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 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:
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.
In the opposite direction immediately below my lofty perch here was the #2 hoist:
Then, once again I had to dismount my snowshoes to go up to it and inside.
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…
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
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.
After WWII, Michigan still supplied about half the world’s copper.
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.
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.
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