Its that time of year again when people – suffering from great bouts of cabin fever – venture out into the Keweenaw backwoods in search of old mine ruins to explore. With the leaves not yet on the trees and the snow melting – these ruins are easier to find and photograph then ever. Its a great time to go exploring, and also a great time for me to do a little public service announcement on the dangers of mine shafts.
When talking about mine safety its always good to remember the story of 7-year old Ruth Ann Miller. While playing around the Tamarack No. 4 shaft, she somehow managed to slip under the cap and fall down the shaft. During rescue attempts the cap broke in two and fell down the shaft as well – sealing Ruth over 400 feet under the ground. While kids like Ruth are at greater danger of falling down an abandoned mine shaft – anyone can fall victim if they’re not careful.
The most important thing to remember when exploring old mine sites is to always pay attention to your surroundings. In most cases mine shafts can be detected long before you get close enough for them to pose a danger. Knowing how a mine shaft typically presents itself in the wild and identifying the signs that accompany it is an important first step in keeping safe at a mine ruin. Towards that end I decided to make of list of what to look for when avoiding a potential fall down a deep mine shaft.
This one may seem obvious, but in a great deal of cases a mine shaft is in fact marked by a “danger sign”. However, on most of these cases the writing on these signs have been worn – or shot – off. What you will find is a blank piece of metal attached to a metal pole, tree, or wood post. If you find one in the middle of the woods – it marks a mine shaft.
Every single mine shaft I have discovered has been marked with barbed wire. In some cases this wire is still attached to a standing fence, but in most cases it is not. But while fences and wood posts will rot away over time – the rusted steel of the barbed wire will always remain. Often it’s laying about on the ground, or hanging up against a tree. In some old mines I have seen the wire imbedded into nearby trees. If you see barbed wire on the ground – a mine shaft is close by.
This is more rare then it should be – but you will find times when an actually fence is sealing off a shaft opening. Often, however, these fences are in poor shape and falling down. Above you can see the fence around an Osceola Shaft (with a sign as well). These fences can be in the form of a snow fence, wood posts, or even chain-link in some cases. Either way – obey their warning and stay away.
While the sample I show here is extreme, most shafts can be identified by a depression in the ground. These depressions can vary in depth – from the extreme as seen here, to more subtle as seen most other places. These depressions often seem “out of place” to the area around it – without any trees or plants growing within them. Often their steep sides are lines with poor rock, or some other “out of place” material. In general its always a good idea to not go near depressions – even ones that you think are probably not a shaft.
Often you will stumble across a line of metal pipes in the woods, like seen in the examples above. In a lot of cases these pipes are not attached to any time of fence, they simply stand alone in the woods. Sometimes they have back braces to help hold them up, sometimes they are laying down on the ground or are broke in two. No matter how you find them, these pipes always mean a shaft is nearby. Stay away from them.
If a shaft has been capped correctly, it often is marked by a vent pipe like what’s seen here. Sometimes the vent is large, or sometimes its just a large steep pipe sticking up out of the ground. While this often means the shaft has been capped correctly, you should still avoid them. Just to be safe.
Another sign of a more recently capped shaft is the concrete pad. These are often rectangular in shape, sitting seemingly by themselves in the middle of the woods. They are usually only a few inches in height, covered in a good layer of moss. While you might think this is just a foundation to another building, there are a few ways you can tell the difference. First there are very few concrete slabs used in mine construction – except for the case of a collar house. (which would also contain the shaft so it should be avoided). When concrete “floors” are used they are most often etched into a tile pattern. They will also be edged by a slight concrete “lip” standing a few feet above the pad. In most cases they will also feature other “do-dads” across its surface. If its a flat, featureless concrete slab it most likely is a cap.
I hope this comes in handy to some of you fellow explorers (and wanna-be explorers) out there. So go out there and have some fun exploring the Copper Country – just stay away from mine shafts and stay safe!