Miners, Put Your Lights Out

Here, just south of Painesdale, Michigan, is truly a gem of preserved Copper Country heritage, a collection of old buildings that I had always overlooked, or dismissed for some reason. When my exploring colleague Dan Glass joined me in the Keweenaw on vacation one year, he suggested we go see the Champion Mine #4. For whatever reason I had never really had this particular mine site on my radar as something to check out, but if I had realized it was so picturesque and such an amazing time capsule, I would have made it a priority much sooner. 

You may recall my other posts exploring the ruins of the massive Champion Stamp Mill on the shore of Lake Superior, in the town of Freda: Of Stamps, & Smelters (Part 1), and Sisu, Part 3: "Warp World". That mill processed the ore taken from the Champion Mine, and others.

In 1996 the Painesdale Mine & Shaft, Inc. was formed to preserve the history and heritage of this site in hopes of reopening it as a museum, and they installed corrugated metal sheathing on the structure to better close it up from the elements. Obviously, as with everything that happens in the Upper Peninsula, progress has been slow.

In 1999, Upper Peninsula congressman Bart Stupak visited to give his blessing to the project. In 2001, they received the Robert Bergdahl Award for outstanding work in local historic preservation.

The Champion #4 shafthouse (the tall, sheetmetal structure here) was built in 1902 and was part of the Copper Range Mining Co.'s holdings that ran from Atlantic Mine to Painesdale. It was one of the more reliable and longest-lived of Michigan's copper mines. Painesdale Mine & Shaft's website even has a page of collected oral histories from different folks recalling what life was like at the old mine.

This is the last shafthouse still standing south of Portage Lake, as well as the oldest of the four still remaining in the entire Keweenaw from a time when hundreds dotted the countryside. The other three survivors are Centennial #6Osceola #13, and Quincy #2, all of which I have explored in other posts. But unlike the others, which were steadily updated with technological improvements through the decades, the Champion #4 is basically still the same as it was when it was built.

According to copperrange.org, it is unique in the fact that it is one of the old style shaft-rockhouses that predated the period of modern copper mining and automated crushing, unlike the other still-standing shafts of the Copper Country. It was "built in a time when hand labor and brute force were used to move mountains, the rockhouse crushing floor is not as automated as later shaft-rockhouses were." Mike Forgrave explains:
While Quincy had multiple dumps along the skip road that served multiple purposes (one for tools, one for poor rock, and one for copper rock), the Champion had only one that served all purposes. And while Quincy relied on high-tech sorting devices such as grizzlies to sort rock coming up from the mine, the Champion relied on men to do the sorting by hand. The efficiency and high-tech rockhouse of Quincy stands in sharp contrast to the dirty brute force showcased at Champion.
Mike was allowed a peek inside the #4 to sample its intact juiciness in a c.2008 post on coppercountryexplorer.com. It's amazing what a time capsule this place is. Mike also made a more detailed interactive DVD tour of the interior of this shaft house around the same time. The #4 is well sealed, and there was no one around to let me in during our visit.

The Champion Mining Co. was organized in 1899 but became part of the Copper Range Consolidated Co. in 1901, and consisted of four mine shafts. Mike Forgrave writes that by the early 1900s the nature of copper mining in Michigan had gone from being a galaxy of fly-by-night holes in the ground run by "mom & pop," and transformed into a full-fledged industry, with large corporations forming to stabilize it. 

The two major players in Michigan's copper industry were Calumet & Hecla (C&H), and Quincy Mining, who vied for dominance over the Keweenaw Peninsula. Meanwhile, southern lands between Houghton and the Porcupine Mountains–it was rapidly being discovered–contained just as much copper as the Keweenaw, just waiting to be unearthed.

The Copper Range Consolidated Co. formed to take advantage of this, and they bought up the Champion Mine as well as several other promising ventures along the rich Baltic Lode. One could almost look at Copper Range, C&H, and Quincy as the Chrysler, GM, and Ford of the Yoopee. 

You may recall I mounted a thorough expedition to the Trimountain Mine's ruins several years ago, which was also one of Copper Range Consolidated's holdings, located just north of Painesdale.

The Champion #4 shaft was so successful that it had been delved to 48 levels by the 1930s, or 4,800 feet below ground on the incline, according to mindat.org. It was eventually maxed-out at 56 levels, which is about twice as deep as the Burj Khalifa is tall. That might sound like a lot, but the Quincy Mine #2 was 92 levels deep.

My colleague Craig Aldinger, who writes TheCopperCountryMaps blog, found this incredible grand-scale isometric projection diagram of the underground workings of the entire Champion Mine (shafts 1 through 4), drawn by the U.S. Geological Survey: plate-17-page-01.jpg

The mindat entry also says that in 1945 the #4 shaft closed briefly so that all equipment below the 48th could be removed in accordance with plans to abandon those bottom levels. I imagine that the hoped-for profits at that depth did not pan out, and work continued on the 18th level in 1948. The Champion #3 shaft was also reopened in 1954, on its 12th and 18th levels. It would seem they had pretty well homed-in on the remaining ore body by that time, but again, the mines of Painesdale would all be closed by September of 1967, and the last copper mines left in the Keweenaw would cease operations in 1968.

Also on copperrange.org is a history of the mine written by Kevin E. Musser, wherein he illustrates how the Champion came into its own as a copper producing powerhouse around the time of World War I. The #4 proved to be so productive he said, that stamp sands (waste from the mill) were in fact dumped back into the shaft to help support the rest of the mine. By 1916 Painesdale was peaking in population Musser wrote, with a total of 200 homes. It even became necessary to build a sawmill to meet the demand for new home construction in the town, but it was torn down in the 1930s.

Copper Country historian Lawrence J. Molloy writes in his Guide to Michigan's Historic Keweenaw Copper District that the school in Painesdale also served children in the satellite communities of Freda and Redridge, where the Champion Mining Co.'s stamp mill and dam were located (I explored both of these ruins in older posts). Every morning, Molloy writes, the students from these remote tiny communities would arrive by "school train," which brought empty rock cars and students back to the mines, and every afternoon return them back to the Lake Superior shore full of students going home along with more rock to be milled.

Mike Forgrave shares some historic views of Painesdale in another post on CopperCountryExplorer.

The net income for the entire Copper Range Co. in 1929 was the highest in ten years, Musser says, as well as for the next ten years combined, although it was still nothing compared to the "glory years" of the 1910s. The Champion suffered through the Great Depression, but inflated copper prices and government defense contracts during WWII naturally benefitted the Copper Range Co., saving them from dissolution. By the end of the war however, Champion Mine had shut down all of its shafts except for #4, which was limited to just one shift. 

Forgrave explains that the Champion #4 represented the "last hope" of the Copper Range Consolidated Co., whose holdings along the Baltic Lode were slowly running out of copper, and folding up. Though the aptly-named "Champion" was still profitable, it was gradually becoming less and less so, he writes, which kept its parent company afloat into the 1950s.

When the Korean War started, it once again was to the benefit of the copper companies, who enjoyed fat government contracts and a controlled market. But as Mike notes, the company also received large government loans to explore new sources of copper and develop new methods of extraction, which resulted in the launching of the modern White Pine Mine in Ontonagon County by 1955. Although it subsisted off of chemical mining as opposed to digging for native deposits, the White Pine's production figures far surpassed those of a traditional copper mine of the Keweenaw Peninsula.

By 1963, 95% of Copper Range Consolidated's profits came from the White Pine Mine, meaning that the Champion #4 was obsolete, but it was allowed to remain open for four more years–perhaps, Mike speculates, out of a reluctance to deal the inevitable death blow to the town of Painesdale.

On September 11, 1967, the #4 delivered its last load of rock to the Champion Stamp Mill in Freda. Despite the loss of their raison d'ĂȘtre, both towns still manage to cling to a few residents somehow.

As I discussed in my post about C&H's Centennial Mine #6, most people think the death of copper mining in Michigan was due to the copper simply "running out," but this isn't necessarily true. The copper was still down there, but it was a combination of mounting operational expenses to extract it, a nine-month labor strike over safety issues, and the fact that C&H had recently been bought out by Universal Oil Products (which was not particularly interested in copper mining, or the livelihood of the Keweenaw–but rather C&H's more lucrative Detroit holding, Wolverine Tube Co.). It was all three of these factors that contributed to bringing about the death of the Keweenaw Copper Country in 1968. 

Although the Champion closed as a mine, its days of usefulness were not over. Mike Forgrave notes on coppercountryexplorer.com that there just so happened to be a large underground aquifer that intersected with the mine's lower levels, which the township decided to utilize for supplying its residents with water. This was undoubtedly another factor contributing to the 1940s decision to abandon all levels below the 48th–it was probably too expensive to keep it pumped out and dry while mining.

It was as a result of its being reused as a municipal water plant that some of the mine's surface buildings were left intact. The shaft house, hoist house, and others facilitated the installation and maintenance of several underground pumps and other equipment for this new use.

This is the hoist house for the #4 shaft, which if I'm not mistaken was originally called the "E" shaft:

I snuck a quick peek inside, and to my shock the hoist itself still appeared to be fully intact:

Strolling down the railroad tracks a little bit...

These two long shed-type structures were the machine shop and blacksmith shop, respectively:

On the right in the next shot is the #4's dryhouse, later used as a paint shop:

One of the last structures we checked out before departing the site was the oil house, seen at left.

The oil house was one of many owned in the area by Champion Mining, and there was a large tank under this tiny building where the oil was stored. It was dispensed by these pumps for the various lubrication needs of the machinery on site.

The writing says, "LET'S TRY TO KEEP OUR PEN CLEAN":

Here was one of the pumps, with a hand-written fire safety bulletin painted on the wall behind it:

I assume that this message referred to the head-lamps worn on the miners' helmets so they could see underground, which originally burned whale oil, and later acetylene.

"That's a wrap, everyone..."

The Copper Empire, Vol. 1, by Mike Forgrave, p. 1, 21
A Guide to Michigan's Historic Keweenaw Copper District, by Lawrence J. Molloy, p. 49

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