Our explorations across the Keweenaw uncover a great deal of mining history. From abandoned rail lines, towering smokestacks, to crumbling hoist building foundations – we have seen evidence of this area’s rich history. While the stories that these ruins tell are an essential part of our shared history, there is often an important story left untold. This is the story of the men who worked within these ruins, the human aspect of this lost empire. Without this human touch, these ruins are simply piles of concrete and stone. With them, these ruins become something greater.
The Iroquois Mine sits alone on the edge of the wilderness frontier north of Mohawk. After the Second World War, dying companies desperately sought the “mother load” somewhere on the Keweenaw that they hoped would revitalize the industry. In this pursuit companies re-opened old mines like Seneca and Centennial and sank new shafts lodes to the north (such as the new Allouez and Iroquois). The Iroquois mine, like most of these endeavors, proved fruitless and quickly closed.
Very little is left at the mine today. Various foundations to buildings, and the large poor rock piles offering a sweeping view of the cliff range, are all that can be found. Seemingly insignificant except for one ruin that we almost missed. Tucked back from the road and half hidden in the trees was a large concrete floor. As we approached it, the building’s identity became clear. Scattered across its surface was dozens of locker doors. Similar to modern day gym lockers, these rusted-red slotted doors were piled over top of each other. In some places, the actually lockers themselves were still attached, lying on their sides or smashed flat against the ground. It was here the miners changed into the clothes they would were down in the mine. This was the Dry.
It was soon after this revelation that we found them. Sprinkled throughout the locker doors and concrete were metal “cups”. Not used for drinking, they were “U” shaped metal containers with a rubberized coating. We soon discovered that these were the remains of steel inserts used in steel-toed boots. They were probably the same boots that miners would have worn down into the mines, stored here in these lockers during their off time. Some of the steel toes were still attached to the rubber. Over the years the leather of the boots had rotted away, but the rubber soles and steel cups remained. Also scattered throughout the remains of the Dry, were pairs upon pairs of gloves. Hardened by the sun over the decades, these gloves were very brittle and felt not like gloves at all. These must have been work gloves provided by the company to use underground, also stored here while the workers were off.
Now we had the complete story. These gloves and boots were worn by men; men who toiled thousands of feet below us in a dark and dangerous underground world. These were men who went home each day to the families they loved, working during the day in terrible conditions to make sure they had a house, food, and a future. Men who walked upon the same floor we were not standing on, and used the same lockers now at our feet. Men who walked across the road next to us and entered the shaft building ahead of us to start their long and tiring day. Men with stories to tell that cannot be told by these ruins alone. These are stories that need to be told.