As the nineteenth century began to wind down, the Copper Empire had seemingly reached its peak. The C&H had reached epic status, Calumet and Houghton were booming metropolitan centers, and Quincy had earned its reputation as “old reliable” handily. The last major lode to have been discovered – the Kearsarge – had given birth to a dozen mines and communities along its length which now had matured into respected communities. To most living along this newly formed empire, the frontier had been tamed. Civilization had taken its place.
That newly formed civilization had its limits however. While lands to the north of the Portage had been thoroughly domesticated, those lands to the south were a completely different story. Here sat a new frontier – almost untouched by the hand of man. There was a good 30 miles of copper bearing lands here – but prospectors had long ago given up on their profitability. Unlike the lodes to the north which lurked near the surface, these southern lodes were buried deeper in the earth covered by a thick layer of overburden. This overburden – copper barren rock and soil – would have to be removed before any copper could be found. There were far easier prospects to the north to be had.
The first attempt to mine this southern range proved to be as successful as those early prospectors had predicted. The Whealkate mine made its pioneer attempt in 1851 – working shafts dug into the 1500 ft high bluff rising high over the Portage valley. The mine and mountain was named after the wife of one of the mine’s investors whose name was Kate (The “wheal” in the name is the Cornish work for “work” colloquially used to mean “mine”) . At the time this mountain was thought to be the highest in Michigan and that height was due to a hard copper core which made it resistant to erosion. Both assumptions turned out to be inaccurate. Copper was never found and the mine was quickly abandoned in 1853.
The Whealkate’s failure help keep development of the southern lands at bay for some time. As the century came to a close however, the “easier” copper lodes to the north were quickly becoming pillaged. New sources of copper were becoming scarce and prospective copper mines had to look harder to find new sources of copper. Investors finally started to take another look at that last copper frontier to the south for those new deposits, the Whealkate’s failure notwithstanding. Helping fuel the idea that profitable mining might in fact be possible to the south was the unlikely sucess of the Atlantic Mine – which was opened in 1872.
The Atlantic Mine worked what was originally thought to be the southern extension of the Pewabic Lode which the Quincy was working with great success. This lode, however, was a completely different type of animal. This was an ash bed lode, where the copper was finely dispersed in a mix of volcanic rocks and a great deal of sandy material (thus the “ash” part). The copper yields were abysmally low, only around 1%. At its richest, the lode could only produce 13 pounds of copper per ton of rock mined.
The news wasn’t all bad, however. The sandy nature of an ash bed lode greatly reduced the cost of blasting, stoping, and stamping. The rock broke easily, with very little effort. What little copper that could be produced could be done at a reasonably low cost – given the economy of scale. It would just require a large scale operation to make it work.
The Atlantic Mine did exactly that, investing in a massive surface plant and stamping facilities to maximize efficiency. A total of six shafts were sunk, a mill was built along Portage Lake, and a private railroad was built to connect it all together. In only five years the mine had done the seemingly impossible – paying dividends for the first time to its investors. It had earned a profit.
Its success only grew in scope over the next couple of decades. The tailings at its mill had become so large they threatened to block the Portage Canal (similar to what happened to Quincy), forcing the mine to move the mill to its new home at Redridge. A new branch of the mine’s railroad was built out to the mill – now known as the Atlantic and Lake Superior Railroad. In one last testament to the mines continued prosperity the Atlantic built the massive steel dam at Redridge (in cooperation with the newly formed Baltic Mine). The future for the Atlantic was bright. But it was not to last.
The sandy consistency of the ash bed lode had another major drawback. The brittle nature of the rock made the hanging wall at Atlantic extremely unstable. A virtual forest had to be laid out underground just to keep it all intact. Rock falls were common, and large sections of the hanging wall would give way all at once creating catastrophic air blasts ripping through the levels. By 1905 these occurrences became more frequent and devastating making large sections of the mine unworkable. The mine had become a ticking time bomb.
It was a quiet Saturday afternoon when the ground shook violently at Atlantic Mine. Chimneys fell, windows broke, rails were twisted, and sink holes opened up throughout the town. Windows as far north as Calumet rattled. The Atlantic Mine’s hanging wall had given way, crushing the shafts and collapsing the levels. The bomb had finally gown off, in the form of a 3.6 magnitude earthquake. Luckily no one was working at the time, but the mine was destroyed. The end had arrived.
to be continued…