Snowbound, Day 3: "The Trimountain"

January, 2011.

After my pleasurable respite at Mike's house in Calumet, I was surprisingly at a bit of a loss as to what I would do to occupy my remaining several days in this snowbound and frigid finger of land. It was bitter cold out, and the snow just wouldn't stop. But even though Mike had to work today, he was nice enough to let me borrow some snowshoes. I retired to my motel outside Houghton and spent the rest of the night in studying maps (and drinking beer). It occurred to me that I should attempt the mighty Trimountain Mine, which lay immediately south (along the same lode) from the Baltic Mine we had explored this afternoon.

I sat with my road atlas and Google Earth open, and drew out a map on a piece of paper of the routes I would need to use in the field. It was crude, but this is a good excercise. Drawing your own map forces you to internalize the bearings and landmarks you will need. Once leaving the road where I would park my car, I would be solely on interconnecting former narrow-gauge railroad beds turned snowmobile paths, and unmarked foot trails. I also used my compass to take note of the initial bearing of the trail that I would use to break off the main road, and then made note of the approximate 50-degree bearing of the Baltic Lode itself. There were four shafts struck sequentially in a northeasterly direction along the lode, and altogether they stretched a distance of about three miles.

I made a trip down to the gas station before it closed for the night (9pm, folks!), filled up my tank and bought some more Gay Miner Beer. I noticed this was the gas station that is known for having been built atop the ruins of the Isle Royale Mine’s stamp mill. This is immediately evident upon even a cursory glance, as some of the ruins still sit on the outcrop just behind the gas station:

I slept late. I mean, it's not like there's any reason for urgency up here...if you think the Yoopee's relaxed in the summer...holy shit. It was still snowing. I think due to its higher elevations and proximity to the lake compared to the rest of the Yoopee, the Keweenaw is constantly swathed in a grey veil of perpetual snowfall and cloud-cover during the winter months. As it would turn out on this trip, there was nary a moment when the snow did stop, and in fact very, very seldom did the sun make its extremely brief and half-hearted appearances.

I got totally geared up with my Carhartt spacesuit, unburied my car, and went downtown to da Soumi Bake'ry fer breakfast, eh. First I stopped by da gas station again for a better look at the Isle Royale Mill ruins.

At Soumi I also picked up my usual cold pasty to go (for da trail, eh). I again wended my way through the hills of the South Range toward Trimountain. “Trimountain” is the name of both the mine, and its accompanying town.

I had planned to park my car on a road just off of M-26, where it looked like I could walk a short ways before finding a trail that led into the woods. There I would hopefully find one of the two parallel Copper Range RR grades here whose right-of-ways still exist as narrow, clear corridors through the trees. I had used rough comparison-measurements last night to gauge the distances that I‘d be dealing with out here. For instance, I knew that the distance from my car to the head of the trail was exactly twice as long as the width of the gap in the trees where M-26 intersected 2nd Street where I was going to park. Then I noted that I would stay on that trail for exactly five times that distance before I hit the first railroad grade. And there were other faint trails that crisscrossed that same area so it might get dicey, but if I could get there I should have no problem spotting a good lode-wise running trail to take me through the corridor of ruins sites. And eventually I would see the towering smokestack of the #3.

I had decided that I would skip the #1 shaft location since it looked like there wasn’t as much there to explore, and that it would be harder to locate in the deep snow. I parked, quickly donned my snowshoes, and began trudging in earnest for the woods. It was snowing like a motherfucker. Everything went according to plan; I found my trail, and followed it down a steep hill, but when I got to the bottom there were trails intersecting everywhere, and a river I somehow failed to notice, which totally f’d up my calculations. Oh well, screw it. I turned around and decided to use my plain ole intuition. Soon I came upon what sure had to be the north-south bisecting road to Painesdale (site of the Champion Mine location, which was the next mine along the lode), and the monolithic rock house foundation of the Trimountain #2 Shaft:

Already I could see the lofty smokestack of the #3 through the trees beyond the #2 rock pile. The Painesdale road was absolutely tracked by snowmobiles, and once again the only thing I could hear since I had been out of my car was the constant buzzing of the machines echoing through the hills, or sounding perilously close but just out of sight. The railcars would’ve passed through this gap between the two sides of the rock house foundation, and each filled up in turn with crushed ore dropped from above:

Here was the #2 rock pile, covered in snow:

Remember, a rock pile is merely the “poor” extract rock brought up from the mine which contains no ore. Mike or somebody had just told me recently that climbing rock piles in the winter was either not possible or just plain ludicrous, so it was obvious what I had to do.

I could see from where I was standing that this was going to be a monumental task. Climbing most rock piles is even hard in the summer due to their steepness and shiftiness. The drifts in front of me, and those sweeping along the lees of the pile were clearly well over my head, and this would not be something I would attempt without some strategy. I stood long analyzing the side of this hill, choosing the best plan of attack.

Finally I had my plan formulated and snowshoed up to the base where I removed my left snowshoe. As you may or may not have known, going up any kind of incline with traditional snowshoes is almost completely impossible. Removing that one snowshoe in waist-deep snow on a steep slope resulted (as you can probably imagine) in a minor disaster of floundering awkwardness I care not to recall, but I eventually righted myself after much snarling and gnashing of teeth. I was about as graceful as a quadriplegic tossed into the balls at Chuck-E-Cheese’s.

The idea I had was to step up the face of the hill sideways, with my high / advancing foot bare, and my trailing / lower foot snowshod. I would hold the free snowshoe in my hand and use it as a crutch. This worked pretty good, after I had myself put upright once again. I had already begun to sweat profusely from these struggles however.

Underneath the snow was the risk of the loose rocks. Once I got to the part halfway up where I could see actual rocks poking out from the snow cover, it was time to lay down again (while clutching a scrawny tree to keep from falling all the way back down) so that I could remove the other snowshoe.

This was achieved with a measure more grace than before, and now I continued up through the shallower snow using both snowshoes as walking sticks; I was on an extremely steep slope and spreading my weight out over the loose rocks was essential to avoid a tumble.

Beginning to crest the monster, I could tell already that the struggle was worth it.


The view here was just incredible, even snow-muted as it was. The frigid wind rattled through the clattering wands of endless stiff, bare forest.

An odd thing I noticed was occasional wet spots on top of the rock pile here where it looked like the snow had melted. Perhaps this was due to retained heat still escaping from the core of the huge rock pile, which had basked in the hot sun all summer.

To the direct south the range was blotted out by a snow squall, but I could still see for miles and miles.

Stepping to the edge of the pile, I could see that it dropped almost straight down to the forest, but the drifting action of the snow caused it to take on a deceptively augmented curvature called a "snow shelf"…I would not be going down this way:

To the immediate east there was of course the ruins of the #3 location, ruled by the mighty stack:

The #3 rock pile was also now visible. The foundations seen through the trees at the foot of the tower were to the #3’s boiler house, hoist house, and compressor house:

Quick history review--the boiler creates the steam to drive the hoist engine, which pulls the mined rock up from below. The compressor house’s job is mainly to power the pneumatic drills used by the miners to break the rock out, and to place holes for TNT.

By the way, it takes an immense amount of horsepower to lift something from a depth of 3,000ft. in the earth, especially tons and tons of copper ore. Hence the beastly hoist engines and their titanic foundations. By the way, 3,000ft. is equal to about 10 Broderick Towers, in case you were wondering.

In the opposite direction immediately below my lofty perch here was the #2 hoist:

…and beyond that was the #2’s boiler house:

As I started to get chilled from the constant wind up here I decided to head carefully back down to explore the ruins at the base of the pile. First I circled around the hoist:

What you see here looks to be a stack of snow about three feet in depth, but this is deceptive; the amount of snow that falls here in the Keweenaw is so great that it eventually just compacts itself down under its own weight on a constant basis. Therefore you never really see it standing much deeper than this except during an actual storm when two or three feet may fall in a single night, or along streets where it is piled up by plows. By March or April, snow in town can be stacked up to the roofs of the houses.

I next paid a visit to the concrete foundation of the more modern (i.e., 20th century) boiler plant...

…which I couldn’t help but notice had a steam tunnel sticking out of it some distance away:

I had to trudge down onto another snowmobile trail to see the mouth of it.

Then, once again I had to dismount my snowshoes to go up to it and inside.

I remembered seeing this in one of Mike’s old CCE entries, and that he had said he didn’t “do” tunnels, which again meant that I of course had to.

It ran all the way back to the underside of the boiler house, but there wasn’t quite enough space here for me to wriggle through in my spacesuit.

The only interesting thing to be found inside was the tag of an intrepid explorer identified only as “V.P.”, and who had UER’d this tunnel long before me:

Looks like he dated his tag 8/5/27, perhaps? I had clearly been out-l33ted here. Anyway, by 1927 the Trimountain had already been taken over by the Copper Range Co. for two years, and would be closing down in three.

Having seen everything the #2 would offer me, I now trudged out along the base of the rock pile's southern face toward the #3 location. Along the trail I would first come across the powderhouse, according to Mike's map, which I had brought with me. Through the woods down to my right sure enough I caught a glimpse of a stone structure whose roof had collapsed in. But I couldn’t leave the trail here because of the steepness. And it was too far to risk going without snowshoes. So I continued on the trail until I found a spot where I could take a more gently sloping path entering the woods. But before I did, I saw another powderhouse…. It couldn’t be the same one, because this one had a roof. On Mike's map, he showed only one powder house in this area. Odd…

I passed up on this second structure for the moment to look for the first one I saw. I was going to get to the bottom of this.

I took my gentler slope into the woods, then arced back along the ravine to find this first gingerbread house looking all pretty, decked out in its fluffy snow frosting.

How perfectly picturesque…

Looks like the walls on this beast were three hands thick:

Would make a hell of a hunting lodge.

I had a strange feeling like I was in some scene from the Kalevala...

After having my fill of this one, I trudged up out of the gully again to seek out the second powderhouse.

This was a totally different style. Concrete roof:

Looked like a place that locals like to go have campfires, smoke weed, or have wild Yooper orgies, eh. The graffiti above the door says "Smoke Palace," eh:

To me, it looked like the place that I was about to have wild Yooper lunch, ‘cause I was friggin starving.

I got out of the snowshoes again and dropped my backpack for a few swigs of half-frozen water before finding an upturned pail to sit on. I proudly removed the pasty from my backpack like it was a newborn infant or a precious heirloom, and unwrapped it.

To my dismay I found with the first bite that it had indeed gone from being merely an unheated pasty to being a frozen pasty. The temperature outside was in the single digits. I was glad to be in out of the mild breeze and constant snow however.

I had to perform mouth-to-pasty resuscitation to try and breath some warmth into my lunch, and wished I had a thermos of hot coffee with me. The inside of this powderhouse was surprisingly cozy, and undoubtedly as resilient a place of refuge as one will find out here. Had I needed to, I could’ve started a small fire for warmth.

I enjoyed this respite immensely. Just something about the situation, the scene, the circumstance…it was awesome. This was a cozy-fort without equal. Outside I could see the snow falling vigorously, but in here I was comforted by a sense of security and inner quietude.

Once I began to get numb, I suited back up and reattached the snowshoes for the hike to the #3 location. A brisk trudge would get my blood warmed again. Here is a historic panorama showing the #2 (on the left) and #3 locations (on the right): CLICK

The smokestack sat in a corner of the immense boiler house ruin. This is early industrial might, writ large.

When Faraday, Tesla, Edison (et al), brought forth the inventions that made the revolution in electrification possible, this is where it came in. If not for finding the seemingly inexhaustible super-abundance of pure copper underneath Michigan's vast northern tracts at that exact time in history, domestic use of electricity may have been merely a passing fad, or limited to being a novelty of the rich, as many predicted.

Just as Henry Ford's revolution in manufacturing put automobile ownership and a middle class livelihood within reach of the Everyman, so too did the abundance of Michigan copper ensure that domestic electricity could eventually reach the far corners of the globe. When the "white man" was led deep into the primordial woods to these spirit-haunted holes in the ground by the tales of the Ojibwe to dig in search of the Red Metal, he set the stage for the modernization of mankind. No longer would man shiver in the dark when winter came. The 20th century had dawned...for good or for ill.

Except for a few mines in Cornwall, until after World War II practically all of the world’s copper came from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Even the crude, shiny fetishes that were traded by the Phoenicians, stolen by the Vikings, beaten into swords by the Aztecs, or made into jewelry placed in the tombs of the Egyptians. It had all been removed from this soil by the ancient hands of Michigan's aboriginal mining culture, and passed into other hands in trade over and over again until it reached the corners of the globe.

After WWII, Michigan still supplied about half the world’s copper.

Here is what Mike Forgrave says in one of his CCE entries for the Trimountain:
Of all the mines that had sunk shafts into the great Baltic Lode, the Trimountain could be considered the ugly ducking of the bunch. Besieged by mismanagement and difficult geography the mine was never able to fully take advantage of the copper bounty below its feet. From its establishment in 1899 up until its closure in 1930 the mine was only able to produce minimal profits–only about $3.5 million when all was said and done. (Its neighbor to the south–the Champion–made over $25 million during the same period) Even after Copper Range took over operations in 1925, it could only keep the struggling mine afloat for another five years. 

Clearly I would have to return in a warmer season so as to see the rest of these ruins. What I had toured today was to my mind quite a rich and complex collection of ruins, though due to the deep snow I was only seeing about 50% of what was actually here.

Mike also said that the Trimountain’s #1 Shaft was abandoned rather early, despite having reached a depth of slightly over 2,200 feet before management gave up on it. The abandoned workings of the #1 were then mainly used as a waste dump for the large amount of sand the other shafts were unfortunately producing.

Usually such substantially-built surface buildings are reserved for the most successful of the copper mines, but the Trimountain Mine was a case of early capital investment based on high expectations that did not pan out. The theory seems to have been that with the successful Baltic Mine working the lode to the north, and the successful Champion Mine working the same lode to the south, sinking shafts between those two must surely equal productivity and profit, but that was not to be the case. But at least the Trimountain left behind a pretty corpse!

According to Lawrence J. Molloy’s Guide to Michigan’s Historic Copper District, the Trimountain employed over 1,000 people and was named for the three neighboring peaks, one of which I noticed on my map had a firetower at its summit. The Trimountain sent its ores to be stamped in the town of Beacon Hill on Lake Superior, near the stamp mills of the Atlantic, Baltic, and Champion Mines, and the Redridge Dam.

I knew it must be getting late in the afternoon already but the only way I could tell was by the fact that it seemed slightly darker. But I could’ve as easily imagined that.

I knew I was right next to a town but it didn’t feel that way. It felt like I was thousands of miles from mankind.

Though the boiler house was quite in ruins, I felt as if it were insular and cloistered, like a secret garden; its shattered foundation walls a closed courtyard.

There was more here to the north that I wanted to see, but getting to it was a problem. The trees were too dense to push through and the ground was uneven, my snowshoes often becoming hopelessly mired. So I crawled out and got back on the snowmobile trail (in fact this was what used to be the service roads within the mine complex itself).

I spied the less-significant ruins of the carpenter shop, blacksmith shop, and machine shop all in a line just inside the woods at a 90-degree bend in the road before it went straight up to where the shaft and rock pile were. Again, they were built into the slope just off the trail and inside the woods were the ruins of the pump house and dry house, but they were so buried that I didn’t bother taking a picture.

Somewhere near this snowy promontory was where the #3 shaft lay. I had now seen all of the #3’s surface plant but I wondered about the #4, which I was not certain of whether it sat on private land. It was however getting dark fast and I had quite a hike back to the car.

I found myself in a huge clearing surrounded by poor rock piles apparently bulldozed outward from their original resting place to its edges. Snowmobiles obviously played here quite a bit as evidenced by the hard-packed ground and tracks going up the sides of the piles. Exhausted, I took my snowshoes off now so that I could walk on it more easily. At one end I could see what looked to be another foundation where the #4 shaft would be:

It was so deeply mired in snow that I almost could not find it. Suddenly I saw something tucked into the distance in a field of deep snow at the edge of the darkening woods…a huge building:

It was getting dark and I heard snowmobiles buzzing very near…

Did I want to risk getting yelled at for trespassing? Did I want to risk losing daylight and getting lost on the way back to my car, now three miles hence over rough terrain? I was getting dead tired as it was, and had probably already trudged seven miles due to all of my darting in and out of ruins.

The light was now fading as if God had his hand impatiently on the dimmer switch. I threw my snowshoes back on and flung myself into the deep snowy field at full steam.

This had to be the #4’s hoist. What I didn’t know is that somewhere tucked back further into the woods was the #4 Boiler House.

Oh well, that would have to wait for another time. The snowmobiles I had been hearing had arrived, and looked at me suspiciously, but then went right on about their business of tearing ass all up and down the rock piles.

Okay, I had my mandatory snapshots, it was time to get the hell outta the woods before darkness fell. I slogged my tired ass back to the car on as direct a route as I could.

Going back up that steep hill that led down from the road my car was parked on nearly gave me a coronary event. Took awhile to get back up there, and when I made it, it was fully dark out. And I had to unbury my car from several inches of snow again.

Back finally in the warm comfort of my motel room I divested myself of the winter spacesuit and took a hot shower, then inundated my liver with more KBC Gay Miner Beer. Tomorrow I would be meeting up with Dave (a professor at Tech) around lunchtime, at which point I could do this all over again. And according to Mike, Dave was a jackrabbit on his snowshoes, so I would probably wanna rest up if I was going to keep pace with him.

CLICK for part four

A Guide to Michigan's Historic Keweenaw Copper District, by Lawrence Molloy, pg. 49 & 55
The Copper Empire, Vol. 1, by Mike Forgrave

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