Return to Part 7
Day 5, continued.
Having completed our tour of the King Phillip Stamp Mill we were now on the road toward White Pine, about 40 miles to the west. But first we decided to secure a motel along the way in Ontonagon, on Navi’s insistence. I was ready for a shower, that’s for sure.
White Pine is a bit of an anomaly. During the Korean War, the feds were concerned that America no longer mined enough copper to fuel a war properly, so they pumped all kinds of funding into rejuvenating the town of White Pine and the mines. Though it dates back to 1880, what’s there now is a company town of 1950s-‘60s sprawlburbian architecture—oddly out of place for the rustic Yoopee. Gone is the stark appearance of the standard cheek-on-jowl rows of Victorian miners homes we are used to, replaced by cul-de-sac style neighborhoods, and a bowling alley designed by renowned postmodern Michigan architect Alden Dow.
White Pine was the last gasp of copper mining in Michigan, but it was no feeble sigh, it was a mighty thunderclap. The mine finally shut down in 1995 due to pollution concerns, effectively killing the town again, but not before a whopping 4.2 billion pounds of copper and 47 million ounces of silver were rendered. The application of modern methods to old lodes produced unheard-of quantities of the red metal from ground previously deemed tapped out. Unlike the intricate mines of the past, this one was built as a single giant underground cavity with an incline big enough to drive semi-trucks in and out of. The towering modern steel smokestack is visible for many miles away, a deceptively tall landmark—probably the tallest thing in the entire Yoopee.
But it was not the modern mill we were seeking. White Pine Mine was unique for one other thing—one of the few “ball mills” ever erected, and one of the only two still standing. Its exotic ruins were our next target.
It was pretty easy to find these ruins once we hiked the short trail downhill from where I parked the rusty camel, but what I had come for was just on the other side of this cluster of trees.
Here was the great White Pine Ball Mill:
Having doped up on a little more cold medicine, Navi was starting to feel even better when these beasts loomed up out of the trees.
The concept here was that these drums worked basically like tumblers; if I’m not mistaken copper ore would be put inside with a series of hard steel balls, whose agitation then broke down the ore into millable consistency. It was a somewhat experimental method, tried late in the evolution of American mining.
We both climbed up and went about our business doing the predictable artfagging.
Keep in mind this mill was torn down, and these machines originally would have been housed inside, not exposed to the outdoors.
Timber cribbing integrated with the concrete foundation:
Up back near the car, we noticed a fenced off area that was undoubtedly another old mineshaft:
Because it was starting to get on toward evening, we decided to get moving to our next destination, the Nonesuch Mine (and Nonesuch Falls), which lay just across the Big Iron River from us. However, we would have to drive all the way up to Lake Superior’s shore, into the Porcupine Mountains State Park, and back down the access road for a total of about 15 miles. I rushed because I knew that we were losing daylight, and we were forced to pass up the beautiful Bonanza Falls off of M-64, and the probably slightly less attractive Union Mine’s ruins along South Boundary Road in the Porcupines.
When we reached the pull-over spot we had to hike in about another half mile, which we did at a power-walk pace. Once past the wetland and down in the woods we immediately began to see some nice stone ruins.
none·such (nun-such) n. a person or thing that no other approaches in likeness; specifically, 1: an unequaled or unrivaled thing or person; a paragon. 2: rare; the greatest, most conspicuous, most eminent, matchless.
The thing that gives the Nonesuch such a glamorous name is the fact that its copper occurs in sandstone and shale. Nowhere else on planet Earth has native copper been found in such a way. It was also called “one of the richest beds of copper bearing rock to ever be opened.”
The discovery was made in 1865, and the mine enjoyed its peak during 1880, when 100 residents called this area home and the mine was expanded to four shafts and four levels, the deepest of which was only a mere 460 feet deep.
Everything was not gravy for Nonesuch however, even sitting atop riches that once assayed at higher value than the famous Calumet & Hecla Conglomerate. Getting the troublesome copper grains out of the sandstone was next to impossible. The disposition of the fine flakes presented a unique difficulty in extracting it profitably, and most of the copper ended up washed away in the stamp mill tailings. Throughout the history of this mine, it was forced to close several times, and only briefly ever turned a profit, even with such a small capital outlay for building physical plant and sinking the shallow shafts.
Ironically it was the Nonesuch Mine that in fact gave the White Pine Mine its success; in 1906, the Calumet & Hecla Co., granddaddy of all Keweenaw mining companies, explored the old workings with an eye to reopening operations on this lode which they knew to be the richest anywhere, if only a way could be found to extract the copper correctly.
They decided to reopen it at a location two miles to the east along the Nonesuch Lode in 1911—the old White Pine Mine. They reopened the Nonesuch in 1912, but were forced to close it again two years later; since the stamp mill and gravity separation process proved inefficient for extracting the Nonesuch copper, a chemical leaching process was tried, but ultimately failed as well. This time the Nonesuch stayed closed forever.
According to the State of Michigan Mines and Mineral Statistics annual report of 1900, the Nonesuch Mine since opening “has swallowed several large fortunes, and has yielded the insignificant amount of 180 tons…of refined copper. The copper is there—millions and millions of pounds of it, not worth a penny a ton in the mine. Some day the problem will be solved, and a new crop of millionaires made from the Nonesuch.”
It sure lived up to its name.
It is because of its location within the Porcupine Mountains State Park that it has been kept in a somewhat preserved state. The foundations of the mine office, stamp mill, boiler house, and hoist are still evident.
This tunnel opening is not actually a shaft collar as you might think; we’re pretty sure this was a flue of some kind that went to the boiler house. It’s going in the wrong direction to be the shaft anyway.
The biggest ruin is the stamp mill, I believe.
These strange subsidences in the forest floor were reportedly connected somehow to the chemical leaching process that was attempted in the mine’s later years:
We found the waterfall to be reduced to a minor trickle from the dry season:
To the left of it loomed another pile of poor rock.
This I’m guessing had to be the boiler house:
It was still a bit light out, so we decided to make a quick jaunt up to Lake of the Clouds overlook, to see the sunset over the Porkies.
I made my first expedition into the Porkies way back in 2001.
I have not made a suitable return trip since that time (other than to visit this overlook), and am quite overdue for such.
The sunset was not as spectacular as hoped, so we hurried back into Ontonagon before all the places to eat and drink closed on us again. We passed a place that looked good in Silver City (and was still open), so we thought it best to just stop there.
After that we returned to the motel in Ontonagon where Navi inexplicably decided to watch American political debates on TV, so I cracked beers, looked at maps, and then took a stroll about town.
I failed to get a good view of the lighthouse and it was chilly, so I returned to the room to drink beers, ridicule American politics, and study maps. In the process I realized that we were now essentially ahead of schedule by two whole days, owing to the fact that I had expected to need those two extra blank days I had allocated at the end of our itinerary as a safety buffer for getting lost in the Hurons. Which meant we could now go see extra shit if we wanted to. Navi was as stoked by this as one might well imagine. So we got out the maps and such, and drew up plans for extra targets. Otherwise, my itinerary for tomorrow dictated we head south, hitting Iron Mountain, Escanaba, Nahma, and Manistique on our way home.
We decided to take an extra day and go up the Keweenaw Peninsula. I had a few things there that I wanted to check out, and of course Navi had never really been up past the Lift Bridge, so he was stoked. I couldn’t believe how much ground we were covering on this trip, and it wasn’t even half over yet!
CLICK for part 9
A Guide to Michigan's Historic Keweenaw Copper District, by Lawrence J. Molloy
Mines and Mineral Statistics, State of Michigan (1900), by James Russell, p. 211-212