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.