Huron Mtns Trip, Pt. 1: “Karst, Iron, Gold, Iron, Iron, Gold.”

September, 2012.

As mentioned in the final episode of my Isle Royale series two years ago, there was essentially but one major unexplored region of Michigan yet left for me, the area of the Yoopee known as the Huron Mountains. I undertook to conquer this final frontier from September to October of 2012.

The Huron Mountains are, as described in that thread, like an impenetrable fortress cordoned off from the rest of the Yoopee. Though none reach 2,000 feet in height, the country is extremely rugged--one of Michigan's most pristine wildernesses, right up there with Isle Royale. It is this way because of an elite organization of billionaires who purchased a large chunk of the land over a century ago to preserve a piece of the wild ancient beauty of Michigan that had been rapidly losing ground to the Industrial Age, naming it the Huron Mountain Club.

I guess I had better definite exactly what region I am talking about when I say “Huron Mountains.” For me, everything north of US-41 in the large, generally mountainous “camel-hump” of the Yoopee, found between the cities of Marquette and L’Anse is what I consider to be “The Hurons” (MAP). This huge area is bisected from north to south by the Marquette-Baraga County line.

Photo from MichiganHighways.org
As you can see, the area was—and is—extremely rural. No paved road has ever existed through this area, and as such, it was never really settled; Big Bay and Skanee are the only two villages that exist, on either side of it. My quest was to find a way to drive from the east end and come out again on the west end somehow, without getting hideously lost. I knew that it must be possible, that there surely must be a way to choose the right paths to make it all the way across the region without having to go back out and around, but all the maps of the area merely show the existing roads as faint dotted lines with no names that snaked endlessly through every contour of every valley, forking and interconnecting with no rhyme or reason.

Having never tread in these lands before I could only assume that this meant the quality of the roads ranged from decent but narrow dirt road, to deeply-rutted washed-out two-track lumber road, or overgrown footpath not meant for cars. Even the most detailed 7.5-minute topographical maps are little help in this department; sure they show most of the existing roads in high detail, but this is almost useless when there are no names for the roads, and new logging roads are cut without warning or any documentation on a yearly basis. Knowing which turn to take would largely be a matter of placing oneself at the mercy of divine forces. Washouts and fallen trees could be a distinct possibility for roadblocks, and I was forced to assume that there would be no signage to indicate where I was going or where I was. As a result I deemed it best to come heavily prepared, and to plan for every contingency possible.

I felt I needed a copilot for this mission and chose Navi, because I knew he was a hardy traveler who was unaccustomed to giving up easily. Not knowing exactly what conditions to expect, I set the date for our mission well out in advance to make sure I could procure a vehicle with at least a minimum proper ground clearance and new tires that could handle a bit of mud. Some may argue whether a 4-cylinder Ranger with a manual transmission, two-wheel drive and 220,000 miles on the clock is equal to driving in the Yoopee's deeper hinterlands, but I offer this series as a counter to those criticisms, when good prudence is observed. I also had Navi bring his car GPS; though it was admittedly crude, it should help us out at least somewhat, and give us an alternative way to double-check our map & compass guesstimations. I planned to bring my chainsaw as well in case of down trees across our road. The bed of my truck would serve as our hotel for several nights while out on the road due to the remoteness of some of the areas we would be in. Cramped quarters, yes, especially when jammed in there with a gangly-ass Canadian, but with the cap on it for a roof and some carpet and padding laid down, it was commodious enough to do the job. I had a good length of chain, and I had fresh tires put on the rear wheels before the trip.

I spent a long time combing Google Earth, Panoramio, old records of mining activities, and quizzing the members of CopperCountryExplorer.com's (now defunct) forum for anything that might be worthy of investigation in the area of the Hurons, as well as any tips or admonitions on navigating said country. One of Navi's chief interests (and my own) was in reaching the summit of Mt. Arvon, Michigan's highest point, which lay huddled deep in the center of this wilderness. Other than that we would just be out seeing the sights, and maybe making a few stops at some old familiar hangouts.

I picked Navi up at the Windsor Tunnel, and after quickly loading our gear, we left Detroit hoping to make it to the Munising before stopping for the night. We didn't quite get that far however due to some traffic and a late start. After passing the Mackinac Bridge I decided that we could make good of camping at the old Fiborn Quarry not too much further up the coast from the straits. Sloop and I had camped here once before, as the place lent itself well as a stopping point with a few nice ruins left over as well. We spent a few minutes enjoying their pale forms in the silver light of a full moon before retiring for the night.


We resolved to wake up at the very cracking of dawn in order to continue our trek up to the Superior shore. At 7am we were up and moving in the stiff cold that had settled on the quarry overnight.

As we were running along our northward course to the lakeshore on 393, something big and ruinous that I had never noticed before caught my eye on the side of the road, and I immediately pulled a U-turn to go back and investigate.


Sure enough, a monster concrete foundation to some other old quarry structure sat basking in the new golden rays of dawn. I drove right in and around it, conveniently not even having to get out of my truck to snap a few quick shots.

The c.1984 Mapbook of Michigan Counties shows this to be the Hendricks Quarry, and an entry on Mindat calls it "Union Carbide's Hendricks Limestone Quarry." Other internet hits seem to indicate that there was once a settlement here, with a post office. A 2013 article in the St. Ignace News talks about the possibility of renewed mining at sites like these in Mackinac County, and quotes local Don Goudreau as saying he watched the last shipment of stone leave this quarry in 1930.


We were on our way into the iron range where I had a few new targets to check out in the Ishpeming-Negaunee area, the cradle of the iron mining industry. This was entirely due to updated higher-resolution on Google Earth, which had mysteriously appeared not long before this trip, allowing me to see new potential ruins sites whereas I had always regarded the iron mining ranges of Michigan to have much fewer ruins leftover than the copper ranges.

The first target was a site in Ishpeming that looked from above like there might be a towering concrete pillar of some sort, perhaps a pulley stand, next to a pond that was probably a flooded pit mine, which I have learned is in fact the Barnum Mine. Before we were able to get there however, this handsome, unexpected beauty arrested our attention:




Not seeing any obvious way in, we continued the last couple blocks to Barnum Mine. We pulled into an area that might have been active to some extent, but not seeing anyone around, we merely parked and made our way into the woods. It wasn't long before we found ourselves amongst a plethora of ruins.


There is some confusion in my research as to whether this mine is the "New" Barnum Mine, or the "Old" Barnum Mine (at least one of which is better known as the Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Co. Shaft Mine Museum today), or whether it is the "A" or "B" shaft of the latter.

At any rate, they named the shaft after their current president, William H. Barnum, and from what I can tell, this location was the "Old Barnum" Mine, which unlike its brother to the north was an open pit type and closed in 1897, while the much more famous "A" and "B" shafts of the "New" mine continued in operation until 1967--the longest run of any underground iron mine in the world.


The view of the water-filled mine pit itself was quite impressive, as I don't think I've ever seen one up close myself. Navi seemed impressed as well, making a favorable humph when he came up behind me and saw it.


This monolith was easily 50 feet tall.


Not far off, this concrete-walled pit was easily 30 feet deep:


After we had satisfied ourselves here we made for the Philips gold prospect, which is one of the few gold mining locations in the state. I didn't even know until a couple years ago that gold had even been mined in Michigan. This would require a bit of navigation over wholly unfamiliar triple-digit roads, followed by a short hike into the area of woods I believed the mine to be. It was turning into a mighty fine day and I was ready to get out and do some walking.

Finding several dead-ends at “PRIVATE DRIVE” signs, we eventually came back to a cul-de-sac we had seen, that was fairly close to where we wanted to be. There were several cars already parked back in here surprisingly enough, and neither Navi nor myself were able to hazard a guess as to why; I didn't think there was anything back here that would attract any traffic.

After hiking for several minutes we came across this large cut with some sizable boulders strewn down almost right onto the trail.


I thought that maybe this could be the site of some mining activity, so I climbed up and had a look around. While the view was nice, I saw no evidence of ruins. This could've been the Philips prospect site however, as many of the blocks that had fallen off the cliff sported what appeared to be drill marks, but no indication of any adit was present. Continuing on into the woods where Navi's GPS unit was directing us, I began to look again for signs of any human influence on the landscape.


Owing to the temporal nature of Michigan's brief and largely unsuccessful gold mining industry, we were up against a greater challenge than finding ruins of the average copper or iron mine, as typically only the most successful mines leave large ruins behind. I knew that we weren't likely to find much, but I didn't mind trying. According to Mindat however, there were supposed to have been two shafts and one adit here, so that’s what kept us looking.

But we didn't find much else out here, so we went back and took pics of the couple remnants that we did see in the large open area where land clearing had obviously taken place at some point. This area had been fenced off like a mineshaft, so I assume that’s what it was:


Nearby, this apparent foundation piece was the only material evidence we found:


We heard voices and saw people approaching in the distance. They had buckets and shovels with them, and even from far away we could hear them talking about gold mining. One was just a dog-walker, but I should have expected a former gold mine to attract rock hounds and prospectors.

This area was also the site of the Ropes Mine, probably Michigan’s best-known goldmine--the only American gold mine found east of the Mississippi River. It lay a mere couple hundred yards to the north of where we stood. According to Mindat, it was started by Julius Ropes in 1881, and by 1883 was in full swing with a stamp mill to boot. It was 15 levels and 813 feet deep. By 1897 it was forced to close, but was repurchased in 1900 by a company who used a new cyanide leaching process to squeeze a little more gold from the tailings and mercury drippings found in the old mill buildings. Yummy.

 Inflation caused renewed interest in working the site by 1983, with new shafts sunk and depth extended to 1,548 feet. According to these pics, the mine suffered a collapse of several of the upper levels in 1987! That, and falling gold prices caused the mine to finally close for good by 1991.

Ropes was the only profitable goldmine in Michigan’s history. If you look at the area on aerial view, the vast open areas are those that were dozed-over to repair the stope collapse. Some of the areas we passed through were fenced off and basically signed as “GIT OFF M’LAND,” which intrigued me, and were tempting to sneak into, but I wasn’t feeling lucky enough for some reason. Chances that an awkward conversation at the end of a prospector’s hog leg might be the result seemed ample, so I decided we should cut our losses and move on.

There were two other mines with actual ruins over in Negaunee that we could check out. I drove us into the back access roads surrounding the giant Empire / Tilden Mine, probably the only operating iron mine left in Michigan. It is a pair of open pit mines so mammoth that they can easily be seen from space. They are far bigger in area than the twin cities of Negaunee-Ishpeming themselves, and can be recognized looming from afar by the telltale black, stepped mounds forming their edges:


I searched these barren back roads for a strategically convenient place to park before making our leap into the woods.

Looking down a railroad spur leading into Empire / Tilden Mine:


Finally we parked and executed a tricky climb through a drainage ditch next to the road across from a swamp before forging up into the dense woods on the other side. We found ourselves in a very strange terrain, full of odd depressions which could only be subsidences caused by underground collapses:


We navigated by compass through the huge area of caving ground, before seeing the edge of the clearing we were looking for. After shaking a couple poachers (or partridge hunters?) from our tail we emerged to see the Tracy Mine spread out before us.

The preponderance of seemingly stored junk led me to think that this place might not be necessarily abandoned, but rather a hillbilly haven still owned by somebody.


We approached slowly and cautiously. I can only imagine that the tall supports once held an elevated rail line or cable system.


We crossed a railroad line almost buried in taconite pellets:


Taconite is of course a refined iron ore product that can be easily shipped, or poured into a steel mill for easy melting. The ground was covered in the things.


The buildings here were nothing like the old stone or concrete ruins I was used to seeing at mine sites; this was pure modernity. It looked like we could easily get in (or climb up on the roof) if we wanted to, but something still kept us on edge, so we kept investigating in a slow circle around the place before making any moves.


Unlike many of the better known iron mines in Michigan, the Tracy Mine was an underground mine as opposed to an open pit mine. It operated from 1951 to 1971, and according to an article in The Mining Journal, many of the former miners still get together in town for reunions.

The Tracy Mine was owned by the Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., which was eventually bought out by LTV Corp., and the article claimed that the men remembered them "as good employers."


One of the miners said that the ore in the Tracy "looked like clumps of grapes," and its iron content was so high that you could literally weld it.


The organizer of the reunions spoke of the close bond that forms between underground miners. "You really had to count on each other if you wanted to make it underground," he said.


Some railroad couplings and other implementia lay on this porch:


I figured these buildings were offices and labs of the mine. The young age of these structures speaks to the fact that iron mining clung to life in Michigan much longer than copper mining.


Many of the men actually took college classes at nearby Northern Michigan University while they were employed at Tracy Mine. It was encouraged by the company according to one, who actually were quite flexible in scheduling the miners shifts so that they could go to school while working there.


Some of them got better jobs as a result, and left the mine.


I bet the guy who used this thing has a bunch of stuffed animals in his house:


The sign says, “WAL-MART SECURITY CAMERAS IN USE”:


You can see one mounted to the corner of the wall above the sign. While this much security was odd for the Yoopee, we started to make our way back to the woods, satisfied nonetheless.


On a tall sudden bluff closer to town, whose peak lay shrouded in tree cover, the rusting machinery of the Athens Mine sat in noble repose, enjoying a commanding view of the surrounding countryside, and that is where we made our next move. I parked us next to what was probably an old rail-trail, and noticed this sign:


Our intended target was a bit further up the road however. Navi and I casually walked down the residential street a ways before hustling into the brush when the opportune gap in passing cars materialized. Our estimation of the slope’s steepness proved inadequate, as we both slipped and spilled clumsily in our attempt to top the dome-shaped bluff.


Finally shaking off the disgraceful amateurishness of our mount, we passed the base of the titanic foundation and arrived shortly at the top, greeted to a beautiful leafy panorama and the poetically stoic, ruined flywheel of what could have been the Athens Mine’s powerhouse, basking in the sun and balmy breezes of this scenic height.


Part of a dynamo sat nearby. For this type of machinery to have been left behind is rare in Copper Country; I was beginning to like this iron range stuff.


This juggernaut was of a gargantuan scale. For some reason I couldn’t quite get the shot I wanted, as the light wouldn’t quite cooperate with me.


The Athens Mine was owned by the Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Co., and according to an archives of Northern Michigan University that holds that company's administrative records, it seems that they worked the Athens Mine roughly from 1914 to 1925 (or at least thats as far as the records in their possession go up to), and it seems they continued to own or lease the land until roughly 1940.

According to a September, 1914 issue of Iron Age, the shaft was still in the development stage by that time and was not projected to be a producer for another two years. It was only 150 feet deep, but was planned to be bottomed out at a maximum depth of 2,000 feet once fully developed.


According to the article an entirely new system of sinking was employed at the Athens, "using a cage instead of a bucket," which was lowered in via a system of cables and guides, and the rock comes up to the surface in a car with "circular shaped sides," which fit a tipple located in the floor of the track running over the dump pile. The scheme was "working perfectly, and was certain to come into general use in shaft work."

The walls of the Athens shaft were also planned to be entirely concreted, to a thickness of over a foot, and would extend "well into the orebody" according to another c.1913 article in the Engineering and Mining Journal. Eventually drifts would be opened to extend it to the adjacent Negaunee Mine a few hundred feet away. The article also claimed that the Athens was a joint interest of Cleveland-Cliffs and Pickands, Mather, & Co., who would operate it together as the Athens Mining Co. The existence of ore on this site was originally confirmed through diamond drilling methods the journal said, and that such testing continued while the surface plant's construction was being started.


Another article in the Engineering and Mining Journal stated that the shaft would have to be sunk to 2,800 feet, and that it was 17 feet in diameter, one of the largest in the range. This article further noted that the equipment being installed included a Nordberg 20-drill compressor, and a hoist by the Lake Shore Engine Works, both of which would be run on electricity as opposed to steam, and located in an engine house on the crest of the hill, "far above the collar of the shaft." It appeared that we were standing on the ruins of that very engine house. The mine, when completed, would be the "deepest on the Marquette Range and one of the best equipped in the Lake Superior district."

Not much else was left up here besides the massive flywheel, and we soon went back down.


Our last goal for the day was to get in range of our primary target for this trip—the Huron Mountains.  I wanted to spend the night at the edge of what I considered to be the vast unknown area containing the Huron Mountains, which coincidentally was also not far from the outer edge of the city of Marquette.

There, in the “foothills” of the Hurons, was another small rise not unlike the dome we had just climbed, where I knew to have once been the location of Captain Daniel’s Mine. It was one of many more gold (and silver) mines and prospects sprinkled across the southern rim of the Huron range from Marquette to L’Anse.


We made a quick stop in Marquette at da local grocery store to stock up on food and booze supplies for our trek. We were about to dive headlong into a pathless wilderness for a couple days, living out of the back of my truck. Chances were good we might get lost and have to spend a couple more days finding a way back out.

Making all possible haste before the sun set, we sped out of Marquette on M-550. It wasn’t long before I noted that we had arrived in the area of Captain Daniel’s Hill (for lack of a better name), and found a nondescript driveway of sorts to pull into. It led straight into the thickets and quickly dead-ended after maybe 100 yards. This was perfect—no reason at all why we couldn’t stealth-camp here tonight in this exact spot. There were no signs.


With the sun dipping rapidly, we had only perhaps a half hour before total darkness, so we grabbed the essentials quickly and slammed headfirst into the dense overgrowth. I had the sheet of jotted coordinates to all of the targets for this trip and read off the numbers for Captain Daniel’s Mine to Navi as he typed them into his GPS. I also used my compass to crosscheck our progress based on the direction it told us to go.

We pressed with difficulty through foliage for a good 300 yards before suddenly finding the foot of a tall hill whose bare head poked above the forest. We immediately went to the top to survey our fiery golden surroundings. Lake Superior’s blue expanse could be just barely glimpsed from here as well:




After a brief enjoyment of this blazingly beautiful autumn glory we worked our way back down into the woods to go in search of ruins or a mineshaft that might be hiding on the flanks of this hill.



After several minutes of searching with no luck, we met back at the top of the hill. Apparently Captain Daniel would not reveal his secret stash of gold so easily; the only gold that he would be giving the likes of us was that which had lately graced the orange leaves of the trees around us.


It was then that I noticed something that I had been half waiting for…I was calculating in my head where and when the moon should be rising, and sure enough, just above the distant waves of Superior nestled directly between the slopes of the hills to the west was the pale disc of the full moon, slowly buoying itself above the horizon.


Navi wanted to know how I knew it was going to be there, but it was just a simple matter of knowing that the full moon always rises at the same time the sun sets.




With full darkness mere minutes away, we had to tear ourselves away from this hypnotizing sight in order to push our way back through the dense woods to where the Rusty Camel was parked.


I reversed the azimuth on my compass and trudged back blindly on that bearing in the fading light, somehow popping out of the woods immediately in front of the truck. That worked out well! Operation Beer-Crack then commenced, and we sat on the tailgate for a couple hours toasting the beginning of another grand adventure, and just bullshitting in the bright light of the risen moon before calling it a night. It got pretty cold out, but the back of the truck proved comfortable enough, for me at least. Hey, if John Steinbeck can do it, so can we.

CLICK for part 2


References:
Engineering and Mining Journal, Vol. 96 No. 9 (August 30, 1913), pg. 414
Engineering and Mining Journal, Vol. 39 No. 24 (December 6, 1913), pg. 1096

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