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Mining in Michigan

Copper Mining

Go to:   Native Americans used Michigan copper as early as 5,000 B.C. They found it on Isle Royale and in the Upper Peninsula regions of Michigan that we know as Keweenaw, Houghton and Ontonagon counties (map). Using hammerstones, they broke off chunks of the pure soft metal. Sometimes they heated the rock with fire, then cooled it with cold stream or lake water to make it break apart more easily. They hammered copper into tools, implements and ornaments for use or trade. Michigan copper eventually reached as far as southern Florida through their trade networks.

Copper Mine Exhibit The copper mine is a popular exhibit at the Michigan Historical Museum. Narrow-gauge railroad tracks are laid in the tunnel or "drift" on the right. Behind the tram car, visitors can look up a mine shaft that offers the illusion of being 200 feet underground.

Douglass Houghton, Michigan's first state geologist, called the nation's attention to the state's copper deposits in 1841. That same year, Julius Eldred moved a two-ton mass of copper called the Ontonagon Boulder to Detroit, further demonstrating Michigan's mineral wealth to the nation. The Ontonagon Boulder is now in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. C.

The rush for Keweenaw copper started in 1843. But several years passed before large companies began to make a profit from copper mining.

The Copper Boom

Diagram of Early Cliff Mine The first successful mines were the Cliff Mine near Eagle River and the Minesota (Yes, that is how they spelled it!) Mine near Rockland in Ontonagon County. Both mines opened in the 1840s on veins where copper was found in masses weighing up to 1,000 tons. Geologists who visited the Cliff in 1849 made this drawing of a cross section of the mine.

Example of float or mass copper in the exhibit All Michigan copper is pure metal. Some is found as mass or native copper, like this example of float copper on exhibit in the gallery. It was found in Lake Superior and weighs 3,840 pounds. (Float copper is a chunk of copper that was torn from rock by a glacier, carried along and deposited elsewhere as the glacier melted. It was called float copper because early scientists thought that the copper "floated" on or in the glacier.)

Michigan copper is also found as amygdaloid (almond-shaped deposits in rock) or conglomerate (rock held together with copper, also known as "pudding-stone"). The long-term commercial success of Michigan copper mining came from the amygdaloid and conglomerate deposits, not from mass copper.

Mining engineer Ed Hulbert discovered the rich Calumet and Hecla lode, a conglomerate, in 1859. Alexander Agassiz, who became superintendent in 1867, led the company as it built communities like Laurium and Calumet.

Cliff Mine Shafthouse The Quincy Mine paid dividends steadily from 1867 to 1920. It earned the nickname "Old Reliable." Eventually it had 91 levels that went down nearly a mile and a quarter. This architecturally interesting and often-photographed shafthouse No. 6 was destroyed by fire in July 1956.

Uses of Copper

In early days, copper was used for utensils and sheathing on the bottoms of ocean-going wooden ships. Other uses included coins, plumbing, roofing and alloys such as brass, bell metal and gun metal. Edison's invention of the electric light in the 1870s created the biggest market for Michigan copper. After the 1870s, half of Michigan's copper output was used in products for the electrical industry.

Mining Copper

Early mine excavation was accomplished by hand drilling and blasting with dangerously unstable black powder. It could take 10 hours to drill a 4-foot hole with a hand drill. Premature explosions were a constant risk when charging the holes and tamping in fuses. Miners staggered the timing of their explosions so they could listen to be sure all the holes had fired.

During the latter half of the 19th century, mining companies adopted new techniques and equipment which increased productivity, profitability and, in some cases, safety. By 1875, diamond drills enabled miners to take core samples, which made finding ore easier. Telephones began to replace simple bell communication systems in 1879. In the early 1880s, mining companies switched from black powder to dynamite for blasting. About the same time, they replaced hand drills with the Rand compressed air "one-man" drill (photo, 179k). Steam, and later, gasoline engines speeded the transport of both miners and ore. Electric lights and new types of headlamps joined or replaced candles as sources of underground illumination.

Copper Industry Problems

The copper strike of 1913-14 started in July and lasted nine months. It was one of Michigan's most bitter labor actions. The introduction of the one-man drill triggered the strike. Miners feared cutbacks on the number of jobs and working alone. Strikers also demanded recognition of the Western Federation of Miners as their bargaining agent, a reduction from a 10-hour to an 8-hour work day, and $3.50 per day wages. The mining companies refused to recognize the union or to return to the two-man drill, but did, in the end, cut hours and increase wages. Miners who returned to work found themselves alongside men who had been hired as strikebreakers. In the following years, many experienced miners left the Copper Country for the auto factories of Detroit, mining jobs in the western U.S. or military service with the outbreak of World War I in 1917.

Funeral for Italian Hall Disaster Victims During the strike, miners' families were celebrating Christmas Eve at Italian Hall in Calumet when someone yelled, "Fire!" In panic, the crowd rushed to get out of the second-floor hall. They could not open the door to the outside, and 73 people—mostly children—died in the crush. There was no fire. Many miners believed that the mine companies had sent the person who caused the panic, although this was never proved. The photograph shows the funeral procession for the victims of the Italian Hall disaster.

Michigan was the nation's leading copper producer from 1847 to 1887 (see chart). But it faced increasing competition at the close of the 19th century. New mines in Montana and Arizona quickly surpassed Michigan's copper production. The state's actual output continued to grow, but its share of the national total declined. The open pit mines of the West and other countries produce copper more cheaply than Michigan's deep shaft mines. Michigan's last operating copper mine, the White Pine Mine, closed in 1997.


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