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  • Writer's pictureInger and Jeff Latreille

Copper Mining

~Wednesday, July 28, 2021~

Day 409

Time for a little refresher on the fresh water tank today. Since we have (4) 5-gallon collapsible bottles, we filled only half of the 40-gallon tank. Who knows, that might just be enough for the remainder of our stay. Nice that the fresh water station is just a short distance from our campsite.

After our nice big pancake breakfast, it was time to head out for our afternoon tour at the Quincy Copper Mine tour in Hancock, MI, about 20 minutes from our campground. The Quincy Mine began their operations in 1846 and had much success as the demand for copper grew during the Civil War. First, our impressions of the industry. What we took away from this tour was that at the end of the day, the mining industry was really an abuse of power and greed at the expense of every miner who sacrificed their lives to give themselves or their families a better life. 1 billion pounds of copper were extracted from these mines and the mining company virtually owned everything that the miners and their family needed…..stores, homes, schools, etc. where essentially all of the money was simply being returned to the mine. And then there were the ecological effects.

Copper mining was extensive in the Keweenaw region from the mid-1800’s, once fueling a thriving economy. But at what ecological cost? There was very little concern of environmental impacts, where in effect, all mining industry related waste products were dumped into Torch Lake. It is estimated that 20% of Torch Lake’s volume was filled with waste products. To this day, there are still ill effects where water contaminant levels are carefully monitored. The EPA has been heavily involved in clean-up efforts, but some of the waste has just been left to the natural process of recovery. They think it will be another 100 years before the lake will return to its unspoiled, untainted physical state.

Back now to the tour itself. When we arrived, we were required to sign a waiver and put on a hard hat. Our tour guide seemed to be the best. His knowledge and delivery were top-notch which really made all the difference on the success of the tour. He really made you feel like you were a part of this backbreaking, difficult life.

There were a number of skilled laborers at Quincy Mining Company, but the majority were unskilled laborers who settled in the mining towns of “Copper Country”. Hoping for a better life, they came from a variety of different ethnic European backgrounds including Italian, Finnish, Slavic, German, Irish and Cornish. 6 days a week, 10 hour days in a 42-degree mine, these men who only saw a sliver of sunshine everyday, worked in some of the harshest conditions of any industry, and for very little pay. For every 3rd man working those mines, 1 would die and that’s not including the men who died from lung damage by silica dust. There seemed to be so little reward for the price paid.

The first thing we were introduced to was the Nordberg Steam Hoist….the Largest Steam Powered-Hoist Engine ever built.

This was built in 1918 and adjoins the 1894 hoist building. This addition is quite impressive in person, and made it possible for the Quincy Mining Company to extend its No. 2 shaft 92 levels underground (nearly 2 miles). Transporting those men and ore of the deepest levels of the mine was quite a task which is why the hoist engine was built. The building that houses the hoist was built to represent the success and power of the company, in hopes of impressing investors and the competition. The hoist and reinforced concrete building with brick veneer and Italian tiled walls and etched glass were quite elaborate. Today, this building is looking a little beat up with its signs of crumbling concrete and rusted rebar. Glad we had hard hats on. 👷‍♀️😉

Next was taking a cog-wheel tram to the entrance of the No. 5 mine shaft. The minute you get close to the shaft, you can feel the change in temperature… even 42-degrees rain, shine, winter, or summer. For nearly one-half mile, we walked through wet, cold conditions which lent itself to another layer of clothing and closed toe shoes. Since the mine stopped operating in 1945, all 85 levels below the area where we were, have been filled with water. We saw quite a few artifacts like mining cars, drills, tools, etc. with our tour guide demonstrating how hand tools were used and later more sophisticated equipment with pneumatic devices like a hand drill. He also went into what copper looks like amidst the other less favorable rock. Only 2% of what was being hauled up contained copper. Ugh!!!

One of the demonstrations, much to the dismay of the kiddos on our tour, was the candle experiment. Of course, we have modern lighting on the tour, but what if you didn’t have that….what would you use as you dig hundreds of miles deep in a mine? Before 1850, miners would use candles hung from crevices, which our tour guide demonstrated. He started with 2 candles attached to the surface of one of the walls, but then went down to 1 candle, but then, what if both candles went out. How would you find where the candles are? The flint to light it? Every area around you was void of light. You basically would have to sit and wait, and pray someone else working hundreds of yards from you would get you back up and running or back up and living. It was quite something to imagine. From 1850 until around 1915, miner’s headgear were made from canvas with leather brims and metal lamp brackets on their foreheads to hang a source of light from their cap. But flammable mine gasses and oil lamps are a recipe for disaster, where lethal explosions were all too common. It wasn’t until the 20th century that electric lamps were introduced.

The end of our tour brought us to the No. 2 shaft/rock-house which was built in 1908. This building is where all of the sifting and sorting happened.

It was also the location where men would go underground to work, with the clock not initiated until they reached their destination. Insane!! Seeing tours like this gives us a whole new perspective on how we live today. Though we all have hardships, we also have it sooooo easy! Wow, what a history lesson! Definitely worth a visit. If you’re ever in the Hancock area of Michigan, this tour is an absolute must.

After our tour we stopped at a local brewery called Keweenaw Brewing. Jeff ordered a “blonde” for me and an IPA for him. And all tap beers were only $3.00. We wouldn’t say their beer was the most delicious, but it had a great, fun atmosphere in the heart of downtown Hancock. Since we were starved, not having eaten anything since breakfast, we decided to order the only food item on the menu…..peanuts. That would have to do.

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