Copper was first mined in this area by an ancient vanished race between 5,000 and 1,200 bc. These miners left no burial grounds, dwellings, pottery, clay tablets or cave drawings. What was left behind was thousands of copper producing pits and more thousands of crude hammering stones with which the pits had been worked. The ancients apparently worked the copper-bearing rock by alternately using fire and cold water, to break the copper ore into smaller pieces from which they could extract the metal with handheld hammering stones or stone hatchets. With this copper, they made tools.
Scientists and engineers estimate that it would have required 10,000 men 1,000 years to develop the extensive operations carried on throughout the region. It is estimated that 1.5 billion pounds of copper were mined by these unknown people.
The pure copper of Lake Superior has been discovered in prehistoric cultures throughout North and South America.
The mystery of their origin remains unsolved. The mystery of their disappearance remains unsolved.
Many hammered copper knives, arrow and spearheads, and axes were recovered at ancient mining sites. Some fine examples are on display at Fort Wilkins.
In 1842, the Chippewa ceded all claims to 30,000 square miles of the Upper Peninsula to the United States Government. The Copper Rush was on. In 1843, before the western gold rush of the ’49ers, thousands came to the Copper Country to try their luck.
The first mining rush came to Copper Harbor. All travel was by boat, there were no roads. Copper Harbor became a bustling sea town.
In the winter, travel was by dog sled. Boom towns sprang up everywhere around the mines. These mines produced most of the world’s copper.
The rush of copper hunters came clamoring ashore at picturesque Copper Harbor, Ontonagon, and Eagle Harbor. Boom towns sprang up everywhere a ship could safely find shelter from Lake Superior.
By 1846, only the Pittsburgh and Boston and the Lake Superior Mining Companies were still operating in the Copper Country. Much early speculation met with disaster. Of the 24 companies formed between 1844 and 1850, only six would pay any dividends and all were organized to mine mass and float copper deposits.
The experience of the Pittsburgh and Boston Company demonstrates why individual efforts could not succeed. For example, in 1844-45, Pittsburgh and Boston stockholders spent $28,000 on diggings near Copper Harbor, realizing but $2,968 from sales of copper. Their experiences on the Copper Harbor Lighthouse Point and near today’s concession at Ft. Wilkins were not unique. The Fort Wilkins shaft bottomed at 120 feet and stockholders dug deeper into their pockets so the search might continue elsewhere.
Shortly thereafter the fabulous Cliff Mine began producing the first mass copper that was not also float copper. The Cliff Mine was near Eagle Harbor, 19 miles west of Copper Harbor (Map). Huge pieces of metal, some weighing more than 50 tons, were discovered where they had been deposited. They lay deep beneath the surface, undisturbed by the glaciers which had gouged out so many other specimens, scattered them around the country and tricked so many early miners. In 1849, the Cliff hit rich vein rock. Pure copper masses, some weighing 100 tons, were chiseled, hammered, blasted, cut in pieces and hauled to the surface bit by bit.
Hoisting machines of a magnitude never before dreamed of, were designed to lift hundreds of tons of Keweenaw rock from thousands of feet below the surface. Great stamp mills were built to crush rock so metal seams and chunks could be separated from the poor rock before smelting. All this copper was shipped out of the copper country on small (by modern standards) boats, down treacherous Lake Superior and finally through the St. Mary’s River Canal at Sault St. Marie.
The Soo Locks were opened in 1855, producing increased immigration, commerce and cheaper copper shipping connections to eastern industrial markets. Railroads were soon serving the entire area. The Keweenaw was on its way to becoming a major industrial-mining-population center.
All over the range, the wilderness gave way to attractive communities housing miners, mill men, and merchants. Settlers poured in from everywhere to work the mines, clear land and build farms and to establish businesses.
By 1900 the shafts of Keweenaw were the deepest in the world. Bringing copper to the surface required increasing amounts of physical plant investment and it was apparent to geologists that the mines of the district had reached maturity.
When the mines were no longer profitable, the companies and employees left. All that remains are ruins of mines, ghost towns and a lot of copper. Many of the people who live here today are descendants of the courageous Copper Miners of the Copper Country.