STRIKING COPPER IN THE KEWEENAW
MARQUETTE — The rich history of copper in the Keweenaw Peninsula was shared at Kurt Fosburg’s Keweenaw Copper presentation to Northern Center for Lifelong Learning members on Tuesday at Peter White Public Library in Marquette.
Yoopers, longtime residents and newer residents alike had the chance to learn something new about the Copper Country, as Fosburg shared many aspects of the Keweenaw’s history, from geological formations, early copper use and mining by Native Americans, to the eventual copper mining boom in the 1840s — the first major mineral rush in the United States, several years before the famous California Gold Rush.
However, before the mineralization in the Upper Peninsula and Keweenaw were known to Europeans in the U.S., Michigan gained Isle Royale and the Upper Peninsula, along with its statehood in a compromise that gave Ohio the Toledo Strip.
“At the time, a lot of people thought that was a really big mistake, a folly,” Fosburg said, explaining that while it’s now believed to be a good deal, Michiganders felt differently at the time.
This would change once explorations to the Keweenaw Peninsula confirmed the long-rumored presence of mineral deposits.
“There were always rumors flying that there was mineralization in the Upper Peninsula. A lot of people didn’t believe it, but there was words in the woods that something might be up here,” Fosburg said. “There’s this possibility that the British fought as tenaciously as they did in the … Revolutionary War because of the mineral deposits up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan … But the first word that got around to the Europeans that put any validity to this was the Ontonagon Boulder on the Ontonagon River.”
Fosburg explained that the Ontonagon Boulder, rumored to be a piece of copper “as big as a house,” turned out to be a “little bit less impressive once it was found” — closer in size to a table — but pieces of copper as big as a house would eventually be found in the Keweenaw.
When the presence of copper was confirmed in the Keweenaw by Douglass Houghton in 1841, the type and quality of the metal was noteworthy — the large copper deposits were of remarkable purity.
“This is one of the only places on Earth — there’s only about two little small locations in the rest of the Earth — where copper is found as a pure metallic substance, picked right up off the ground, 99.9 percent pure,” Fosburg said.
Amazingly, the only “impurity” found in Keweenaw copper was silver.
“The mines that weren’t processing their ore any further would often market their cooper as ‘lake copper,’ meaning that people knew it had silver in it and it was better electric conductivity when electricity became more prevalent,” he said.
Naturally, the discovery of the long-rumored deposits led to the famed copper boom in the Keweenaw.
“The copper boom up here, 1844, was the first major mineral rush in the United States of America, and it brought thousands of people here looking for copper,” Fosburg said.
The Phoenix Mine began commercial production in 1844, then the Cliff Mine, noted as the “first profitable copper mine,” began operations in 1845. Eventually, mining spread across the Keweenaw as more and more copper deposits were found, Fosburg explained.
He noted that while some may think of the U.P. as a place that is “behind the times,” the area had advanced, cutting-edge mining technology before many places in the country were even settled.
“Our technology up in this region … was beyond the limits of science at that point in time,” he said.
By the late 1800s, there were mine shafts of incredible depths — the Red Jacket Shaft at 6,200 feet, and the Quincy Mine Shaft House No. 2 at 9,200 feet deep, with 92 levels, one every hundred feet.
“The mines in the Keweenaw Peninsula were the deepest mines in the world until only recently,” Fosburg said, explaining that only within the last 15-20 years have deeper mines been built in South Africa.
The massive copper boom brought more than technology to the Copper Country — it brought people from all over the world to the area, along with cosmopolitan features of city living, such as a Houghton-to-Calumet streetcar, five-star restaurants, theaters featuring famed actors of the time, as well as an amusement park.
The mining companies, many headquartered on the Eastern Seaboard, had so much influence that they were able to change the boundaries of the Eastern time zone, Fosburg explained. If you’ve ever wondered why the western boundary of the Eastern time zone suddenly juts westward, it is because the mining companies wanted to have the Keweenaw Peninsula on the same time zone as their offices on the Eastern Seaboard, he said.
However, the tremendous influence of the mining companies could be a double-edged sword for their workers.
When new technology made it possible to run drills in the mines with one man, instead of three, workers began to voice concerns about safety of working conditions, layoffs, as well as wages and child labor.
“In 1913, the men had enough … They’re starting … to lay off people, now they can cut their workforce by a third, then the men started to organize … So they started to strike,” Fosburg said.
The strikes became larger as tensions between mine owners and workers came to a head over the year. Fosburg noted the Seeberville Affair, in which two striking miners died when being shot at in their boardinghouse by strikebreakers, as a major incident that pushed things to a boiling point.
“Everything blew up after that,” he said.
However, in December 1913, unspeakable tragedy struck — someone yelled “Fire!” in the crowded Italian Hall during the annual Christmas Eve party for the miners’ children. Mass confusion and chaos ensued, with 83 people, including 59 children, perishing in the stampede toward the building’s exit. After the incident, the despair in the town was tangible — it was so quiet you could “hear a pin drop,” Fosburg noted.
The morale of the town was broken and so was the strike. Some returned to work, but many left the area due to the tragedy and reduction in job availability, as some mines had shut down altogether during the strike.
The copper mining industry continued in the area, but wound down in the 1960s, with the White Pine Mine finally closing down in the early 1990s.
“In that period of time, over 11 billion pounds of copper were removed from the Keweenaw Peninsula,” Fosburg said, noting that the 11 billion pounds removed only represent 5 percent of the estimated copper deposits there.
While copper mining is no longer the booming industry it used to be in the Keweenaw, the influence of the copper boom and all the people it brought is still evident across the region now known as the Copper Country.