more about that later).
I loved Houghton. I wished I’d planned a few days there. I kind of wanted to live there. But maybe just in June. The architecture reminded me of my hometown of Bay City, which grew up around the same time, fueled by the lumber boom rather than mining.
Way, way up the hills on the north side of the Keweenaw Waterway is this massive structure…
Quincy Mine. Friends, this was one of the cooler things I’ve done in a while, and definitely a first for me. Operational for nearly a century, Quincy mine was one of the country’s most successful copper mines in the 19th century. At the time of its closure in 1945, it boasted the world longest mine shaft — 9,260 ft (or 1.75 miles!) — and it still houses the world’s largest steam powered hoist.
On site now are several original buildings, lots of ruins of old bunkhouses and offices, tons of discarded equipment, a very respectable museum, a great staff that leads guided tours both above and below ground, and the chance to actually go down into the mine. For which you must, of course, wear a hard hat and, because it is consistently about 48 degrees down there even on a hot summer day, a jacket…
You’re taken down a steep grade in a cog wheel tram, a kind of train that is on a chain that moves it up and down very slowly. Out the window you can see the Keweenaw Waterway, the Portage Lake Lift Bridge, and the town of Houghton across the water (the mine is in Hancock).
You enter at level 7 of the mine, which is the equivalent of a 30-story building underground — and there are nearly 90 more levels below you, which would be like a 400-story building. For comparison, the tallest building in the world, the Burj Kahalifa in Dubai, is 160 stories tall. If you put the world’s three tallest buildings (Burj Kahalifa, Shanghai Tower, and One World Trade Center, a.k.a., the Freedom Tower) end to end, you’d still be 250 feet short of the bottom.
Here’s a terrible photo of a very worn map of just the levels below the 49th level:
All of the levels below level 7 are now flooded because once the mine ceased operation they stopped pumping out the groundwater.
Level 7 itself is rather damp. You take a little motorized tram into the tunnel, which swiftly gets darker and colder. Engineering students at Michigan Tech have worked in the mine as a sort of living laboratory since the mid-70s, enlarging some of the tunnels, including the one we were in, and even carving out a classroom underground…
What’s really incredible about this tour is hearing how the miners worked. They started out working in three-man teams, with one man holding an iron spike and the other two taking turns hitting it, one and then the other for hours and hours, with sledgehammers. The holes they produced (see photo below) would then be filled with black powder (at first, and later dynamite), a fuse was lit, everyone ran like hell, and after the explosion they loaded the rocks into trams (like the ones in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), which were pushed out by hand and loaded into buckets that the hoist would bring to the surface, which might be more than a mile above!
The really crazy thing? They did it by candlelight.
I would not want to be the guy holding the stake. Or any of the guys, really. Give me women’s work if I have to live in the 1800’s.
Later on the three-man team became a two-man team and they used cumbersome steam powered drills that took forever to move and set up. Eventually they had one-man drills, also cumbersome.
In the 20th century, the price of copper fell dramatically, so much so that it cost more to remove it from the earth than it was worth. All told, in 100 years, Michigan’s copper mines produced 11 billion pounds of copper. Incredibly, about that much still remains underground! And though America still needs copper, we import it from China, where workers still mine it in the same way, with the same dangers, because it’s cheaper to use their labor than our own.
To get all that broken up rock out of the miles of tunnels in an efficient manner, you need a pretty powerful hoist. In 1918, Quincy Mine had one installed in this lovely Georgian style building meant to impress investors.
It was attached to the largest concrete slab ever poured up to that time and powered by steam, pulling cables at 36 mph around an enormous drum.
I did not think I could be interested in a steam hoist and the erstwhile largest concrete slab in the world, but the woman giving the tour made everything interesting. And just look at that cool spiral staircase!
This gargantuan structure was a relatively good investment because it made the work progress faster and saved tens of thousands of dollars on fuel every year. But sadly the hoist was only in operation for eleven years because, you guessed it, the Crash of 1929 had a profound effect on the mining industry. Many mines, including Quincy, were shuttered and then resurrected briefly to support the war effort during World War II.
I feel like we were only able to scratch the surface of an incredibly rich vein of history (see what I did there?) while we were on this tour, and I would love to go back to the Keweenaw in the future to learn more and explore more thoroughly. But on our epic road trip, we didn’t have time for side distractions. After dinner we headed further north because hey, once you’ve driven this far, it would be a shame to not just keep going until you run out of road.
So that’s what we did.
On our way up US-41 to Copper Harbor we passed this marker, which records the record snowfall of the winter of 1978-79 — a whopping 390.4 inches — and marks the most recent winter’s snowfall — 2016-17 had 23 feet. This is why I’m not so sure I’d want to live in Houghton year round.
I think that on the hour’s drive between Houghton/Hancock and Copper Harbor I may have seen six other cars, all of them going the other way. There were a few minutes there I thought, “I have no idea where I am. I’ve never in my life driven on this road before. I am farther north than I’ve ever been in my life. What if Copper Harbor doesn’t actually exist?”
It’s unnerving being the only adult driving in a strange and remote place with your son in the backseat and no cell service or passersby if something went wrong. I had gotten a similar feeling when my sister and I were hiking a very empty Tahquamenon Falls State Park a few years ago. Just goes to show how sheltered and routine-driven a life I lead. I mean, I knew where I was intellectually. I could point it out on the map. I wasn’t lost. But I felt so very, very far from anything and everything.
When we rolled into Copper Harbor it was far smaller than I expected. I don’t know why. I knew from previous research that there were only about 30 full time residents and only a few motels. Still, it was so small. It has an honest to goodness general store run by a man who looks like Sam Elliott’s long lost brother. And the motel proprietor had a thick Yooper accent which, inexplicably, my son could not distinguish from the way we talk.
I could imagine myself living there, with nothing to do but read and write and kayak on Lake Superior. My son could not.
We stayed in the Bella Vista motel. And the vista out our back door was indeed bella.
This is the tiny little harbor from which the ferry takes passengers to the real northernmost point in the state of Michigan: Isle Royale National Park.
It’s that long, skinny island you can see in this mid-century print above our motel nightstand, which I am near certain was an original decoration when the motel was built, not added in a post-Mad Men attempt to be kitschy. It’s sitting just north of the S in Superior. Above that is Canada.
That far north, it didn’t get fully dark until nearly eleven o’clock at night and dawn came before six the next morning. During that fleeting night, I dreamt about walking out the sliding glass door and seeing the Northern Lights. My heart aches a little that it was only a dream.
The next morning was cold and foggy and perfect. Men in long canvas pants and hoodies and heavy jackets readied the ferry to take a few passengers to Isle Royale.
And I kind of wanted to stay there forever.
But there was something even more tantalizing than a lazy harbor awaiting me and my son that day. We were headed south and west . . . into iron country . . . into an ancient mountain range within 60,000 acres of protected wilderness occupied by moose, wolves, coyotes, bobcats, lynx, river otters, and black bears. And, of course, porcupines.
We were headed for the Porkies.