Snowbound, Day 2: "Getting Cheesy"

January, 2011.

When I awoke it was hours before dawn, I was freezing, and I could hear something...a noise that wasn’t there before. It didn’t take me long to realize that it was the wrath of the Ice Water Mansion--the frozen lake had turned over in the night and the harbor ice was gone--angry waves now pounded the beach a mere couple hundred yards from my car and lashed out at the old town of Marquette with a whipping wind that blew the snow around horribly. The temperature had dropped severely, and the dim streets were deserted except for the ferocious wraiths of snow that now slashed against and around the gorgeously carved sandstone buildings of the grand old port city. This was the real Yoopee weather I had come to see.

I immediately fired over my car’s engine, scraped the windows off, and found coffee before launching westward to the Keweenaw. I was anxious to get my usual Finnish breakfast at the Soumi Bakery in Houghton. That was the one thought that kept me focused and alert as I catapulted through the twisty-turnies of Baraga County in the dark. The snow was driving, I could barely see the marginally-plowed road, and yet every now and then I would hear the long low mournful moan of a lumber hauling rig coming up from behind to overtake me at 65mph in the dark while going uphill through steep, curving mountain passes (such as Michigan has, anyway).

Finally it began to get “light” out, and I could see the silhouettes of spiny snow-covered evergreen trees serrated against the deep dark blue dawn.

Daylight never really came, it just got less pitch-black out (this seemed to be the normal routine as my vacation progressed) and the snow continued to fall from the grey sky.

You really have to be alert and know the lay of the land when driving the Yoop' in winter, because most of the time all the road signs are totally stuccoed by snow, making them unreadable. As such you will not have the luxury of being told what town you’re coming into, what road you’re about to intersect, or what cliff you’re about to about to drive off of in the dark. You have to know. (Or--Jesus Christ…I guess you could get a GPS or Garmin or whatever, but you might as well just cut your own penis and balls off and throw them in the trash can while you’re at it. It actually says to do that in the instruction manual for those fucking things by the way.)

Anyway I reached Calumet at about 9:30am, and tried to use a payphone to call Mike. It was dead. So I had to ask around, and a guy who had a can of Miller Lite in the cupholder of his Chrysler said there was a working payphone in the Northend Bar. Which was open at this hour...

Mike came to meet me and by this time the snow was hitting pretty hard. I noticed the Keweenaw had a decidedly deeper level of snow than the rest of the Yoopee, about three feet and up. Which is about right for early winter. St. Anne’s church had snow up to the door handles:

This was actually not as apocalyptic as I had imagined it being, thinking back to historical Yoopee photographs of train stations with snow piled up to their eaves, or of telephone poles barely sticking out above the snow, but again it was still early in the season. The mood in downtown Calumet was B.A.U., and I was entirely impressed by the scale of snow removal equipment being operated by Calumet’s Public Works.

Mike lived in one of the rows of old workers' houses that were built by the great Calumet & Hecla Mining Co., over a century ago.

A very quaint place these days for sure. We exchanged the usual pleasantries and immediately began outfitting for a trip to the hills. I was extremely pleased to find out that he planned to take me to the Baltic Mine and Stella Cheese factory. The cheese factory is on private land, but Mike knew the owner and had permission to be there.

We rode in his 4x4 down southwest through Houghton again, and followed the lode along M-26 to the town of South Range where we parked at a baseball diamond and began donning our snowshoes in the wind-blown snow. The frigid dry air stung the nose with the added repugnant bite of snowmobile exhaust, and there was always the ever-present buzz of the engines swarming off somewhere in the woods, or swishing past us on the trail in packs at breakneck speed. What I didn’t know yet was that this was a huge snowmobiling weekend in the Keweenaw, and the place was practically overrun.

Our path took us along the treacherous snowmobile trail for a couple hundred yards before Mike found the landmark signaling our dive into the snowy woods. It took me a while to get the proper adjustment happening with my left snowshoe and I kept having to stop and fight with it, clawing at stiff leather straps with frozen fingers. Finally I was trudging along properly and keeping up with my guide.

I couldn’t believe how well these things worked--it was like a dream come true. Amazing little things. These woods were laden with about three feet of snow, and I knew for a fact that without the snowshoes I would be utterly fucked--forced to swim through the waist-deep tufts.

The first thing we came across (and in fact which was also the landmark that signaled Mike to plunge into the woods) was a mysterious set of standing stones…he said he had never been able to figure out what exactly they were for.

This I think is the remnants of a rock house, which is where the extracted ore from the shaft would be dumped into railroad cars:

After that we came to some more random ruins and a hoist.

This coal dock consisted of two cement pads where massive coal piles would sit for feeding the boiler house, a gap betwixt them with a conveyor. The snow had formed a false roof, making it look like a tunnel:

Opposite that was the foundation of the old boiler house itself, with the titanic concrete smokestack foundation towering mightily out of the snow with a strange air of antiquity about it that I faintly likened to the Mayan pyramids looming up out of the jungle canopy of Central America…

This behemoth had to be 20-some feet tall (if you consider how much is hidden beneath the snow-line). If you remember back to my lecture about the Cliff Mine, you’ll recall that the three phases of smokestack building in the Copper Country were: poor rock base, cement base, and full cement. This is the second phase, a cement base which would’ve supported a steel stack, dating it to around the dawn of the 20th century.

According to Mindat, the Baltic Mine eventually consisted of five shafts, where exploration began in 1882 and successfully discovered the Baltic Lode. The #3 shaft was the deepest, at 3,839 feet. The mine produced 276 million lbs. of refined copper over the course of three and a half decades before mining ceased in 1931. According to the HAER the Baltic, or "South Range" Lode was the last major discovery of copper to be opened in Houghton County, and it was developed by investor William A. Paine (hence Painesville) and John Stanton.

Mike’s own writings indicate that the Baltic was something of a venerable pioneer…
While starting as an independent mine in 1897, the vast share of its stock was quickly gobbled up by the Copper Range Consolidated Company. In 1917 Copper Range took the rest, and the mine became the company’s flagship mine. The Baltic was the first to exploit the rich Baltic Lode (from which the mine was named) that started just southeast of South Range. The lode continued on for miles to the south-west, feeding the future Trimountain and Champion mines as well. Together with those later mines, the Baltic formed the backbone of the second largest mining company ever to exist on the Keweenaw.
Somewhere under our feet were the remnants of this scene, captured over 100 years ago. Alas, all the shafts here at Baltic have been capped, and were buried under snow.

Mike continues,
The first shaft sunk along the Baltic Lode was sunk at the wrong angle, and quickly passed through the lode and into trap rock. It turned out that the Baltic was the steepest lode along the Keweenaw, dropping down into the earth at an angle which was nearly vertical--73ยบ in fact. Three new shafts were quickly sunk (this time at the right angle) to the north, these being the No. 3, No. 4 and No. 5 shafts. It wasn’t until 1906 that the mine’s southernmost shaft was started to tap the riches missed by the abandoned No. 1--a shaft we know today as the No. 2. This single shaft would go on to furnish half of the Baltic’s total copper production.
We stuck around in the vicinity of the #3 and #2 shafts.

Next we had to hike a little ways down the trail to find the powderhouse. This is where the TNT was stored for doing blasting in the mine.

Obviously it had to be built far from the rest of the buildings, and the walls were extra stout so if an explosion did occur, the force would be directed up through the roof instead of outward, thus reducing the potential damage to nearby personnel. The outer door was missing:

Even though black powder was discontinued for mine blasting long ago, the mine companies continued to call these structures “powderhouses” even after the much more powerful nitroglycerin agent came into use. The miners were far less happy about dealing with the more unstable nitro, and the noxious fumes that it gave off. Thus, there are always vents found in these buildings to draw the fumes off, as seen near the top of the #2 powderhouse here:

A third powderhouse was also present here at Baltic….

Inside this one it looked as if a terrible snowmobile accident had occurred; random pieces of snowmobiles and winter clothing lay strewn about everywhere:

Through the trees just beyond, I could glimpse the outline of the Stella Cheese Factory, which in fact was built onto one of the Baltic Mine’s unused buildings, the #2 Shaft's Dry House:

In the above picture’s foreground (to the left), you can see the remnants of two chimneys; they belonged to a log cabin that was built for the owners of the cheese factory, and which in later years was leased as student housing for Michigan Tech. It subsequently burned down.

As we trudged along to the cheese factory, I could feel the cold stinging my face, but as long as I kept snowshoeing, I stayed quite warm.

It had recently suffered some pretty heavy structural damage due to vandals, and Mike was surprised its roof had not collapsed yet from the weight of the snow.

As you can see, much of the structure is in the familiar red sandstone that all the more prosperous mines used to construct their surface plant:

These were the brine vats:

Mike says,
The Stella Cheese Company began its life from a small farm factory in Lake Nebagamon, Wisconsin in 1917. The company soon expanded, setting up plants throughout northern Wisconsin. Around 1933 the company began to open plants in the Upper Peninsula, one in Mass City and another in a series of abandoned mine buildings at the old Baltic Mine location. 

The Stella Cheese Co. factory operated here for another 30 years, employing over a hundred local Yoopers while the mines surrounding it systematically closed down. Unfortunately, dwindling milk supplies in Michigan in the 1960s forced Stella Cheese to close this plant as well and shrink its operations back to Wisconsin. It has lain silent since then, steadily falling into ruin out in these woods for the past three decades.

This is what Mike identified as an “aging room:”

Such an oddly amalgamated structure.

According to the book A Guide to Michigan's Historic Keweenaw Copper District by Lawrence Molloy, Stella sold their cheese through Kraft, Chef Boyardee, and other labels between 1935 and 1953.

Check out this drift that was hanging down over the window:

It’s gotta be at least a three-foot overhang there.

Finally we turned back toward the truck and rolled home through the hills of Copper Country, where Tricia had some food waiting.

CLICK for part three

A Guide to Michigan's Historic Keweenaw Copper District, by Lawrence Molloy, pg. 50-51 & 54
The Upper Peninsula of Michigan, An Inventory of Historic Engineering and Industrial Sites, HAER (1978), pg.7

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