The Copper Country

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Projecting one hundred miles to the northeast into the broad waters of Lake Superior, the bold thrust of the Keweenaw Peninsula forms the most northerly reach of the state of Michigan. It is a dramatic climax to a varied and beautiful land. There was a time, however, when this remote region was also the repository of one of the state's most valuable resources: copper. A narrow spine called the Copper Range, which runs the entire length of the peninsula, once held rich deposits of copper. This remarkable geological feature is flanked by sandstone.

About forty-five miles from its northern tip, the Keweenaw Peninsula is pierced by Portage Lake and the Lake Superior Ship Canal, forming the Keweenaw waterway, which opened in 1873. This waterway virtually transforms a major portion of the peninsula into an island. From the southern shore of Portage Lake the land rises abruptly to form the site for the business district of Houghton. From the northern shore the land rises more gradually from the village of Hancock to an elevated plateau that extends northeast to Keweenaw County. This area, known as the Portage Lake Mining District, at one time contained one of the richest copper fields in the world. At its northern boundary the villages of Laurium and Calumet, once made up of enclaves named after mine locations, merge to form one continuous community.

Prehistoric inhabitants had taken copper from the Lake Superior region and French explorers had noted the existence of this red metal in the seventeenth century. In 1772 Alexander Henry prospected for copper on the Ontonagon River near Victoria. His Travels and Adventures in Canada and the Indian Territories,published in 1809, reported the presence of a large boulder of copper weighing approximately six thousand pounds near the mouth of the Ontonagon River. In 1841, Julius Eldred led a well-publicized campaign to remove the Ontonagon boulder from the Ontonagon River and display it in Detroit. Subsequently, it was moved to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Further attention was drawn to the area in 1841, when state geologist Douglass Houghton submitted his fourth annual report describing the location and extent of the copper deposits of the Keweenaw Peninsula. Congress purchased the lands from the Chippewa in 1843, and a speculative craze, encouraged by the federal land policy, began and lasted three years.

The Copper Country was settled and developed when investors from Boston, New York, Chicago, Marquette, and Lower Michigan speculated in the region's mineral resources and in its rugged land. After prospectors and geologists had identified the location and extent of the mineral resources, Alexander Agassiz, Quincy Adams Shaw, William A. Paine, W. H. Mason, and others established, developed, and finally, consolidated the Copper Range Company, the Quincy Mining Company, and the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company (C&H) into giant mining operations. Towns grew around the mines and mills and at the transportation centers of Houghton and Hancock. Hordes of Cornish, Irish, German, French Canadian, and Scandinavian immigrants, followed by Austrians, Hungarians, and Italians, flocked to the region to work as miners, trammers, and laborers. Mining engineers and technicians arrived from the East to supervise and manage them. The mining industry was aided by the opening of the locks at Sault Ste. Marie in 1855 and the completion of the Lake Superior Ship Canal in 1873. Railroads also facilitated in this development; the Mineral Range Railroad connected Houghton with Hancock in 1873, the Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic reached Houghton in 1883; and in 1885 a railroad over a drawbridge connected Hancock and Houghton, the major commercial centers of the region.

This rush of activity created a demand for buildings. Copper Country architecture achieved a special harmony with the land because its architects and builders used, with sensitivity and understanding, the materials of the area—native Jacobsville sandstone, taken from the site or quarried locally at Portage Entry, and poor mine rock discarded from the mines. The architecture that emerged ranged from the strictly vernacular for the workers to the fashionable high styles for the owners and managers. Professionally trained architects were virtually unknown in this remote mining region until the late 1880s. Clients called upon Henry Leopold Ottenheimer, Holabird and Roche, Erhard Brielmaier of E. Brielmaier and Sons, John Scott of Scott and Company, and other architects from Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, and Marquette to design major public buildings. By the late 1890s local governments, businessmen, religious groups, and individuals employed Demetrius Frederick Charlton, the first trained architect in the Upper Peninsula, or itinerant architects such as Charles K. Shand, who followed the development westward across the country to design city halls, courthouses, churches, banks, and commercial blocks. Men with little professional training, but experienced as builders, designed and built most of the Copper Country's architecture. Their works quickly developed to form a strong regional tradition.

Mining came to an end in the twentieth century. Deteriorating labor relations led to the Michigan copper district strike of 1913–1914. In 1923 the C&H reincorporated and consolidated its numerous mining properties. The depth of the mines increased while the copper content of the ore diminished. The C&H sought other means of profit making by capturing large quantities of copper lost in the milling process, extraction of ore from amygdaloid rock in new mines, and reclamation of copper from mill sands. Mining was hard hit by the Great Depression. It closed permanently in 1968. From the mid-twentieth century, tourism, education, and high technology replaced copper as the basis of this region's economy, which continues today.

Writing Credits

Kathryn Bishop Eckert

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