Appreciating Upper Peninsula copper mining legacy

We live in an area of Michigan’s western Upper Peninsula rich in geological history. Beneath the forests and rocky outcroppings lie ancient basalt lava flows. Lining the shores of Lake Superior are rocks dating back 2.7 billion years. Our rock-and-lake story formed from volcanoes erupting deep within the earth and pushing upward toward the surface for 24 million years (with one five million year pause, oh you history buffs.)

I can’t really fathom the entire geological tale, but I am convinced that our guide at the Quincy Mine in Hancock could have you sitting on the edge of your seat while he passionately explains how fire and ice created our Lake Superior basin along with rich deposits of minerals like copper, iron, nickel and silver. (Here is a link from Lake Superior Magazine about our basin’s fiery geological beginning in case you’re interested.)

About three weeks ago Barry and I (and our good friends Deb and Chuck) decided to tour one of our many local mines. Imagine living here for more than forty years and never walking into the Quincy mine. Deb and Chuck had toured it before, but we were brand new visitors.

Please enjoy the pictures and stories we gleaned from our autumn adventure.

First we donned yellow hard hats. One can’t enter the mine without head protection. I assume that perhaps rocks might occasionally dislodge, and safety is a #1 concern. We first toured the Quincy Mine Hoist building (more about that later).

Then we boarded a tram which slowly crept down the hillside to lead to the mine entrance about 400 feet below. The fall colors on October 8th were beautiful! Unfortunately the photo above was taken through the murky windows of the tram and I didn’t feel inclined to lean far out the window and take an unsullied photo.

The picture looks kind of cool, though, doesn’t it? You can see the bridge below which connects our two cities of Hancock and Houghton.

Now you can see all of us tourists entering in the mine. The mine operated between 1846 and 1945, although some activities continued into the 1970’s. Folks called the Quincy Mine “Old Reliable” because investors received a nice dividend every year for over half a century.

You can read more about the history here , but one of the reasons that Old Reliable served its investors well involves innovation. It was the first copper mine to switch from fissure to amygdaloid mining. Copper could be blasted out easier and processed at a much lower cost. The investors loved it.

Our guide was the guy in blue jacket. I could swear he was a professor. He knew EVERYTHING about mining. I regret not asking him his credentials, but I couldn’t stop shivering because the mine was so darn cold. They say it’s 43F year round, but it felt much colder. Long underwear might have been recommended, just sayin’.

The mine is dark. But lit with modern electricity. The ground is muddy (although out of our small group I was the only one that emerged with mud up the back of my jeans. Something which caused some later teasing.) The rock on the walls gleams wet.

There’s a hollow-sounding feeling to it. There’s a cave-like sense of being far into the bowels of the earth as you walk with your fellow tourists and experienced guide down a long stretch of the mine for about two hours.

While many of us were listening and memorizing facts about copper mining, I kept FEELING the energy of being down here. Listening to the voices of thousands upon thousands of miners who worked underground in the dark. Feeling the silent subtle movement of lava flows. Trying to understand viscerally the spirit of this underground world.

The Cornish, Finnish, Irish, Swedish, and Norwegian folk who immigrated to America for a better life found themselves working in mines in the Upper Peninsula. What a challenging life this was! They worked six days a week for 10-12 hours a day in the dark belly of the earth. For years they pounded hand drills with sledge hammers into the rock veins searching for the elusive copper lit only by tiny candles on their helmets.

Our guide turned the lights out and lit his helmet candle. We felt the dark swallow us. It became easier to understand how an accident with sledge and drill might happen. Accidents and death lurked around every corner.

The tram car above filled with a ton of rock was pushed on rails by young inexperienced miners–18, 19, 20 years old. Their bodies didn’t last long.

It was a grueling career to work in these mines. I shivered even more listening to our guide’s sad voice describe the plight of the workers and their families.

Michigan Technological University was founded as a Mining School in 1885. It was established by the State of Michigan to train mining engineers to better operate the local copper mines. The school started with 23 students on the second floor of a building on Montezuma Avenue in Houghton. This building operated as the Houghton Fire Hall for decades–and guess what?

I didn’t realize this until RIGHT NOW, but that’s where we ended up eating out after our mine tour! The Houghton Fire Hall is now the Continental Fire Company/Bonfire Grill. How synchronistic is that?

The above picture is one of the reasons I wanted to write this blog. Michigan Tech held classes in the mine in the 1970’s and this is a photo of an abandoned classroom. Isn’t it eerie and cool?

Copper mining over 6,000 feet deep was made possible by the world’s largest steam hoist (see photo above). Cable wrapped around the huge drum lowered and raised cars of men, rock and water bailed out of the mine as operators controlled the steam hoist.

The following picture shows a water-baling car (at left) and a man car lowering and raising miners (on right).

The pictures above and below show mine ruins part of the Keweenaw National Historic Park.

The photo above shows a large pure copper boulder extracted from the mine.

Now our tour has nicely ended up–I’ve been teased about the mud on my jeans–we’ve driven across the bridge between Hancock and Houghton–and we’re darn hungry. We walk into the restaurant ready for a drink and delicious dinner.

I snapped the photo of the miners that adorns the front of the Continental Fire Company/Bonfire Grill building.

So many feelings arise. The feeling of walking deep in the cold dark mine. The pride of the Quincy Mine folks who provided so many jobs and so much wealth for so many years. The plight of the workers. The way history shapes itself between good and bad, positive and negative.

The evening light fades as we look across the Portage Canal. There–just there–on the hill–sits the Quincy Mine. The water below reflects as still as polished glass. The restaurant (formerly known as a mining college) buzzes with diners. Two musicians sing below. It takes two and a half hours before we eat our dinner and meander back into the street.

I ponder how very lucky we are to be alive and so privileged. So much sometimes seems wrong in the world today–but in many ways it’s so much better. I want to always remember that.

About Kathy

I live in the middle of the woods in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Next to Lake Superior's cold shores. I love to blog.
This entry was posted in October, 2021 and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to Appreciating Upper Peninsula copper mining legacy

  1. Carol says:

    I think working underground would not be for me – we toured an old mine in Deadwood, South Dakota once, and I could not wait to get back above ground, into the light. The history is fascinating though.

    • Kathy says:

      It certainly wouldn’t be for me, either, Carol. There is such a visceral sense of relief–joy even–when you emerge back above ground in the light. I imagine the miners felt it every single day.

  2. Debbie says:

    What a fascinating tour, Kathy — thank you for letting me tag along. I remember being in the caves in Missouri with my son when he was younger, and they, too, felt incredibly COLD. I guess when the sun doesn’t shine on something, it doesn’t have a chance to heat up. I’m glad you included how hard a life it was for these miners and their families. We might grumble about working conditions today, but gee, these folks had it hard didn’t they?

    • Kathy says:

      Debbie, you are right about it being so cold down there because the sun never reaches its depths. And, yes, working conditions are a LOT better these days, so maybe we should keep this in mine when we grumble. Thanks for touring along with us. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. leelah saachi says:

    One of my favorite book when i was young was ” How green was my valley” by Richard Llewellyn. Oh the mines, and the descriptions from them- it felt like I was down there so this tour of yours set ,e back. So much to be grateful for, these forefathers and .mothers. I never was in i mine, so it exciting to hear about your experience!

    • Kathy says:

      Leelah, I am glad you had the feel of being in a mine from this little story. The book “How Green was my valley” sounds like it might be very interesting. Right now I am grateful for your comment and thinking about you across the big sea. Thinking about the many Norwegians who ended up working beneath the earth’s surface…

  4. dawnkinster says:

    We toured Quincy when we were there last, a couple three years ago. All the years I lived just down the hill from this mine, it was abandoned. I’m glad they’ve opened it up to tours, it’s facinating. I think we had the same tour guide. Yes, we do need to remember that times are better now, even the days they don’t feel so great.

    • Kathy says:

      I wondered if you had toured the mine when you visited the Copper Country before. Did you write a blog about it? And how funny that you may have had the same guide! This mining tale makes me want to appreciate all our modern labor improvements, to look at what has changed in a positive way since those earlier years.

  5. Oh, you make me want to go! I love learning the history of a place…so often, I don’t take the time to get to know the history of places right under my nose. Thanks for the lovely tour!

    • Kathy says:

      Cindy, I know just what you mean. So often we don’t take advantage of our own hometown areas rich in history and stories–and even art! Glad you enjoyed this little tour. P.S. Was there any mining on Beaver Island?

  6. Stacy says:

    What an interesting adventure! When I tour places like that, I often wonder about the human element. Who were those nameless people? What were their daily lives like? (Probably like ours in many ways.) Where did they come from and where did they go?

    It’s just where my mind goes. XOXO

    • Kathy says:

      I’ll bet you do spend a lot of time thinking about the nameless people–because you’re a storyteller, Stacy! No wonder your mind goes to fleshing out the long-ago characters of places you visit like these. โค

  7. What an amazing place to visit and reflect on geology and history. It’s sobering to think of the hardships those copper miners endured and to realize that mining remains a dangerous and difficult job for many people on this planet. As my sister, a geology lecturer, tells her students at the beginning of her courses, everything we consume or produce is either grown or mined. Thank you for sharing this informative and thoughtful account of your visit. The pictures were fascinating! I think I would be like you, feeling the energy of the people who worked there, and the energy of the earth way down below there.

    • Kathy says:

      Barbara, I thought of you when writing this–that you might like some of the geology and history of our area. I did not know your sister was a geologist, and it’s fascinating to think that our consumption is limited to what we grow or is mined. Have never thought of it that way before! And can imagine you sensing the energy in a place like this as well.

  8. Karen says:

    Several years ago, my 12th grade students and I traveled on a seven day tour circumnavigating Lake Superior. The tour of the Quincy Mine was part of that adventure, and I am happy to report that several students chose to study at Michigan Tech after that trip. Other highlights of the trip included the Apostle Islands, Duluth, Isle Royale, and historic colonial Fort William (contemporary of our Fort Michilimackinac). If you have been to the North Shore region of Lake Superior, you know that there are several amethyst mines on that side of the big lake, all a result of the geological upheaval you mention and part of the formation of the great bedrock of the Canadian Shield. Thank you for writing about this rich legacy of our area!

    • Kathy says:

      Karen, thank YOU for sharing this experience you had with your seniors. What an amazing trip touring all around Lake Superior. It sounds like it was very influential in deciding the future of some of your students. Barry and I did the same circumnavigation around the lake many years ago when we were in our 20’s. I really appreciate you pausing to comment and tell about your trip.

  9. Robin says:

    Thank you for taking us along on your tour, Kathy. I don’t think I could manage a tour of a mine in any other way. Being underground is not something I’m comfortable with anymore (which is odd because in my younger days I toured quite a few caves). We lived in an area where coal mining was the main source of income for many, and it was (and likely still is) a hard life for the miners. In some ways, things are better now. In some ways, they unfortunately remain the same. Workers are still taken advantage of for the sake of profit.

    Wonderful images and story. I think it’s fascinating that you could feel the energy down there.

    • Kathy says:

      Robin, that feeling of being deep in the dark underground can be pretty challenging. What was really interesting (and I didn’t mention in the post) is that they showed us a map of the entire mine. It was tacked up on the wall and showed several feet long. We were only about a quarter inch down in the mine on the map. Unreal to imagine how deep that mine really was!

  10. Ally Bean says:

    I didn’t know about copper mining in MI. It would have been difficult soul-sucking work, such drudgery. I do like your photo of an abandoned classroom. Eerie and cool, for sure.

    • Kathy says:

      Wasn’t that picture cool, Ally Bean? Like the classroom is frozen in time beneath the earth. Someone should use that in a movie set, don’t you think? Glad to tell you about copper mining in our neck of the woods. ๐Ÿ™‚

  11. Tilly travel says:

    I love mine tours, the stories and history give me a mixture of feeling, fear/sadness/pride/disbelief/happiness often all at once.

  12. debyemm says:

    I meant to get to this the other day. I’m just now arriving this morning to read it (and honestly haven’t actually read it yet but I do have the page open). My husband’s family came from coal mining stock in England near Wales and then migrated to Illinois, Indiana and Pennsylvania to continue working in the mines. My husband’s grandfather got smart enough to get out and then bought a little grocery store to get his father out. He invested in movie theaters as early as silent pictures and then sold out to 20th Century Fox just before the Great Depression hit and refused to let them sell them back to him. We’ve been down into more than one mine – here in Missouri (with a major mining history of its own) and in Pennsylvania and have watched a lot of movies about mining. It is a hard life and the poor people were highly exploited – sadly. Now I am closing my own bit here to read yours.

    • Kathy says:

      Deb, I am happy to hear that your husband’s grandfather found a way to get out of the mines and make a living in a better way. Where we live–in a community called Aura–many former miners struck out to become farmers. Those miners that could usually tried to find an easier path to make a living. Really appreciate you reading and telling that story.

  13. Awesome tour. Caves and mines definitely have a unique energy signature.

    • Kathy says:

      They do indeed. I remember visiting a cave (Mammoth Cave?) as a child and being fascinated with all the stalagmites and stalactites (had to look up that last word).

  14. Nancy Joan Besonen says:

    Finally read this! I’m guilty of never having gone either after having lived here 40 years; just scratched the surface in an above-ground tour with Mom and Aunt Peg in fall of 1981. My husband’s grandmother’s first husband died at Quincy Mine, struck in the head by a rock on his last shift before he and his wife were going to move to their new homestead in Trout Creek. Great blog, Kathy, and looking forward to going down under someday in the future, hard hat firmly in place.

    • Kathy says:

      Oh my goodness, Nancy, that is such a terrible story. That it was his last shift in the mine before they were able to move. So terrible that happened to Don’s grandma’s first husband. And thanks for coming over to read my “column”. ๐Ÿ™‚

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