Since I wrote this, the Cliff Mine ruins have been cleaned up quite a bit, and the overgrowth cut back by Michigan Tech students performing industrial archaeology projects at this important historic site in the Copper Country. This post will give a look into what the Cliff ruins looked like in their natural state before that occurred. The Cliff Mine is on property owned by the Keweenaw County Road Commission, and is open for anyone to respectfully explore.
This year’s trip to the Yoopee (Michigan's Upper Peninsula) was going to be a little special. First item on the agenda was to meet up with other members of the CopperCountryExplorer forum (CCE) for their annual group ruins-hunting expedition at the former Cliff Mine, in Keweenaw County. The “Cliff Project,” it was termed, would start Friday, and go until Sunday—unfortunately I would only be able to make Sunday.
We had been planning on the forum since winter to put together such a project by breaking up the Cliff into zones and assigning tasks to individual members who would then take a camera, a compass, and some paper into that zone and try to document the lay of the land / disposition of the ruins therein. To say that we did not have our doubts as to the likelihood that we would be able to successfully make this idea work would be fibbing, but at any rate it would be a fun time and give us an excuse to be out in the woods, and in the process at least get a better idea of what all was back there. Maybe this would be a prelim for a more focused operation next year. It was also a chance to meet the other people behind the CCE site that I had been following since it started up in 2006.
When I crossed the Mackinaw Bridge at 1:30am, the temperature was about 46F. When I arrived in Munising at about 3am for a nap, the temperature was about 35F (keep in mind, this is August). I slept in my car for three hours and continued the drive to the Cliff. I stopped in Houghton for breakfast at about 9am at the Soumi Bakery, and ordered my usual panukkaku and nisu with coffee. I also got a cold pasty to go, so that I could enjoy a stout lunch while in the woods clambering around on ruins piles.
I loaded up my light-duty Army backpack with a few essentials like my compass, bug spray, a knife, water, the pasty, raingear, and a hoodie. It was still a bit chilly. I tucked my pants into my boots for protection against ticks, and began my ascent toward the Cliff, starting out by finding a ford in the river that trickled through the stamp sands. Immediately within the verge of the trees, I came across the first ruined stone foundation.
The Cliff Mine here dates to 1844, and features the oldest style of smokestacks. It was started by the Pittsburg & Boston Co., who were the first mining interest to secure land leases in the Keweenaw.
These men are on what, in truth, in 1841, amounts to a legal quest, because of the 1826 treaty to locate mineral rich sites that contain copper and silver, or, possibly, even other minerals that are as yet unknown, lying around waiting to be scooped up, as was implied by Dr. Houghton’s report, from the Porcupine Mountains to the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula.
By law, none of these areas would be open for settlement until the tribes could be convinced to give up their lands by treaty with the U.S. government, which as Papineau points out wouldn’t be very long since they had already been pushed to destitution, and would be forced to do so to provide for their families. So even though the Treaty of LaPointe wouldn’t be ratified by President Tyler until 1843, effectively relinquishing all Anishinaabeg claim to these lands, that didn’t mean that prospecting couldn’t be done. And I imagine the urgency of a push for such a land treaty, and the value of its terms, was largely dictated by how many promising leads to copper could be confirmed by these early pioneers.
At first the Pittsburg & Boston Co. did not have much luck digging in the area of Copper Harbor where Houghton had first made the discovery of copper a few years earlier, sparking the ensuing land rush. But according to an archaeology blog by Michigan Tech, the men also knew of a tall basalt cliff to the south that had a peculiar vein of quartz running through it. They traced this down the cliffside to its base and decided to hire a few German immigrants to start digging there, where 70 feet down they soon uncovered a solid boulder of pure copper. Upon hefting this nugget of metallic wealth into the light for the first time since the dawn of the Earth, the reflecting glint of sun that caused it to light the eyes of those first prospectors signified not only the birth of the "Cliff" Mine, but also the first time that copper, or miskwaabik (literally, "red metal"), would be extracted in reliably mass quantity anywhere in the world.
Cliff was the first successful copper mine in Michigan, instantly making headlines across the nation, and it was the most productive in the world until about 1858. It not only proved to be a crucial resource during the coming Civil War, but its meteoric success resulted in countless other mining companies to pepper the Keweenaw with holes in the coming decades. The birth of the Michigan copper industry (and soon, its iron industry) facilitated the dawn of the modern age of electrification, refrigeration, and automobile manufacturing—developments that would have been impossible to implement on a mass scale without the endless supplies of copper (and iron) found here. Michigan was then on the cusp of becoming an industrial superpower; if you look at the outline of the state, it almost resembles a hand reaching for a pickaxe....
Here you see parallel rectangular recesses in the ground that used to be a boiler house or hoist I presume...
For those who think that "urban exploring" is a recent invention, consider the fact that when the Cliff Mine faded out in the 1880s, it became fashionable by the 1900s for wealthy tourists to visit the decaying ghost town of Clifton...
There is even at least one postcard that was printed depicting a pastoral scene of the old boarded-up log cabins in rows, surrounded by long, waving grasses in the former streets, the church steeple in the background, and a rich horse-drawn carriage in the foreground, carrying a load of curious onlookers.
As I came finally up to the top, panting and completely winded, I looked over my shoulder and saw this scene perched on the very edge:
But anyhow, this ORV path led straight into the dune-like landscape of the poor rock piles that I sought.
CLICK HERE for part two of the "Norwich Report."
CLICK HERE to go to my other post about Cliff Mine.
Sources cited in this series:
Norwich Mine, An Historical Journey Across Time, by Joseph R. Papineau
A Guide to Michigan's Historic Keweenaw Copper District, by Lawrence J. Molloy
"The Copper of Michigan," New York Times, Oct. 14, 1890
"The Ontonagon Copper Rock," Sacramento Daily Union, Oct. 8, 1857