If Copper Country explorers like myself can be likened to a real-life Indiana Jones, then the famous Albion Rock is our Ark of the Covenant. Stories of its existence are shrouded in myth and mystery, passed down from one explorer to the next. Legend paints an epic tale: a bare flat rock sitting on the highest point of the Keweenaw from which you can look out across the peninsula from shore to shore – reading the topography like a real-life map. Could such a place really exist?
The legend has its roots in a short passage, quoted on fellow Copper Country explorer Kevin Musser’s web site (who passed away last year). It describes this magical place with the following:
“The spot where I stood was a bare flat rock, the highest peak of the Keweenaw Point, upon Lease, No. 10, belonging to the Albion Mining Company. I had heard this view glowingly described, but my imagination had formed no conception of its grandeur. I have stood upon the hills of Vermont and New Hampshire, and upon the peak of Laurel Mountain, the highest of the Alleganies – I have stood by Niagara in youthful wonder, and in manhood’s realization: but the water, over whose expanse the eye flits like the lost bird, finding nought to rest on, was wanting there to add immensity of space to the scene, as at the Albion Rock; nor was there, as here, the awful precipice, with its tempting depth, that Nature’s instincts teach her creatures they must shun. I have seen sights, but never one before so unconfined by hill or plane, or close horizon, where the spirit seemed set free to range at will. A scene only to be felt.”
The passage is attributed to John St. John, a Copper Country explorer from a different age and time. In the early 1800’s he took a trip along the Lake Superior shore and documented his observations in a book titled very acutely “A True Description of the Lake Superior Country; its Rivers Coasts, Bays, Harbours, Islands, and Commerce”. The book was published in 1846 – at the very cusp of the Keweenaw copper boom. No doubt his descriptions of the virgin lands along the Upper Peninsula were the only taste most Americans would get of the region.
But where is this rock that he speaks of? To find this out you have to read the passage in context – which luckily for us is available on-line thanks to Google Books. (check it out for yourself HERE)The paragraphs before the passage quoted above just happen to describe his journey to that special place. If we follow the clues he leaves, we should be able to find the Albion Rock for ourselves.
John St. John’s journey begins at Eagle River, from where he takes a wagon road into the interior which follows along the river itself:
“From this place a waggon-road is also made three and a half miles to Lease No. 7, (and is being continued to Lease No. 10 by the Albion Company, who are erecting buildings) which belongs to the Pittsburg Company, spoken of as the lessees of Copper Harbour, whose works at this place are noted with their others.”
The “Pittsburg Company” he refers to here is no doubt the Pittsburg & Boston Mining Company who besides being one of the first company’s to mine the Keweenaw, was also responsible for the famous Cliff Mine which at the time this was written was in it’s exploration stages.
“Having kept the road which runs near the Eagle River, ascending with it into the interior, and by which I had already got 200 feet above Lake Superior, I here left the valley of the Eagle River, passing the drifts into the side hill, and climbed some 300 feet, to where they had first commenced work by sinking a shaft, which was abandoned, and the drifts below commenced.”
Here’s were we get our first clues to where the Albion Rock might be located. We know he kept to the valley, which brings him up the road that is now M26. His remark of climbing “200 feet” puts him at some point near the Phoenix Mine, about half way to the town of Phoenix. (this elevation is marked on the map below with a yellow line). His then leaves the valley, passing what he calls “drifts in the side hill”. This must refer to a mine, which around 1846 could only be the Phoenix – which at this time was mined by the Lake Superior Copper Company. The location of this mine is marked by an “x” in the map.
His next remark referring to “climbing some 300 feet” to where “they had first commenced work by sinking a shaft” is a little more vague. I’m not sure who “they” refer to, but I can only guess its the Phoenix mine again. This seems to place him at the top of the Cliffs where Elmo’s tower currently sits, but his elevation remark of 300 feet would put him at an elevation around 1100 feet – marked on the map with a red line. Of course he did say “some 300 feet”, so it could be an estimate.
“From this already high eminence, I proceeded west, ascending by irregular knobs and beaches of trap rock, for, I suppose, one-half to three-quarters of a mile in a south course, which I arrived suddenly on the top of a naked rock, about twenty feet square, which raised itself above every thing else within scope of the eye; to the north and west was Lake Superior, “a dark blue desert, waste of waters;” – to the east was Keweenaw Bay, twenty miles distant, and away to the S.E. the Huron Mountains, sixty miles or more.”
Besides being an extremely long run-on sentence, this passage gives us the first distance measurement for his journey. Of course as he is walking, his distances are probably far from accurate. If we give him the benefit of the doubt we can say he walked about a mile. He also was nice enough to give us a direction, which is probably a little bit more accurate (assuming he used a compass). He says he “proceeded west” in a “south course”, which I’m going to take as meaning he walked southwest. The Black line on the map is a roughly a mile from the point in which he would first hit the 1100 foot elevation (if he came up the hill straight from the Phoenix Mine). This puts the Albion Rock at the spot marked with a yellow circle.
Of course the million dollar question becomes: does this spot fit his description? Armed with this information, we trekked up to this very spot ourselves this winter on snowshoes. Following a similar route, we treked up and down the cliff line until we reached a large flat snow-covered rock at the spot marked in the map. The space was indeed about “twenty feet square”, and offered unfettered views in almost all directions. While spectacular in their own right, they were a far cry from what Mr. St. John described. Here’s what he describes:
“The portage lake and valleys were spread out like a map before me; – at my feet was the edge of a perpendicular precipice of 800 feet; around its base swept off to west the valley of Eagle River, in which were marked alternate Copse and Beaver Meadows.”
We could not see any of these things he mentions: no Keweenaw Bay, no Huron Mountains, no Portage Lake. And while we were sitting along a precipice, it was no means 800 feet high. (in fact there’s no precipice this high along the entire Cliff Range) Its only about 200 feet. We did, however, see Beaver Meadows and the Eagle River valley.
So was this spot Albion Rock? I think it was. If you follow his descriptions of his journey from Eagle River to the rock, you come straight to this spot. But there are some puzzling issues, first of which is the height of the rock. Even if we assume he’s exaggerating the “perpendicular precipice of 800 feet” for dramatic effect, this spot is no where near the “highest peak of the Keweenaw Point” as he later describes it. The spot is only 1280 feet at best, far shy of other points along the peninsula. Its not even the highest point along the Cliff Range – which sits at 1450 feet just to the west of the North American Gap (and another 2 miles away, a distance Mr. St. John was sure to record)
Then there are other facts that don’t quite add up. Most notable is the assertion that this rocks sits upon “Lease No. 10 belonging to the Albion Mining Company”. The rock I located sites between the Cliff Mine and the Phoenix Mine – both owned by the Pittsburg and Boston Mining Company. What’s more is that other sources have placed the “Albion Mine” to the west of the North American Mine. This would indeed place Albion rock atop the highest point of the Cliff Range, and not where I think it is.
Yet the most striking evidence supporting my placement of the rock is his mention of “drifts” and a “shaft”. Six mines were opened along the Cliff Range, only two of which existed in 1846 – the Cliff and the Phoenix. And the Cliff itself was just starting – having opened only in 1845. And remember that the book was published in 1846, which means the exploration in question most likely occurred in 1845 at the latest. The Cliff mine probably hadn’t even finished its first drift – let alone having already abandoned a shaft. This means the mine in question has got to be the Phoenix. St. John puts this rock at most a mile from this mine, not the almost three miles separating the Phoenix from the Albion Location. This would put St. John’s path exactly where I placed it, and makes the spot we climbed to Albion Rock.
Of course, feel free to prove me wrong.
EDIT: Looks like I was proven wrong. After comments from more then one reader, I’m pretty sure that Albion rock was further to the south-west from where I deduce the rock is in this post. This spot would be the highest point along the range, and would make more sense then the spot I describe. Check out the comments to learn more…