The Norwich Report, Pt. 1: "The Cliff Project"

From August, 2009.
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.

The goal of the get-together was to explore and attempt to map out the ruins of the long lost Cliff Mine works and surrounding town of Clifton, which are perched on a now heavily wooded escarpment in the heart of the remote Keweenaw Peninsula. The Cliff is an extremely "ruins-rich" site, more so than almost any other place in the Copper Country, however it was so overgrown that supposedly no one really knew what all was back there, and to date there had been no extensive documentation of the ruins due to the density of the foliage.

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 arrived at the Cliff at about 10:20am, but my colleagues were nowhere to be found. I waited a bit, but then decided to just head into the woods on my own and probably find them that way, or at least be able to track them. I would find out later that they had already given up on the hopeless task of trying to stumble blindly through those thickets documenting anything, and had sought entertainment elsewhere (they left a note for me, but I didn’t get it). A task this monumental would certainly need better preparation, and as I would soon find myself, the best way to do it would be to get a good topo map and a Sanborn and overlay them. They did manage to get some structures GPS’d and mapped out.

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.

From there it was constant leapfrog from ruin to ruin, all the way to the foot of the cliff face itself. Most of these were basically unrecognizable; resembling nothing but disembodied walls rambling off schizophrenically into the woods with no particular rhyme or reason...

The absolute density of the tree growth positively dampened any attempt at trying to put together a mental picture of what sort of workings were at hand here. One could easily tell the industrial nature of the ruins by noting large footings with threaded bolts jutting up from the forest floor, or the disintegrated remains of a boiler, but beyond that, confusion and mystery reigned.

There were a few of these round turrets...

…which are actually the bases to primitive smokestacks.

In the Copper Country, there are three historical phases of mill smokestack construction—the oldest type had a base made of poor rock supporting an iron chimney, the second oldest type had a concrete base supporting a metal chimney, and the most modern type were the extremely tall, full-reinforced concrete stacks you see towering amongst the hills of the countryside above the forest.

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.

Men began arriving in the Keweenaw in the summer of 1841 when Michigan's State Geologist, Douglass Houghton, published his report on the Upper Peninsula, (though the French had known of the mineral riches of the region for 150 years), almost precisely as the fur-trading era was coming to an end. Houghton’s report was filled with so much enthusiasm that it caused a rush to Michigan, in a way presaging the California Gold Rush eight years later. The Cliff and the Norwich were among the earliest mine sites to be opened in the Yoopee, though hundreds more would pop up in the next nine years. Author Joseph R. Papineau notes,
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....

By 1878, large scale mining at the Cliff was over with, though it was leased until 1887. It had rendered 38 million pounds of refined copper, and paid out over $2.5 million to its investors. In 1903, the Tamarack Mining Co. bought the Cliff and did some more exploration of the lode, but found nothing worthwhile and closed the site in 1908. The mighty Calumet & Hecla Co. also re-explored the famous Cliff workings with newer diamond-drilling methods before declaring them officially spent in the 1950s, and allowing Mother Nature to take it back into her leafy bosom.

Here you see parallel rectangular recesses in the ground that used to be a boiler house or hoist I presume...

...but due to the foliage you probably can’t tell what you’re looking at from my pictures.

These footings probably once held compressor motors:

Just beyond them, this caved opening maybe once led to a tunnel or smokestack flue:

Slightly uphill from there, this tall aisleway curved gently to the left between two buildings…?

Trying to envision it without the overgrowth almost conjures thoughts of a tiny cobble street curving through a quaint mountain village in Italy or something to that effect. At its terminus, the wall soared 20 feet, backing up to the cliff itself, before an avalanche of mine tailings poured around its end pier, and down the slope beside it:

I explored some more along the base of the cliff, and found another round smokestack foundation:

I ascended a little more through the tumbling ruins that climbed the side of the hill, and came up to the top of a poor rock pile that offered a view over the valley:

From there I followed a trail easterly (probably used to be a street or narrow-gauge railway grade) and came upon some ruins that at one point had boulders roll down on them from the stone face of the cliffs above, as well as some scraps from old cast iron equipment:

Eventually I came to the Clifton Cemetery. It was in a state of ruin and evaporation equal to that which afflicted the mine works themselves:

The tombstones are generally dated to the 1860s and earlier.

These rotting grave-markers were made out of wood, and the lettering was almost completely worn off of them:

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.

The fame and lore of the Cliff Mine was so great that people were attracted to it just to see the ruins of the place where the American copper industry was born. I was carrying on a century-old tradition by wandering this place, only now the structures had disappeared, and trees had risen in their place.

From here I got the inclination to attempt a climb of the bluffs above me. I knew that there were more workings to investigate up top. The naked Greenstone bluffs that faced out along this ridge stood at a maximum height of 1,397 feet above sea level at their peak. Certainly not tall by mountainous standards, but that has no bearing on how vertically they in fact rise…

I began by hiking up some tailings and loose boulders, slowly finding a path higher and higher until I was forced to actually rock climb.

I had not come prepared for rock climbing, since I hadn't expected that I would be doing any. And worse yet I was wearing my work boots, since I lost my hiking boots. While they did an alright job, they were definitely not suited to this use, and neither were my pants or this backpack. This made the task a harrowing one, and the afternoon heat was building on me. The weather however was absolutely gorgeous, as it would remain for most of this trip.

Tired, and a bit jangled, I was forced to stop on a perch about halfway up the cliffs. I sat and rested, and contemplated the apparent impossibility of the climb that lay ahead, and the fact that what I had already climbed would surely be my death on the way back down. After all, whatever I climbed up now, I would have to somehow climb back down later, and that is usually harder. Time wore on and I was about to quit and head down, but for some reason when I stood up I instead began assaulting the rocks above with renewed vigor, and clawed myself to the top:

The last portion was over some cracked rock that pulled out easily, and I was forced to use plants and shrubs as handholds. Little did I know, I would be making about seven more such grueling ascents in the coming week at Norwich Bluff.

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:

It is the mouth of the Cliff Mine #3 shaft, possibly a thousand feet deep, partially collapsed in on itself…a potentially lethal trap, one whose unexpected appearance right next to me caught me offguard:

Though the shaft had once been covered over, the cap had apparently collapsed down into the mine.

Immediately inside the woods next to this were the foundations to the #3's engine house and hoist.

The view up here was excellent…

I began bushwhacking north along the escarpment edge, and found footings that probably belonged to an old tramway system, along with this gigantic anchor eyelet, with a cable still attached:

Having looked at aerial imagery I could tell that there were more poor rock piles up top here that spread out in finger-like formations from a central location at the #4 shaft, and that would probably be a good place to start looking for ruins again. After about 15 minutes I came through the woods to find—a road. Well, a Jeep trail, more like. It did not surprise me I guess, but hey—why not climb a 300-foot cliff face?

But anyhow, this ORV path led straight into the dune-like landscape of the poor rock piles that I sought.

You never find 70-degree weather so scorching as when you’ve slept in 30-degree temps the night before. The sun was bearing down full-force on me now, and the rock piles always seem to magnify that effect like an oven (which is actually why no plant life generally grows on them). Ahead I saw a particularly high one, with yet another round chimney base half-buried in the side of it:

This had once been the smokestack of the Cliff Mine #4's engine house. What a picturesque little ruin…it was like a castle lookout tower to a wilderness outpost in some Dungeons & Dragons adventure.

It was the last of the four shafts that mine would sink here before tapping out. Not far from here were also the South Cliff and North Cliff mines, as well as the North American Mine. It is hard to keep all these ruins from muddling together in your head while wandering through dense foliage.

At this point, it was late in the day (I had been exploring for five hours now), and I knew that I would be coming back here beyond the shadow of a doubt, at some future date, for a more thorough exploration of this bountiful little ridge. I could tell I had barely scratched the surface. It was best for me now to just call it a successful preliminary mission, get some dinner, and head on to my next destination.

The reason I felt it important to get moving to my next destination was that it seemed the Cliff would be around for me to explore for some time yet; it lays totally neglected in its little corner of the Keweenaw. However my next target, it seemed, would not remain unmolested for long….

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

1 comment:

  1. That large stone at the top of the broken section of the #4 stack has the number 1867 carved into it.


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