The Southern Range (p1)

the Copper Range RR rounds Six Mile Hill along the southern range of the Copper Country

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.

Downtown Atlantic Mine, one of the first settlements along the southern range

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.

A line of shafts at the Atlantic Mine

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.

inside an Atlantic Mine rockhouse

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 Redridge Steel dam under construction

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…

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  1. The collapse of the Atlantic’s hanging wall made headlines country wide, including this piece from the New York Times:

    “Earthquake Near Houghton – More Than 50 Shocks at Atlantic Mine – Houses Rock, Earth Cracks

    The most severe earth disturbances ever experienced in this region occurred at the Atlantic Mine to-day. There were more than fifty shocks. Buildings rocked violently, and in several places there are cracks in the earth from two to six inches in width. The shocks were distinct in Houghton and Hancock, but did no damage.

    Great alarm prevails, and miners and their families are preparing to leave for other points in the copper country.

    The Atlantic shut down two weeks ago as the result of similar disturbances. It is believed that it will never be reopened, as it would take a year to clear the shaft and drifts of fallen rock. ”

    The New York Times – May 7, 1906

  2. Here’s a fun tidbit which I found about the Whealkate Mine (from the Copper Handbook, quoted in “Michigan’s Copper Country” by Ellis W. Courter):

    “The mine should be dug up bodily and preserved for engraving upon the intellect of those who would be admonished. It is probably the finest example extant of how not to do it!”

    Courter goes on to describe the mine itself. The first shaft was sunk in “quicksand” and abandoned. The second shaft was sunk vertically for 40 feet, then drifted. From this drift there was an incline shaft for 50 more feet, and then a cross-cut from the bottom of the shaft for 100 feet. Then, another drift. From that, a winzie went 540 feet down. The miners never found an ounce of copper.

    I don’t think that any remains of the mine can be seen. I’ve climbed the bluff and wandered around — it’s an amazing view and an exhausting hike, straight up!

  3. The Copper Handbook is a great source – one I used extensively to compile this article. I almost put that quote in but I didn’t have enough archive images to illustrate that much about the Whealkate, so I shortened everything quite a bit. Google books has generously scanned it and created a PDF file of it, which is how I got my hands on it. For anyone who’s interested in reading it, heres a link.

    The view from Whealkate is incredible. If someone cleared off the top from trees (or built an observation tower) you could see both sides of the Keweenaw for sure. I believe it is the second highest point along the Keweenaw, only behind Mt. Horace Greeley (at 1,512 ft). We’ve been to a lot of high points along the Keweenaw, and this one was by far the hardest to scale, I almost didn’t think I would make it! But worth it in the end.

  4. Mike —

    Yes, I think Whealkate Bluff was thought to be the highest point in the state for quite a while, too. I hear that there used to be snowmobile races up it — anyone who made it at all was a winner!

    Also, I have a site suggestion — a bibliography page, listing the various (publicly available) resources you use. I don’t mean that I want you to cite things within the articles, but a list of pages and books for those who are interested in finding out even more would be awesome. For example, the Copper Handbook link, the MTU Digiarch link, Kevin’s copperrange.org page, etc. It would be an awesome addition for those of us who love exploring the Keweenaw!

  5. Dang it, I hate it when my readers come up with really great ideas that result in a lot of extra work for me :)

    Thats a really good idea. I’ve happened to come across quite a bit of stuff out there about this area (surprisingly really) and readers have supplied a lot more interesting stuff. I’ll have to work on that.

    Right now my time has been spend putting together more of these Industrial Footprints maps in the hopes to put together a master map detailing every ruin along the Keweenaw. I’ll put the Biblio on the short list…

    Thanks for the good suggestion! (I really don’t mind the work that much..)

  6. Mike,

    Thanks for the link to the Copper Handbook. More info for me to read.

    I love the biblio idea also. It would be nice to have more resources easily accesible (via links) from one place.

    As far as the master map goes, I’d bet people would be willing to purchase it.

  7. Holy cow, would I ever love that map. Partly because of locations of things I haven’t seen (I suppose there are some issues with private property), but also because it is very hard to find reasonably detailed maps of the Keweenaw (without buying every single USGS quad map for like $100!).

    As far as the bib goes, I am sure you could get a little community involvement — even just posting a request to have your regular readers post useful links in the comments of the related articles.

  8. Mike, I think that some newer and older articles have started conflicting here. I’m seeing photos from your new South Range series here, but the text and captions are from your older Southern Range series. For example, “Inside an Atlantic Mine shafthouse” is, in fact, Mission Orange! I didn’t know the mines approved of such product placement… :P

  9. After 387 posts I start running out of file names for my images, and began repeating some. And since I FTP my images into the blog, those old file names are simply overwritten with the new ones. This seems to happen from time to time, but this time I can’t seem to find the originals. So I’ll have to go back in the archives and look them up which will take time. So for now I just removed the images from these posts.

    THanks for bringing it to my attention though. Glad you guys are reading my old stuff! I sure don’t.