THE MICHIGAN DAILY
Saturday, August 16, 1975
By AL HRAPSKY
The traveller pursues Highway 41 through Michigan's
Upper Peninsula into the twin towns of Houghton and
Hancock and the crooked appendage known as the
Keweenaw Peninsula. Billboards, shops and run-down
mines-aging monuments to a colorful past-remind
him that this is copper country.
Nestled on facing hillsides and bisected by the chan-
nel-like Lake Portage, this docile community was
once the pulsating heart of an area that produced
85 per cent of the nation's red metal.
Further north, a chain of old mining communities
and ghosttowns outline a neglected tale, rife with folk-
lore and flambouyant heroes.
Scattered traces of copper country's rich past spring
to life in the conversations of local residents who
cherish the history of their virgin land and the 11,000
miles of lifeless mysterious arteries burrowed below it.
The greatness of this land did not always lie buried
in its past. 350 years ago, long before the area was
systematically sapped of its life blood.
Enticed by Native American tales of glistening cliffs
and mammoth boulders of pure copper, early French
explorers braved the rigors of Lake Superior in canoes,
searching for cupriferous treasure.
Legends of ancient copper mines, predating Colum-
bus' and Leif Ericson's North American landings ac-
celerated tie influx of prospectors, miners and invest-
ors that brought boom times to the Keweenaw in the
Archaeological analysis places these ancient miners
in open pit sites on Isle Royal and the mainland.
Whether a lost race, or victims of a plague or inter-
necine war, the mining culture vanished without a
trace, excepting the stark remnants of some ten thou-
sand open pit mines.
Besides the plethora of local legend, 19the century
-Photos by Judson Nichols
The Quincy Mine or "Old Reliable", one of Michigan's biggest copper producers thirty years, is now no more
than a tourist attraction. Old Reliable's shaft is the deepest in North America, reaching a depth of 6400 feet
and a total length of 9800.
Keweenaw: A forgotte
capitalists were impressed by the fact that Michigan's
ubiquitous red metal was then, as it is today, of the
purest quality found anywhere.
"Native copper" is unadulterated by sulphur, chlo-
rine and carbon-elements that complicate refining
processes of mining companies in Arizona and Mon-
At Michigan's sole producing mine, the White Pine,
traces of silver distinguish their product-Lake Copper.
Other mining outfits must add silver, which increases
the conductivity of the copper used for wire and radi-
The world's largest body of freshwater, Lake Su-
perior, and the Great Lakes waterway, provided a
natural passage for the Cornish, Swedish, Finnish,
German, Irish and Norwegian immigrants who flocked
to the mines.
Missisiippi gamblers, lured by tales of bustling boom
towns and easy money, abandoned riverboat steamers
and traversed the Great Lakes wilderness to Michigan.
Wherever big money alights the trappings of culture
and high society are never far behind-reputable opera
companies made the scene, and prominent Americans
like Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune, Boston
bluebood Quincy Adam Shaw, the Rockefellers and
later Clarence Darrow retained interests in copper
The various nationalities that descended on Kewee-
naw developed separate institutions, and remained seg-
regated for many years.
Raymond Hosking, a gregarious 71 year old native
of the copper country, and presently Houghton County
Clerk, recalls the commaraderie of the immigrants.
"Nationalities were still closely knit back in the late
20's but this changed with the younger generation of
the 30's. People were pretty clannish with the French,
Finnish, English, and Swedish having their own
churches, halls and entertainment. But this all changed
with intermarriage in the 1930s."
The Michigan copper range, the backbone of the
slender Keweenaw Peninsula extending south through
the mainland, varies from two to eight miles -in width.
Highway 41 from Houghton to Copper Harbor follows
the range and markers designate the locations of old
mines and towns that sprang up along it. Allquez,
Cliff, Ahmeek, Phoenix, and Mohawk are just a few.
On some stretches, gravel-size nodules of the greenish,
oxidized copper are scattered along the shoulder.
But of some 1000 or more mines that were opened in
copper country during boom times, only about a hun-
dred actually produced the red metal, fewer than
thirty returned investments to their stockholders, and
only fourteen became profitable.
The venerable Quincy, or "Old reliable" as locals
call it and the Calumet and Mecla Mining Company
became bonanzas, dwarfing all other operations.
The "old reliable," chartered by the state in 1848,
is the oldest mine in Michigan and the Quincy Mining
Company is among North America's elder outfits.
When the Quincy closed down its mining operations
after Japan capitulated in 1945, its shaft was the deep-
est on the continent at 9,800 feet on the slant, 6,300
During the great depression, four of the six remain-
ing company's shut down and the "0>1 Reliable"
ground to a halt.
Bernard Ziemnick, an old timer with a crimson nose
and bloodshot eyes from smoking home-rolled smokes
and imbiding, worked for the Quincy Mining Company
since 1924 as a coal dock worker, a welder, and now
as caretaker of the reclamation plant. He recalled the
"A lot of people were on relief and the W.P.A. was
around here but people still got along alright. It was
hard times and people were used to working the mines
but everyone just helped each other out. We grew
gardens and some had cows; we managed."
Later in the 30's the Quincy reopened but the smelter
on Portage Lake remained idle until 1967. Today it's
The Calumet conglomerate lode was allegedly dis-
covered in 1864 when Edwin Hulbert fell into an
ancient mining pit while trying to corral several
escaped pigs, uncovering a large mass of native cop-
per. This vein provided the base for Calumet and
Hecla, the largest Michigan company.
Mississippi gamblers, lured
by tales of bustling boom
towns and easy money,
abandoned riverboat steam-
ers and traversed the Great
Lakes wilderness t o w a r d
From 1869 to 1876 C&H consistently produced over
half the United States total and, during World War I,
66,000 lived off the paychecks of the company.
While some historians insist that the mining moguls
played the benevolent paternal role to their foster
communities, providing residents with rudimentary
needs, Hosking disarees.
"The company's tried to take care of the people but
you have to remember that some of the companies
were just as poor as the people.
"They furnished hospitals, doctors and rent and coal
prices were kept as cheap as possible. But the mining
officials had to take care of their men and satisfy
the stockholders out East as well."
Worldwide overinvestment, the Great Denruesion, the
emigration in 1917 of manual laborers to the thriving
automobile factories of Detroit and th" rise of Western
mining-all contributed to the gradal iecline in Mich-
igan's mining industry in the early 1900's. Copper cosin-
try has never been the same.
Kiril Spiroff, a retired engineer who graduated from
the Michigan College of Mines (now Michigan Tech-
nological Institute) in 1923, recounted that era, and
the labor shortage that forced him into the dark
labyrinths of the Isle Royale Mining Company.
"I was broke and needed work so I hired on as a
mucker-the lowest job in the mine. Sure, I had a
degree in mining, but there wasn't any openings at the
time. I needed the money.
"It was like any other manual labor job," he con-
tinued. "All we had to do was fill our cars and clean
the drift (the horizontal tunnel that follows the lode
or vein) and then maybe we'd sleep for a while if we
"Now most laymen are afraid of mines. They asso-
ciate them with death. But I can tell you that you're
a lot safer down there than you are up above. I'm
talking about 70 degree year round, no rain, and no
boss-he only casne around once a day. Now when you
consider manual labor jobs, that's not bad!"
Thirty years later, Spiroff graduated to the position
of superintendent. He also worked as an engineer for
the Quincy Mining Company and taught at the college.
While copper country miners didn't have to contend
with the flaring temperatures of the Western mines,
or high altitudes of the Chilean mines, they did face
one indigenous peril: air blasts.
Caused by shifts in the strata and reaching cyclonic
velocities, some proved deadly. The air blast of 1927
claimed seven lives.
"In '27 there were a number of men entombed down
there in the Quincy Mine shaft," Hosking recalls. "It
took several days to bring the bodies out. Several
boys volunteered to rescue the miners and they were
"The accident didn't seem to bother people that
much," he continued. "They just took it as a fact of
life. They all went back to work the next day and con-
sidered it part of the job."
Spiroff, a mining man if ever there was one, also
remembered the infamous accident.
"At the end of the mine, the ground shifted and the
'llars crashed at the end of the men's shaft as they
were walking out.
"Then a bellow of air came through the passage. or
hole that was left and pushed them along the sides
of th wall with the force of a hurricane. It was
'obably a one in a million chance that it happened."
Accidents in the mines of the copper country, how-
ever. wire few in relation to the hazards of the busi-
Every mini-g operation requires a mill to stamp
the i-antie conner from the ore - and every mill re-
wlir- vwater T taksa shot 20. tons of water to extract
10 !,o-"s of th red metal from every ton of rock.
At oe ti- tn stamno mills lined the shore of Port-
a7T n ena anns of tilins 5or stamp sand into
The 'Wr'a'. s.hk b.4 h the Tloiting sand, has
-ri flo. s, a-.esi-tOa elitor at the Houghton
'irkn 'a t'izt '-raalls the milling operations
Sto. o 1990'.
See 'OPPEO, Page 7