Snowbound, Day 5: "Balls Deep"

January, 2011.

I ended my night of hanging out with Dave by swinging back up to Calumet so I could return Tricia’s snowshoes. As I was cruising along past Torch Lake and absentmindedly gazing out the window, I saw the famous old Quincy Dredge out there in the darkness, half submerged in the frozen lake. I had driven this stretch of road several dozen times since 2005, and had seen the dredge boat every time. But this time I thought to myself, "why not walk out there on the ice?"

It was far too dark to bother attempting tonight, and I was far too tired, but this was a perfect candidate for a morning assault. I woke up and moseyed down to the Soumi Bakery one more time. I knew I would need a lot of energy for this, seeing as I likely had a mile-long hike through four-foot-deep snow without snowshoes. As such, I ordered and consumed a heroic amount of food. I devoured the nisu toast, eggs, sausage, an order of potato pancakes, and something else I can’t remember because it vanished from the plate before its light could escape my stomach’s black hole-like gravitational pull.

The drive to the dredge’s location was a mere few minutes. Dressed in my Carhartt coveralls I leaped headlong into the unforgiving snow. I walked along a snowmobile trail for almost a mile to where I had seen an opening in the fence. There I cast about momentarily for any cops or nosy motorists, and began the hellish slog across the open fields of drifting snow and biting wind. It was extremely slow going, and I was soon sweating balls. Oh, did I mention it was snowing?

I couldn’t believe it, I was going to finally check out the old dredge! The dredge was a large boat-type vessel that floated about on Torch Lake with a huge suction head on the front of it to draw sediment off the bottom of the lake to reclaim lost copper from old stamp tailings that were deposited there over decades of milling.

As the copper in the mines dried up, this method was concocted to recover trace amounts of lost copper thrown out as waste during the days of less efficient milling. The recovered material was sluiced through a pipeline that went all the way back to shore where the mill would “re-refine” the tailings. I had explored the nearby Quincy Stamp Mill #1 a couple times already on previous adventures.

The nearer I got, the more filled with awe I became--not only of the gangly mechanical juggernaut that loomed directly in my path, but also of the setting in which I found myself. This was straight out of a sci-fi movie. The dredge’s fearsome black silhouette was framed against a streaming, bleak white desert landscape of cold, and for a brief second I caught a peek of the sun’s dull, grey orb as it passed a window in the snowstorm.

It required a terrific effort to move forward, but I forged ahead. My face was so cold it felt like I was wearing a mask, yet every other part of me was sweating with exertion. I took one last look back over my shoulder toward the ruins of the stamp mill:

I was wading through snow so deep now that I was literally only kept from sliding down further by the fact that I had a crotch.

Nearly hyperventilating, I hooked a right so as to approach the dredge’s business end first. I took a breather here.

I could see that it was practically up on the beach, and might even be accessible in summer, but it would be a hell of a lot easier to move around inside the swamped beast now with ice to walk on, as I would soon find out.

The wind whipped cruelly, driving gravelly snow into my sore cheeks as I now searched for the best place of ingress to the ragged metal hulk. I used the thick steel cables on the dredge’s deck as a handhold in case the ice gave way under me.

I had no real worry of this happening however; the conditions here ensured the safest possible ice, but holding the cable also helped me trudge through the deep snow, and guided me through the near-whiteout that was howling around me. As it turned out, I chose to enter directly next to the dredge’s suction pipe:

Looking back one more time, I pondered the likelihood that I might climb the dredge’s tall derrick…

…and thought better of the idea.

Once inside the belly of this iron beast I could tell that it was almost more of a machine than a boat. All about me heavy equipment lay oddly skewed, listing radically in its half buried state. It felt like I could’ve been on the Moon, exploring the ancient wreckage of a crashed spaceship.

I was surprised to look up and see that the interior was mostly open, but for the dredge’s steel skeleton. I had fully expected there to be actual floors or decks, with cramped compartments…that it would be a dark and precarious crawl through a quintessential shipwreck. This was not the case, and in fact it was more like a stroll through a comically slanted funhouse:

I looked closer at the cable spools next to me…I guessed that they were winches that controlled the various movements of the derrick that held the suction head:

It now became more evident that the roof and sides of this juggernaut were actually quite compromised, allowing snow to pour in wholesale.

Here, barely visible beneath its icy tomb lay what appeared to be a monstrous centrifugal pump, undoubtedly one of those that powered the main suction of the dredge:

Better view:

The stairs were just a bit janky…

The back wall facing out to the rest of the lake was mostly transparent, offering a view of a pure desert of snow:

Torch Lake eventually became nothing more than a tailings pond, toxic and bereft of all life. In fact it was the largest of the Keweenaw’s tailings ponds, having been polluted by the byproduct of five different mines.

According to Mike's writing on CopperCountryExplorer the reclamation idea got underway in 1920 when copper prices began to drop after WWI--the great Calumet & Hecla Mining Co. built the first dredge here on Torch Lake, yielding 423 million more pounds of copper from their waste tailings. Author Lawrence J. Molloy says the dredge was built in 1913.

The lean was rather disorienting.

My colleague Navi had made his own visit to this wreck in summer of 2007, unbeknownst to me.

Here’s what looks like an area dedicated to housing all the electrical equipment, at the aft-end of the vessel:

According to Molloy, this was originally Calumet & Hecla's #1 Dredge, who had it piping tailings to their Lake Linden Reclamation Plant. It wasn't until 1951 when Quincy Mining bought the C&H #1 Dredge that it was renamed the Quincy #2. It was shortly after that purchase that the Quincy Dredge #1 sank in the middle of Torch Lake during a storm in January of 1956. Its roof can allegedly still be seen peeking up when the water level is low.

This dredge however remained in operation for Quincy until 1967, at which time it too swamped and assumed this restful position. By that time the entire Michigan copper industry was moribund, and there was little else for it to do but commune permanently with the fading Copper Country landscape. I explore the ruins of the Quincy Reclamation Plant in another post.

Anyway, this rig had a total reach of 115 feet when lowered to the lake bottom. The dredge also housed a 1,250 horsepower electric motor and the pump could move over 10,000lbs of stamp sand per day. There were also a series of smaller pumps on board that powered water “jets,” used for dislodging the tailings from the lakebed. They were not only installed on the dredge’s snout, but also all along its perimeter.

The tailings slurry was hosed back to shore through a pipeline that extended out the back of the dredge and was supported on the lake’s surface by a series of pontoons, allowing the dredge to move about freely.

Buried by the sands snows of time…

Though C&H had apparently been doing it since 1913, a report by the Historic American Engineering Record indicates that Quincy's efforts to recover old tailings like this came about during 1942-43 under the War Production Board.

Today, 80 years later, the snows shifted constantly across the ice like desert sands across the floor of an ancient tomb.

Reaching the top of the stairs I found myself on a tilted platform that was precarious to traverse, since it was covered in slippery snow and full of broken planks:

To get to the bridge / main control room, I would have to hop though these doors:

Some kind of supercharger?

Another electric motor:

The dinosaur-like fore-end:

It’s been a really long time since I’ve seen the movie Dune…does this thing remind anyone else of the "spice harvesters"?

On the catwalk before entering the bridge, the view was of the old Quincy Stamp Mill #1’s ruins back on shore:

On the bridge:

The squall relented momentarily:

View out the windshield:

Oops, snow’s back again!

I finally started to get cold, and decided to wrap up this little adventure, because I still had a long drive down to Bergland today.

I cast one last glance over my shoulder at the dredge, just as the sun was momentarily burning its way through the storm to smile upon my conquest, before slipping back out of sight into the hard, pewter-tinged sky.

It was time to leave the Copper Country for the Iron Range.

CLICK for part six

A Guide to Michigan's Historic Keweenaw Copper District, by Lawrence Molloy, pg. 20
The Upper Peninsula of Michigan, An Inventory of Historic Engineering and Industrial Sites, HAER (1978), pg. 73

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