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History of copper mining in
Michigan's Upper Peninsula
The Upper Peninsula, in an area known as the Copper Country---my home area. The
Copper Country is highly unusual among copper-mining districts, because copper is
predominantly found in the form of pure copper metal (native copper) rather than the
copper oxides or copper sulfides that form the copper ore at almost every other
copper-mining district. The copper deposits occur in rocks of Precambrian age, in a
thick sequence of northwest-dipping sandstones, conglomerates, ash beds, and flood
basalts associated with the Keweenawan Rift.

A number of copper mines also contained a notable amount of silver, both in native
form and naturally alloyed with the copper. "Halfbreed" is the term for an ore sample
that contains the pure copper and pure silver in the same piece of rock; it is only
found in the native copper deposits of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Native Americans were the first to mine and work the copper of Lake Superior and the
Keweenaw Peninsula of northern Michigan between 5000 BCE and 1200 BCE. The
natives used this copper to produce tools. Archaeological expeditions in the
Keweenaw Peninsula and Isle Royale revealed the existence of copper producing pits
and hammering stones which were used to work the copper. Fringe writers have
suggested that as much as 1.5 billion pounds of copper was extracted during this
period, but archaeologists consider such high figures as "ill-constructed estimates"
and that the actual figure is unknown.

By the time the first European explorers arrived, the area was the home of the
Chippewa people, who did not mine copper. According to Chippewa traditions, they
had much earlier supplanted the original miners. The first written account of copper in
Michigan was given by French missionary Claude Allouez in 1667. He noted that
Indians of the Lake Superior region prized copper nuggets that they found there.
Indians guided missionary Claude Dablon to the Ontonagon Boulder, a 1.5-ton piece of
native copper along the Ontonagon River. When American prospectors arrived in the
1840s, pieces of copper were found in streams or on the ground. The copper pits
abandoned by Native Americans led early miners to most of the first successful
mines.

The Michigan State Geologist Douglass Houghton (later to become mayor of Detroit)
reported on the copper deposits in 1841, which quickly began a rush of prospectors.
Mining took place along a belt that stretched about 100 miles southwest to northeast
through Ontonagon, Houghton, and Keweenaw counties. Isle Royale, on the north side
of Lake Superior, was extensively explored, and a smelter built, but no mining of any
importance took place there. Some copper mineralization was found in Keweenawan
rocks farther southwest in Douglas County, Wisconsin, but no successful mines were
developed there.

Copper mining in the Upper Peninsula boomed, and from 1845 until 1887 (when it was
exceeded by Butte, Montana) the Michigan Copper Country was the nation's leading
producer of copper. In most years from 1850 through 1881, Michigan produced more
than three-quarters of the nation's copper, and in 1869 produced more than 95% of the
country's copper.

The copper industry was, for over 100 years, the life blood of the Copper Country. The
town of Red Jacket (now Calumet--my home town) used a portion of its budget surplus
to build The Calumet Theatre, an opulent opera house which hosted famous plays and
acts from across the world. Many wealthy mine managers built mansions which still
line the streets of former mining towns. Some towns which existed primarily due to
copper mining include Calumet, Houghton, Hancock, and Ontonagon. As the mines
began to close, the Copper Country lost its major economic base. The population
declined sharply as miners, shop owners, and others supported by the industry left
the area, leaving many small ghost towns along the mineral range.

Tourism and logging are now the major industries. The copper industry left many
abandoned mines and buildings across the Copper Country. Some of these are now
part of the Keweenaw National Historical Park. Some mines, such as the Quincy Mine
and the Delaware Mine, are open as tourist attractions. Many other mining lands are
simply left abandoned.

Copper mining also had a significant impact on the environment. Mine rock processing
operations left many fields of stamp sand, some of which grew so large as to become
hazards to navigation in the Keweenaw Waterway. Most of these sterile sands are
now superfund sites which are slowly being rehabilitated. Mines also required a great
deal of wood, largely for supports in mine tunnels. Virtually every part of the Copper
Country was cleared of timber, to the extent that only small area of old-growth forest
(the Estivant Pines) is left. Formerly cleared lands have been left to regrow, to the
extent that many parcels of land are now being harvested on a limited basis by timber
and paper companies.