Old Victoria

Photos date from October 2014.

While on vacation in the Upper Peninsula one rainy, windy day, my girl and I decided to take a trip out to see the Old Victoria copper mine site in Ontonagon County, where the original village of log cabins still stood preserved from the 1850s, and back in the woods many stone ruins remained for us to find.

The Old Victoria is a Copper Country heritage site that has been in the process of restoration for a long time and is open for tours on certain days, although our visit was not during one of their open times (more info at michigan.orgontonagon.net, and exploringthenorth.com).

It almost seems silly to attempt another summary of the Old Victoria's history when so much has already been written about it. And the Victoria is, officially speaking, our oldest copper mining site (not counting the ancient aboriginal workings of course).

It was on this site that Englishman Alexander Henry first dug for copper in the Michigan wilderness, after having discovered the "Ontonagon Boulder" near here—known to the Indians as "Manitoti," it was a gigantic, legendary boulder of pure copper that he found sitting here on the Ontonagon River in 1766. He had escaped the surprise attack on Fort Michilimackinac during Pontiac's Uprising, and apparently took up mineral exploration on behalf of the British government. 

Henry returned to this spot in 1771 with a team of miners and the financial backing of the Duke of Gloucester, to attempt the first commercial mining activity in what later became Michigan (the Cliff Mine of 1843 typically gets all the fame however, since it was the first successful copper mine in Michigan, and the most productive in the world until 1858).

Alexander Henry's men tunneled into the riverbank right behind the Ontonagon Boulder, but because they did not know to place support timbers in the mine, it caved in when the spring thaw came, and they abandoned the project. The area was left in peace for another 70 years, until the by-then famous Ontonagon Boulder was finally carted away to Washington D.C. by the U.S. government in 1843. The Cushing Mining Co. showed up to try this spot again in 1849. Even though Michigan had achieved statehood by then, this area remained a complete and utter wilderness, of the type that is romantically depicted in so many early American oil-paintings seen hanging in our art museums.

The Forest Mining Co. took over this mine in 1851, and it was finally renamed after Queen Victoria in 1858, but even then this was still a hopelessly remote location subject to impossibly desolate winters, making it unimaginably laborious to operate. The entry at mindat.org says that when the mine was finally reorganized as the Victoria Copper Mining Co. in 1899, it included the interests of the former Victoria, Glenn, Shirley, Sylvan, Oneida, and Arctic Mining companies, all of which had presumably already attempted mining this area and failed.

Some of the log cabins here are in total ruin, while others have been reconstructed using salvaged pieces from the fallen:

Geologically speaking, the Victoria Mine (MAP) lies at the very bottom end of the Keweenaw Lode, which can be roughly traced out by looking at the way highway M-26 connects all the former copper mining towns in a gently curving line going all the way up the peninsula. Like all of the earliest Anglo attempts at mining this region, the Victoria was sited on the location of old mining pits dug in ancient times by prehistoric aboriginal peoples, ancestors of the Native Americans.

The Victoria Mine was worked from 1858 to 1878, and again from 1899 to 1921 "when Captain Thomas Hooper came out of retirement and took control," Lawrence J. Molloy wrote in his Guide to Michigan's Historic Keweenaw Copper District. It had six shafts, and produced about 20 million pounds of refined copper during its useful life, and even some silver was found in its veins.

Shaft #2, the Victoria's most reliable producer, had been delved to 28 levels deep (2,800 feet) by the year 1920 according to Joseph R. Papineau. He wrote the book Old Victoria, Forest Queen of the Copper Mines in 1998, which delves quite deeply into the Victoria's history.

All of these log houses date to 1858 or earlier, which is evident by their dovetail joint construction. At least some of them were used on and off by various parties well into the 20th century despite lacking basic "modern" conveniences like say, plumbing.

Beyond the great, twisted trunk of this ancient maple tree you can see the fallen wall of another frame house, covered in leaves:

A closer look:

For being over 150 years old, I guess it was in pretty decent shape considering the latest it would plausibly have been maintained was in the 1950s.

In case you can't already smell it right through these photographs, the damp autumnal potpourri filling my nostrils that day was absolutely off the charts. Keep your palm trees and sunny southern weather; there is no substitute for crisp, redolent autumn in the Great Lakes.

Other bare rectangular foundations continued to poke up out of the golden carpet of October leaves on the forest floor as I made my way up the hill in search of the actual mine buildings...

This foundation still had a tiny corner of rotted wood left to prove that it once had a cabin on top of it:

I soon came to the bottom of a poor-rock pile, and saw a way up. It was the mine's hoist house that I was primarily looking for today, the largest remaining ruin, and I knew it lay somewhere near the top of Forest Hill.

Once I got up here the wind really beat the cold rain into me. Despite the gorgeous surroundings I could hardly wait to get back to the car...our plan for the day was to return to the Keweenaw and warm up at Lindell's Cafe for lunch. But first I wanted to find the ruin of the hoist house, which was somewhere on top of this hill.

Dipping back into the woods, I started to find a couple weird holes in the ground that suggested very old mining activity:

This cleft in the bare rock looked especially intriguing:

It reminded me very much of my explorations at the Norwich Mine several years prior, and could have been one of the primitive operations that preceded the most recent incarnation of the Victoria Mine.

I took a look inside hoping that a bear was not within, just getting ready for hibernation. I don't believe I had a proper flashlight with me, and as I recall this ended up being a very short tunnel with nothing much inside. The actual mine shafts at Victoria have been capped, by the way.

Suddenly I spotted what I was looking for—the hoist house.

It loomed up at the top of the hill like a haunted mansion...

One very cool ruin of the Old Victoria site that I missed on this trip were the "pyramids," two gigantic cement monoliths out in the middle of the woods, each as big as a house and shaped like a pyramid with metal bolts sticking out of one side. They used to be cable diverters for the hoist, and my colleague Mike Forgrave covers them very well at: coppercountryexplorer.com

Interestingly, the North Country Trail actually passes through this doorway, and goes out the other side of the building. I have hiked sections of the North Country Trail before (White Cloud, the Porcupine Mountains, and Norwich Bluff), and I'd always wanted to see this part, even if I wasn't backpacking today.

Mike Forgrave says that when Captain Hooper first took up the reins of the old Victoria property in 1881 intending to reopen it, "he found a mine in disarray." Its workings were flooded with groundwater, the support timbers had rotted away, and the shafts themselves had been dug haphazardly at best. Hooper needed to completely rehabilitate the site before any new mining could commence, and that took until after the year 1900.

This hoist house was an improvement over the smaller one that it superceded; the Victoria had been plagued with troubles in its early years (including losing its stamp mill to a fire and again to a flood), so Captain Hooper tried to offset that by keeping infrastructure simple and cheap when he started. Once the copper and profits finally began rolling in, they were able to build a bigger better hoist house, which is the one you see here.

I believe the Victoria's ore was sent to the smelters up in Hancock for final processing.

According to Michigan Ghost Towns of the Upper Peninsula by Roy L. Dodge, Victoria got its post office in 1899. By 1905 the population was 400, and there was a general store, a doctor, and a sawmill. By 1910 there was a saloon and the population was 360, and a great number of them were Finns, as one might expect. By 1915 there was a railroad agent, and in 1917 Victoria's population had peaked at 700.

Mike Forgrave drew up an excellent overview map of the town (using an aerial photo taken in 1937), showing all the buildings that once stood here and what their functions were.

Papineau notes that death seemed to "haunt" the Victoria Mine, although I don't believe it was ever infamous for being a widow-maker. He lists the first death as occurring in 1903, when Isaac Erikson was crushed by a large steel kibble full of rock that fell back into the mineshaft and landed on him.

The year 1907 was especially bad for deaths at Victoria, Papineau reports. Onnen Kiskenan was annihilated by a premature blast, Henry Metsala fell 270 feet down a shaft, and John Winters was crushed by a timber that dropped down a shaft. 1912 was an even tougher year at Victoria. One man was killed by a fall triggered by a dynamite blast, and Joe Wiechoski also fell 200 feet down a shaft that same year. Oscar Bohto was asphyxiated in the 21st level by poisonous gasses left behind after a dynamite blast. Another man, Oscar Sarri, was killed by a freak blast when his pneumatic drill struck an old undetonated charge.

In the early days of the Copper Country a mine would typically shut down out of respect when a fatality occurred, but according to Papineau by this time that practice was discontinued in favor of offering monetary assistance to the family. Workplace safety measures did not even really come into play in most occupations until after this time. Death was an ever-present aspect of working in the mines...I don't think there was a single miner in Michigan who didn't see someone killed on the job at least once. Such was the cost of forging the modern prosperity we now take for granted.

The sky began to threaten that this light rain was about to turn into a late season thunderstorm, so I tried to hurry and finish up with the photography and move along.

The great hoist engine once sat in this cavity, basically a giant elevator motor that ran cables down into the mine for lifting men and copper out of the underground:

The large engines that remained behind in these types of buildings all across Michigan's Copper Country were chopped up and removed for scrap during the second World War. I imagine that the roof and its massive trusses were also taken for scrap iron at that time, which would explain why they are totally absent.

Following WWI, a drop in copper prices ultimately led to the Victoria mine’s demise, as well as most others down here in the southern extremity of the Copper Country. The Victoria closed in 1921 and the exodus began. By 1927 Dodge reported that no population was listed for Victoria, and the post office had closed and reverted to Rockland.

As told by Papineau, the town was reused temporarily to house workers in 1929 when the new dam was built by a power company. After that a man (also named Hooper) was left behind to serve as live-in caretaker of the town, until he passed away here in 1937.

On my way back down the hill I passed the bare ruins of the old hoist house for the #2 Shaft, if I'm not mistaken:

I also spotted this odd tank, which Mike hypothesized could have been a reservoir for either water or compressed air:

There was also the ruined foundation of the former rock house:

Between these piers of cement, railroad cars would have once pulled in underneath the building to receive crushed rock and ore, which was then dumped into them from above:

No trip to the Victoria can be complete without seeing the dam and the Taylor Compressor.

It was Hooper's unusual decision to build what is called the "Taylor Air Compressor" to provide power for the mine, to offset the rising cost of bringing fuel coal in to this remote location. He worked with the Canadian engineer Charles H. Taylor to design a power source for the Victoria that had no moving parts. It required a huge underground chamber be dug under the Ontonagon River, 282'x57'x18' in size, which took the miners from 1904 to 1906 to hollow out. A 300' dam was also built, and a 6,000' canal to channel water from the surface to the underground chamber. As the water filled the domed chamber a pocket of air formed at the top, which became more and more compressed as the water level rose.

The compressed air in the chamber was drawn off through a pipe that allowed it to power the mine's hoist, its drills, its stamp mill, and even its tram railroad. Molloy writes that this new system saved the Victoria Mine $20,000 in fuel costs in the first year. It was also completely pollution-free, which was unusual in those days of burning coal for everything.

Whenever the air compression in the chamber went over the needed levels, there was a blow-off valve that allowed excess pressure to be released through a 12" pipe in a remote location, resulting in a spectacular geyser shooting far up into the air. This was reportedly very cool in winter, because it left behind some pretty wild ice sculptures. Even today the dam itself becomes a spectacle during the spring thaw, when all the melting snow causes the river to turn this little trickle of a waterfall into a rampaging torrent that sends spray well up above the trees...

This current dam was built by the power company to replace the original one—and it also happens to cover the spot where the legendary Ontonagon Boulder had lain since time immemorial. It was the tales about the mystical copper boulder going back to the 1600s that ultimately sparked the copper rush to Upper Michigan.

We had had enough of the cold penetrating rain for today, so we loaded up in the Jeep and wound our way back to Lindell's for a warm lunch and coffee.

Old Victoria, Forest Queen of the Copper Mines, by Joseph R. Papineau
A Guide to Michigan's Historic Keweenaw Copper District, by Lawrence J. Molloy, p. 86
Michigan Ghost Towns of the Upper Peninsula, by Roy L. Dodge, p. 274-275
The Upper Peninsula of Michigan, An Inventory of Historic Engineering and Industrial Sites, by the Historic American Engineering Record, p. 112-115

1 comment:

  1. My husband and I visited Old Victoria last August just after closing time, but a very nice volunteer was spending the weekend there (I guess to keep an eye on the place) and showed us around. She was heating up the sauna and showed us how that worked too. My husband is half-Finnish, so we had a great conversation!


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