Keweenaw Sands (p1)

The Isle Royale stamp sands (lower right), as seen in 1940 from the air.

Mining is not the most environmentally friendly industry (and let’s face it, what industry really is?), and the scars it leaves on the landscape often outlast by generations those mines and mine managers that were responsible for the damage. In a region that relied solely on shaft mining and rarely used chemical agents underground or in its mills (except for the case of reclamation later on), the damage inflicted on the Keweenaw by mining was relatively minor compared to other mining regions. For the Keweenaw, the most lasting scars from its past are the mine’s “left-overs” – those materials that had been left behind by the mines during each stage of production. There are three major types of these left overs: slag from the Smelting process, poor-rock from the mines, and stamp sand from the mills. Of these three, the most damaging is by far the stamp sands.

For the most part, stamp sands in the Keweenaw are inert and pose no inherent danger by means of their composition. These sands are simply just rock, crushed down into granules with a consistency similar to gravel. This inert nature, however, also means that the sands cannot sustain any plant life that may attempt to grow upon it. Wherever these sands are found, the land on which they sit has become essentially sterile – incapable of supporting life. Nowhere is this fact so visually evident, then
when you look down on the Keweenaw from high above. From there the extent of these stamp sand deposits and their affect on the environment becomes clear. Today we begin a multi-part look at the many stamp sands deposits scattered across the Keweenaw Peninsula as seen from these aerial images.

We start with the most famous stamp sands of them all…

The Gay Sands were created from the combined output of the Mohawk and Wolverine Mills, which were located next door each other in the small lumber town of Gay. These sands were dumped directly into Lake Superior, creating close to a quarter mile of new lakeshore before all was said and done. Since the mills ceases operations, the lake has managed to washed the sands down the coast for several miles, obliterating any sand beaches in its way. Currently the only thing keeping those sands migrating even further south is the break water at the mouth of the Traverse River (seen at the bottom of the image).

One of the first mills to take root along the Superior shore did so on the west end of the peninsula, at the mouth of the Salmon-Trout River. This would be the Atlantic Mine’s second mill, built in 1895 after its original mill along Portage Lake was interfering with navigation. The mill was soon joined by the Baltic Mill, built next across the river and sharing the newly constructed Redridge Steel Dam as a source of water. A year later the Copper Range empire built a trio of mills to serve its many mines, including the Trimountain, Champion, and Adventure Mines.

Unlike the Gay Sands which were protected by the full fury of Lake Superior by the Keweenaw peninsula itself, the sand deposits here on the western shore faced a daily onslaught of waves and wind. Because of this, most of the sands from these five mills have been washed away. The only sands that remain from the mills sit within protected coves and bays. The Champion sands have been washed south-west, along the shore towards Misery Bay.

Moving north from the many mills along Freda and Redridge, we find an interesting deposit of stamp sands up against the north entry breakwaters. These sands are part of a township park that most locals refer to as the “breakers”. As far as I know there was never a stamp mill here, and the existence of these sands have always perplexed me. The most likely source is the Atlantic and Baltic Mills, more then a few miles south of here. The sands from those mills were probably washed up here by a strong lake current known as the Keweenaw Current – which runs up along the peninsula’s west shore from south to north.

These sands have recently been rehabilitated by the EPA, and are now covered by a few feet of soil and a field of fresh grass.

This one takes us far outside CCE’s normal operating boundaries, down towards Baraga along Keweenaw Bay. This would be the old mill for the Mass Mine, which operated a dozen or so miles inland at Mass City. Sitting in the middle of these sands is the remains of the mines old Coal Dock, which have halted most of the sands from marching southward.

Even further south along the bay is (edit: what I thought was) the old Michigan Mill site. This mine use to be known as the Minesota Mine (spelling intentional), and was re-opened as the Michigan some time later. The sands here are much more extensive then those from the Mass Mine, and have been pushed down along the coast a good distance.

NOTE: Thanks to Joe for the correction, as these sands are in fact NOT those of the Michigan Mill, which was much further north then here. Who’s sands these are, however, is still a mystery to me.

To Be Continued….

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  1. The Michigan Mill is actually Further North, and still has some buildings standing… Its an old derelict looking building that is kind of an A-shape off to the side of 41. Its very distinct. The stamp foundation is in the over growth just north of the building.

  2. Correct-a-mundo, as usual. The problem I had with the old Michigan Mill was a lack of any noticable stamp sands between the Mass Mll and Portage Entry. I couldn’t find spit, so I looked south and noticed the large concentration of sands closer to Baraga. I assumed that this would be the Michigan since, what else could it be? Well obviously it’s some other mine’s mill since the Michigan – as you describe – is clearly north of the Mass. According to the Copper Handbook:

    “Work was begun April 1906 on a new mill to cost circa $200,000 about one mile north of the Mass Mill on Keweenaw Bay with ample water frontage for the wasting of sands.”

    So the new question remains: what mill do those mystery sands near Baraga belong to?

  3. I had always assumed the sands were just washed down from the old Mass/Michigan Mills and collected there, could be wrong though… *Shrugs*

  4. I was looking at Maps Live yesterday following the shoreline when I ran across this:

    Would that be the Copper Falls sands?

    And I couldn’t believe how far some of the stamps sands along the shore reach. Does anyone know how many miles the Gay sands go?

  5. Your getting ahead of me Jay, but yes those are the Copper Falls Sands. As far as Gay sands go, using the distance measurement I give on the map, the sands extend about three miles down the coast.

  6. This is a real interesting topic. I had no idea the Gay Sands extended that far down the coast, or that the Redridge sands were so washed away. Nor that on the drive between Redridge and Freda the Adventure mill and the Tri-Mountain mill are staggered along the coast like that. Any good ruins to visit at those places?

    The sands are pretty cool. Years ago I camped on the Redridge sands with my bike. Got down on them and rode all the way to the end (SW) where they butted up against a low sandstone cliff. Pitched my little tent as nice as could be and took a dip in the ICE COLD lake. The sand flies were unbearable! Then, in the night a huge storm came up flashing like mad over the lake. At first it was nice light show, but then it struck and blew my little tent to pieces. I spent the rest of the night under the collapsed tent with my riding boots keeping the fabric off my face. Then the sun came up in the morning and it got super hot and the sand flies attacked again. A camp to remember….

  7. Herb…

    Is there any place in the Keweenaw you haven’t camped out at? You make me exceptionally jealous of the type of utter freedom you must of enjoyed on your journeys. Just a bike and a tent – with only the road as your guide. Its refreshing and I think a lot of us here wish we had the same type of experiences to share. I know I do. (maybe minus the sand flies..) Makes me think of what adventures I could of had if I were someone different… Thanks for sharing and keep them coming!

  8. Thanks Explorer,

    A motorcycle and tent is a perfect combination up there. It makes you stay outside and look for of the way campsites around the mines, etc. where you cannot help but come into intimate contact with the Keweenaw’s peculiar “spirit power.”

    Your research, journeys, and postings about the Copper Country Empire bring back lots of good memories for me and provide tons of new information I never knew before. I’ve done considerable research on the region myself and like you know better than anyone, the place is totally addictive, but in a good way. Everywhere up there is a pure haunted feeling like no place else I have ever been. Just drips with impressions of the past and hidden-in-the-weeds ghostly whispers like a lucid dream!

    Then there was the campsite time with a ghost train…

  9. I like the bookstore idea!!!

    You might want to change it to “Amazon” though.

    Also, have you thought about having shirts, hats, etc. made through Cafe Press or Vistaprint?

  10. For posterity, I too will cite the “Amazom Bookstore”. Good plan though. I still support a pre-torn t-shirt with blood- and sweat-stains on it.

  11. Well ummmmmm, another mystery solved Mike, I think and am pretty sure, those mystery sands are from the mill you use in the first photo of Anatomy of a Mill(Rock Bins), the Keweenaw Bay Mill. If you look closely at a topo map, a branch of the Mineral Range used to run to the west/southwest towards Pelkie, Nissula and went out around Mass. I know it served a mine or two out there around Mass.
    It ended about a 1/4 miles south of the roadside park on US41. A road is on top of the grade now. There was a train station along with the stamp mill there.
    After doing a little Internet search, its talked about the Copper Handbook Vol 2, (1902) in Google Books. The mill was actually called the Mass Mill at Keweenaw Bay, and of course the Mass Mine is what supplied the rock.

  12. Hmmmmmmm now I now I am tired, I completely missed where you talk about the Keweenaw Bay Mill, I think those sands are just sands from the same mill washed down the shore, the topo map I put the link to, shows sands along the shore south of the mill in several places.

  13. Grrrrrrrr, why in the heck can’t I find part 2 of the sands.

    Herb, I was doing some reading in C&H’s company newsletters from the 1950s when C&H was trying to extend its life, I believe in Part 2 comments you had mentioned about pulling the copper out of the different sands, whether it was worth it or not.
    C&H actually did try that in the late 1950’s, they also sampled some of the poor rock piles. One of the sands that did show good promise was the red sands of the Allouez mine. But they never really list the end result, obviously, it wasn’t worth the time as the sands still are there.

  14. Gordy, that’s interesting. With the current high price of copper some of those old sands might pay to rework now. Of course, like somebody said before, it would pay only if done on-site, and that would bring up all sorts of environmental issues and such. But so long as the old sands are sitting there it remains a possibility.

    This reminds me of something an old guy up there once told me. That one of the Isle Royale mine poor rock piles was a govt. job in WWII (WWI?) and they just mined the rock and then stockpiled it without milling it.

    Now I don’t know if that’s a myth or not (it probably is), but if it were true, then that pile would be richer in copper than the others, or so you’d think.

  15. Herb,

    The Isle Royale piles are all gone now, so I imagine that even if it were true, something was done with it long before now.

  16. Just got the Mining Gazette paper from Houghton, the Winona Sands have been covered with 6 inchs of soil.
    Next target are the sands at Central for next year. From what its said, the creek will be rerouted to make it more like a natural trout stream, then the sands get covered. So if you like the way it looks now, get your pictures.

    The C&H Newsletter did mention testing of 4,400 tons of rock from S kearsarge, No 1 & 2 N Kearsarge, Ahmeek #2 and the Centennial Conglomerate. Most of this was crushed at the Houghton County road commission and looks to have been hand picked through, they said they did find some chunks up to 275lbs, but most was to small to hand pick. As a follow up to this, 500 tons from the Allouez Congolmerate was crushed at Ahmeek #2 rockhouse and shipped to the Ahmeek Mill. They do mention a by product of this project was crushed rock for road construction and were going to a market study for its sale and usage. Whatever was hauled for these tests was sold to the county.
    A later issue mentions about shipping rock from Ahmeek #2 to the old Kearsarge shaft and running it through the rockhouse and sending 500 tons a day to the mill, so maybe rock from Ahmeek #2 had some value.
    Funny how now, people are using the crushing the rock and selling it, but not worrying about the copper content.

  17. The Isle Royale piles gone? When did that happen? They were there a “few” years ago. The story about one pile (I think it was #7 or 8) being a stockpile of unmilled rock may have been a tall tale, I don’t really know. It was told to me by an old man at a rock shop in Copper Harbor back in the 1980s, I believe maybe the owner. I asked him of good places to hunt copper and that’s the story he told me: that it was a govt. stockpile of mined, but unmilled rock, that was never processed.

    A great part of the charm of that region is the old mining remains and poor rock piles. I’m sorry to see it vanishing like this, but as we see, the poor rock itself has considerable value as crushed road metal, etc.

    Incidently, it’s always fun to watch the copper rock road gravel for shiny red metal that car tires tend to polish up. I’ve found a small piece or two that way….

  18. Parts of those Isle Royale piles still exist, but very little of what use to be there. Moyle (or perhaps Gundlach) I believe owns the whole thing now and used the rock piles for construction material for years.

    Related to those Isle Royale rock piles, the sign at the Quincy Lookout scenic turnout still labels those piles as existing. The sign refers to them as rock “mounds” atop the hill overlooking Houghton. Of course you look now and the piles are gone.

    Also interesting is that sign thanks the Quincy Mine for donating and up-keeping the property.

  19. The time or two I visted the Isle Royale piles they already were chained off with “No Trespassing” signs. I can’t remember anymore if I went in there or not. I know that I looked for that supposedly rich pile, but never found it or couldn’t tell which one it was. It seems to me that the old guy gave me directions I put into a little notebook with a crude map, but once I got there it wasn’t exactly clear where to go; plus the posted land, etc. put me off. I believe there were houses nearby too, which tends to keep a guy from sneaking in, even me!

  20. My copy of “Self-Guided Geological Field Trip to the Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan” (2nd ed., 1994, I think) refers to the Isle Royale piles still existing, but also notes that they they were quickly disappearing at that time.

  21. Here’s an idea on the north entry sands, maybe there are dredged sand from the canal bottom from other mill sites.

  22. On the map of the Gay Sands, the sands have been pulled by the current from Gay all the way to Traverse Bay’s breakwater.

    In about the middle, is another feature where the railroad seems to have jutted out into the lake, and the railbed is acting as another breakwater. This is about where Big Traverse Bay Road turns away from the lake and heads away from the lake.

    What was here? Lumber loading dock??

  23. That would be the old Mohawk/Wolverine coal dock. I believe it originally served as the loading dock for the Hebard Quarry before Mohawk took it over. I haven’t been there yet so I’m not sure how much is still left. It would look as if whatever is left has been buried by the sands, similar to what happened at the old Isle Royale dock as well.

  24. John..

    That particular dock in the photo is of the Jacob’s dock down in Jacobsville, and is built with rock fill. The dock at Traverse Bay that the Mohawk Mine used might of been similar originally but the mine probably extended it with a wooden portion.

    In case you missed it I did a short series on those sandstone quarries HERE.

  25. So if the coal dock is up the shore from the Traverse River, what was the breakwater and small port at the Traverse river used for? Was this associated with the quarry or a mine shipping/point perhaps?

  26. As far as I know the Traverse River breakwater was a rather recent addition – probably some time in the 70’s. From what I’ve read the old town was simply a small fishing village (which it continues to be to this day) and it had nothing to do with a mine or quarry. The state added the breakwater to create a harbor of refuge on the Keweenaw’s east shore.

  27. The harbor was there in the 1960’s already, so it was a bit older.

    I found info on the dock for Mohawk Mining Co, it was 30 x 300 ft, had 14-18 feet of water alongside and showed a ship up to 320 feet could come alongside.
    One of the Copper Manual (1903) books/magazines in Google Books actually had a photo of the dock with the coal unloading machinery. Of course now I can’t find it, but Google Books has a habit of using a different name than what the cover shows many times.
    Maybe the link will work, looks like the photo is from the end of the dock back to shore.

  28. Actually found info for the Grand Traverse Bay Harbor as its officially known. The original north and south piers were built in the 1949-1951 period, 1964 an extension was added to the north pier and 1975 that same pier was added to again. From what I read the depth was 12 foot dredged.
    I can remember fishing boats in the harbor as a kid, so I would guess that was the purpose.
    Any mining work was long finished by the time the harbor was improved.

    The Mohawk Mining company coal dock was kind of protected where it was at, thats a large bay where it was located and around a corner, so I would guess other than a strong east or southeast wind they would be ok docked there. The dock is probably still there under the stamp sand, I have a few photos I took a couple of years ago. You can still tell where the dock was, the one side still has water against it. Not much chance of any type of boat getting anywhere close, its almost all landlocked now, you can step across the entrance.

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