April 17, 2021

FTV: Copper Fred


     Fred Rydholm’s name has appeared in this column on numerous occasions.  Fred had a lifelong interest (or obsession) to find out more about the mystery of who removed copper from this area before Europeans arrived on these shores.  Who were the ancient miners and where the copper went were the main trunks of a tree that sprouted many branches.  The part of the story that I have never explained fully is how Fred became so enthralled with these questions.  Fred granted blanket permission for excerpts from his books to be used for educational purposes, in reports and articles, or in published reviews.  I sent Fred numerous photos from his Ontonagon County adventures with the same understanding:  if they helped him tell the story, by all means, make use of them.  I recently began re-reading Fred’s last major work Michigan Copper – The Untold Story – A History of Discovery (C. Fred Rydholm, 2006, Winter Cabin Press & Services) and it dawned on me that the best way to tell this tale would be first had, in Fred’s own words.  With Fred’s passing in April of 2009, we have lost the opportunity to hear the story directly from the source.  Having heard him repeat this tale in many of his presentations, I still hear his voice in the passages presented here.  All of these segments are taken from Michigan Copper.

     Fred first heard about Isle Royale at Boy Scout Camp in 1936.  When an opportunity to spend ten days on the island came late in the summer of 1937, Fred jumped at the chance to visit this mysterious place.  Fires had burned some 35,000 acres of the island and the moose herd had dropped from 3,000 animals to about 500 at that time.  We will pick up Fred’s story soon after they set up camp at Siskiwit Mine on the shore of Rock Harbor.  Fred’s stories always included a lot of sidebar discussions so the excerpts here won’t cover all of Michigan Copper’s Chapter III:

     “Vance Hiney, a teacher in the Negaunee schools and a long-time friend of my family, was our cook.  Since he knew me, he volunteered me to be his special helper, the official cookee.

     When we first arrived at our campsite, Vance took me back into the woods and showed me a large hole in the ground.  He told me we would be putting all the food that needed to be kept cold down in the bottom of that hole.  [After the scouts had stashed their perishable foods in the hole] It was afternoon when I took my first trip down.  You didn’t need a ladder, a steep path on rocks wound its way to the bottom.  It was August, so I was amazed to find the bottom covered with ice, perfect for the fresh provisions.  I became very curious about that hole and had a lot of questions every time I returned from it.

     ‘That’s a mine,’ I was told.  It didn’t seem like much of a mine to me as it was only 20 or 30 feet deep.  I was used to stories of the iron mines near home where men went down hundreds of feet in shafts.

     No one in the group seemed to know much about the mine or even seemed interested, but I was positively fascinated.  When I was sent to get something down there I was always given a flashlight and several times I saw mice scampering around our food.  I asked what kind of a mine it was.  ‘It’s a copper mine,’ the leaders told me.

     So I started looking for copper in the hole and sure enough there were small bits of copper glinting here and there.  The more I looked, the more I found, but I couldn’t chip any loose to take home.  It was pure copper but embedded in the rock.

     At Cemetery Island we saw some old graves, just sunken holes in the ground with crude, illegible markers.  Who were these people?  They were copper miners, I was told.  They were Englishmen from a hundred years or so ago.  Did they really work in the mines?  Nobody knew, but Englishmen had worked several places on the Island.  The more we explored the more evidence of digging we found.  ‘Who did all the digging?’  I asked different adults who I thought would know some answers.  I finally got a statement out of one leader, nothing detailed, but more than I had ever learned before.

     ‘Well, the last ones to mine here were the Americans,’  he said, ‘that was about 50 or more years ago.  Before that it was the English, way back in the 1700 and 1800’s.  But most of the digging was done by Indians who dug for copper all over this island hundreds of years ago.’  I was more curious than ever.  Imagine the history of people digging copper here that went back hundreds of years.

     When our ten days on Isle Royale were up, the boat couldn’t return for us, so we actually stayed on the island for 18 days.  With this extension of time, we were able to take at least one more longer trip, so six of us decided to go to Minong Mountain on the opposite side of the island, the northwest shore.

     On a previous trip to nearby Mount Franklin we could see Minong Mountain on the distant horizon.  Mrs. Carroll Paul, daughter of John M. Longyear of Marquette and head of the Marquette County Historical Society, had told me earlier that the Indian name for Isle Royale was ‘Minong’.  When a mountain with that special name was pointed out to me, I really wanted to go there.  From what I had heard, that mountain must have some special significance.  When we heard the boat would not arrive for at least four or five days, we got the go-ahead [to hike there].

     Minong Mountain lies just up from the west end of McCargo Cove, a long body of water jutting inland from Lake Superior.  Following a swampy red-ribboned trail laid out earlier by the CCC boys, we sloshed our way northwest.  We hiked about 17 miles to reach the cove at dusk.

     It was on this trip that I became more and more inquisitive about the copper miners.  It seemed to me that there was evidence of them everywhere on high ground.  McCargo Cove and the sides of Minong Mountain had been carefully worked over, yet there was still copper to be found.  In that area there were diggings everywhere.  In some places there were square holes (vertical shafts) filled with water.  Elsewhere, there were addits, tunnels driven into the sides of hills, with depressions everywhere.  There were remains of old machinery and railroad tracks (probably a tram-way), large clearnings with dilapidated old buildings, and huge piles of tailings everywhere.  Nothing has aroused my curiosity about copper more than the massive amount of surface disturbance we saw that summer of 1937.  What was so interesting at the time was so much obvious evidence of ancient and modern mining done in the same area.  The modern miners left iron rails, now long overgrown with vegetation, and the tumbledown buildings and everywhere were more tailings, shafts, and addits,  Away from the modern workings, the ancient pits seemed spread out endlessly back through the woods in all directions.  Possibly hundreds, even thousands, of these ancient pits had been reworked and then covered or destroyed by later mining.

     There was one 5,720 pound mass [of copper] found near McCargo’s Cove that was raised part way to the surface on cribbing.  It would seem, since this had to have been a slow and laborious process, that others closer to the surface had been removed, this one having  been left in the middle of the operation when the team working on it left, never to return.

     When climbing Minong Mountain in the dark that night (one flashlight among the six of us), we encountered pit after pit, shallow depressions in the rock some five and six feet in diameter.  Some of these pits contained oblong rocks with chipped and broken ends.  These seemed to be varieties of hard rock common to many sites around the shores of Lake Superior.  The ones I saw varied in weight from perhaps five to ten pounds.  [Scout leader] Bill Mudge called them ‘Indian Mallos’ or at least that’s what I thought he called them.  Later I found that some people called them ‘mauls’ or, more descriptively, stone hammers.

     During the final few days on the island, I talked to nearly all of the different leaders and always asked about the ancient copper diggers.  The obvious question was, ‘Who were they?’  They all agreed, they were Indians.  ‘And what did they do with the copper?’  From that group I always got the same answer, ‘They made arrowheads with it.’

     The more I thought about that answer, the more I realized this could not be correct.  All that copper and yet at that time, while I had seen many stone arrowheads, I had never seen a copper one or even heard of one.  There were many collections of stone arrowheads around.

     Returning from Isle Royale it was two more days of waiting at Copper Harbor.  Four of us were taken in by a kind family who lived in and ran a gift shop in a ship’s cabin.  Three slept on the floor and I won the draw to sleep in a short ship’s bunk.  They fed us royally with pancakes and maple syrup.

     As late as we were in getting home, as I remember, everyone took it all in stride, with no concern or worried parents calling as would certainly happen in today’s orgainzed world.  But these were different times and everyone accepted different conditions.

     After my return from the island, I always tried to inform people about the place, but I found little interest.  I was always ready to talk Isle Royale and copper with anyone.  The one place I found a sympathetic ear was at the Marquette County Historical Society.  [When exploring the 

Museum] I soon found out that Mrs. Paul was the president and executive director of the organization.  It had been started by her father, John M. Longyear, just after World War I in 1918.

     Mrs. Paul was a lady of many interests and I enjoyed talking with her.  In some of my discussions with her about Isle Royale, the subject of native copper came up.  She told me that Mr. Joe Gannon, owner of the Gannon Grocery Company in Marquette, was interested in Michigan copper and had been actively studying it for a long time.  She said, ‘If you want to know more about Michigan copper, Joe Gannon is the man to talk to.’”

     Over the course of many presentations, I heard Fred talk about Mrs. Paul and Joe Gannon.  One year we had Fred and Russel Burrows do an educational workshop at the Porcupine Mountain Wilderness Area visitor’s center (about Burrow’s Cave, another story for another day).  They were to repeat the program for the monthly Ontonagon County Historical Society dinner at the Konteka that evening. We had several hours to kill between the end of the workshop and the dinner meeting so we mounted a caravan of interested participants to Rockland to explore some of the ancient mining pits there.  The old road past the Methodist Rose Cemetery was more passable by car then so we parked on the trail between the old Church on the Hill site and C-Shaft Hill.  The route to the top of C-Shaft Hill was still drivable then, but more recently, ATV induced mudholes have cut down normal vehicular traffic.  With Fred, we walked the road to the top so we could examine some of the ancient copper mining pits that ring the hill.  Near the top, there is a series of pits dug in a line where Fred paused for a long while.  He rubbed his chin as he looked them over and finally said, “You know, I was told about the mining pits in the Rockland area years ago by Mrs. Paul and Joe Gannon.  I don’t know why it took me this long to come and see them myself.  Standing here right now takes me back forty years, sitting with them  at the Marquette Museum asking a million questions about the mystery of Michigan copper.”

     Fred is no longer with us, but his body of work remains as a testament to the extensive research he conducted.  The books he wrote are still widely available and anyone who wishes to learn more about the history of Michigan copper couldn’t find a better place to start.  There are still those who wish to ignore the evidence and maintain the history of North America began with voyages of Columbus.  As one who was fortunate to learn most of what I know about the topic directly from Fred Rydholm (call me a ‘Rydholmite’), I will continue to push the historical starting point of our area back to the ancient miners and beyond.  

     As Fred used to say near the end of his many presentations, “Europe has tons of bronze artifacts from the pre-Columbian era.  Bronze is made by smelting tin with copper.   They had enough tin, but they did not have enough copper resources to make all of that bronze.  In the Upper Peninsula, we have evidence that thousands of pounds of copper were mined in ancient times, but we can’t find enough artifacts on this continent to account for where it went.  What do you think?” 

Top Piece Video:  Okay, I couldn’t find a good copper mining song, so just insert ‘copper mine’ where they sing ‘coal mine’ and we are close enough – Devo’s reworking of the classic tune by Lee Dorsey