A quick quiz: How many different types of mines have there been in Upper Michigan? This is a question I ask my sixth grade Geography – Earth Science students at the beginning of the Geology unit we cover that includes U.P. mining history. Everybody comes up with “copper”, and a few might remember “iron”, but that is a pretty short list. Before we get very far in our discussion of mining, we have to define exactly what constitutes “a mine”. Right from the beginning, they are introduced to the term “extractive” because that one word applies to all mined materials. I like to broaden the scope of the discussion by telling them a little story to get their wheels turning.
Professor Jarl Roine was the head of the Geography Department at Northern Michigan University when I was finishing my MA degree there in the 1979-80 school year. We were discussing the very topic of Upper Peninsula mining in an Urban Planning class and one of the students asked Dr. Roine, “If you could own any type of mine, what would you want to own?” His surprising answer was, “A gravel pit.” Some of us thought he was pulling our leg until he said, “Let me explain. I would want to own a gravel pit on the outskirts of New Orleans, Louisiana. New Orleans is growing fast and they have to import all of their gravel by barge from the northern reaches of the Mississippi. Think of how much gravel goes into buildings, levees, and roads. The value of an extracted resource is often relative to the abundance or scarcity at any one location.” Imagine how the value of the resource would have increased in the wake of Hurricane Katrina! I thought this was a practical, Yooper answer and it should not have surprised me. Dr. Roine often told us about growing up in the U.P. at a time when it was not uncommon for his father to whittle the forks and spoons their family used for dinnerware. Now my students have three items on their U.P. mine list: copper, iron, and gravel.
The glacial history of this area goes a long way toward explaining why we have seemingly unlimited sources of sand and gravel. The postglacial period of our history included a lot of moving water and moving water carries sediments. The faster the water flows, the larger the particles of rock it can move (the volume of water on the move also plays into this method of transportation). As soon as the water speed and/or volume is decreased, the heavier particles begin to drop out and form layers. From the surface, this may not be obvious, but looking at the walls of any sand or gravel pit that has glacial origins shows definite patterns in the layers of sediments. Wave action along the shore of the early Great Lakes also helped sort out these particles. One of the most detailed soils samples taken by one of my students came from the Maple Grove Cemetery in Greenland. The young man needed to take a sample and when he noticed the sexton opening a new grave, he asked if he could get his sample before the upcoming internment. He was surprised by the multiple layers of sand and gravel he found and ended up taking close to two dozen different samples. This isn’t hard to fathom if one remembers that the ridge on which the early copper mines in the Mass City – Greenland and Rockland areas were founded were actually a string of bare islands in early Lake Superior (whose earliest shoreline lay much further south in the Bruce Crossing area). Wave action around the islands built beaches just as the current lake does and depending on the intensity of the wave action, the beach will consist of alternating layers of sand, pea gravel, and gravel. Using these sand and gravel deposits requires them to be extracted from the Earth and I that is why I remind my students that this is the very definition of “mining”.
Sediments laid down in more ancient days often became sedimentary rocks that also have layers we can see. The red sandstone cliffs at the head of Keweenaw Bay between L’Anse and Baraga show tell tale signs that these rocks were at one time sediments laid down by moving water. Indeed, the Jacobsville sandstone quarried along the Keweenaw Bay side of the Keweenaw Peninsula was shipped to distant points and was prized as a durable yet beautiful building stone. Finer sediments laid down in deeper waters east of what is now Huron Bay (at the abandoned town site called Arvon) formed a shale deposit that was eventually squeezed under heat and pressure to rearrange the structure of the atoms in the rock. This metamorphic form of shale is a much harder (yet similarly layered) rock called slate which can be quarried and milled into blackboards and shingles. Henry Ford took full advantage of these resources and most of his buildings in the Detroit area are built from Jacobsville sandstone and roofed with slate from the Arvon slate quarry. The sediments that formed both of these valuable resources were washed out of the ancient mountain ranges that roughly paralleled what we now see as the Canadian and Michigan sides of Lake Superior and deposited in the ocean that lay just to our south (the complete history of the the building up and wearing down of these mountains will have to be discussed at another time).
If one is counting, the list of things mined in the U.P. now numbers six: copper, iron, gravel, sand, sandstone, and slate. Another mineral that is often associated with copper is silver. Silver City just east of the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park was known to have some silver deposits (hence the name change from the original “Beaser” to the present name). On the opposite shore of the big lake, there is the fabled Silver Islet mine that has a rich history of being difficult to mine because it is located on a low island just off the north shore of Lake Superior. The most interesting tale of silver mining in the U.P. is told in the book Wall of Silver. According to legend, a prospector found a hidden mine entrance somewhere at the base of the same ridge of the Keweenaw Peninsula that the Cliff Mine was located. Upon entering and exploring this nondescript tunnel, the prospector discovered many mining tools and evidence of more ancient mining than the 1880’s copper boom. Further in, he reportedly found a solid wall of silver that had never been extracted. He covered up the entrance and never showed anyone else where it was located, thus sending many fortune hunters off in search of the fabled wall of silver mine. Silver has not been extracted in the same quantities as copper and iron, but it has been mined. Even today’s copper pickers value the copper-silver nuggets that bring a fair price on the mineral selling market.
More recently, the Eagle Mine located north of the Yellow Dog Plains in Marquette County has added nickel to the list of U.P. mines. There has been a lot of controversy over the construction of this mine, but it is in operation and the ore is shipped by truck to their processing plant located at the refurbished Humboldt iron mine near Republic. The concentrated ore is then shipped by rail to a refinery for final processing. The total life of the original mine was projected at about twenty years but a new deposit located near the mine is in the process of being developed to help extend the operation beyond the original estimates. If they can find a way to get a permit granted to improve the shorter trucking route south (thus avoiding US 41 and the cities of Marquette, Negaunee and Ishpeming), they will be able to avoid burning hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel currently needed to ship by the longer route. Silver and nickel have now lengthened our list to eight.
Processed copper and raw nuggets can be traced to their area of origin by analyzing what other elements they contain. We mentioned copper and silver being found together, but it is the trace amounts of gold found in U.P. copper that make it a valuable tool for tracing how far our native copper has travelled. Indeed, the Terracotta “army” found buried in the tomb of the first Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang had copper spear tips that contained the gold signature of U.P. copper. The next question would be, “Besides the gold traces found in copper, was there ever enough gold in the U.P. to support a gold mine. The answer is “yes!”
In 1979-80, I was finishing my Master’s Degree in Geography at NMU. My office mate Mike was also a graduate student who surprised me one day by mentioning that before he came back to work on his MA, he had been working underground at the Ropes Gold Mine north of Ishpeming. I had never heard of such a thing. Mike said that when the price of gold began to rise, a company reopened this long closed mine and was actually making a modest profit. He left when the price of gold dropped and the company began to make decisions based on lowering the cost of mining without enough regard as to the welfare of the workers. In the late 1970s, the ‘rise in gold prices’ was up to a whopping $300 per ounce. I wonder if the current plethora of “gold fever reality shows” will dredge up this mining effort again with the price of gold now hovering around $1000 an ounce?
With gold coming in at #9, we should also mention lead as mining material #10. A history of the L’Anse area written by the history classes of L’Anse high school in the 1920s mentioned two lead mines in the area. One on the Falls River and one near the location that would eventually become Henry Ford’s Alberta sawmill and town site. I am not sure if it was actual lead or graphite that was mined, but the Alberta site is located on Plumbago Creek. The name is a derivative of the Latin world for lead: plumbum. We use “Pb” for the symbol for lead based on the Latin term the same way we use “Fe” for Iron instead of “Ir”, so we will take this as further evidence that there were lead mines in Baraga County. The so called ‘silver lead ore’ (Argentiferous Galena) lead prospectors over much of Marquette, Baraga and Ontonagon counties in search of the minerals that were often found in conjunction with lead and silver.
As far as things that are NOT mined in the U.P. we can count coal and uranium. There are no coal deposits located in the peninsula. There is uranium in them there hills, but it just isn’t concentrated enough for mining operations. Just east of Sault Ste. Marie in the area surrounding Elliot Lake, Ontario, there is one active uranium mine left. The base rock they are mining is similar to the granite deposits in the U.P., but this is a case of “close, but not close enough” for us to count on our mining list.
In answer to the original question, I will hang my hat on “at least ten” things that have been mined in the U.P. from ancient times until the present. If there are more items that can be added to this “list of things that have been mined in the U.P.”, please feel free to let me know the when and where and I will add them to the map the next time my students revisit the topic.
Top Piece Tune – Roger McGuin’s Your Love is like a Goldmine