The Quincy Smelting Works is the last of the last, a lone remnant of an industrial juggernaut that once lined the Portage Waterway for miles. Like her shoreline brethren, the Quincy complex existed only to serve its copper masters, and when the copper empire died she died along with it. As time marched forward the sprawling industrial ruins around her were sacrificed to the region’s new master – tourism. The shoreline on which smelters, foundries, warehouses, and coal docks once stood were transformed to parks, boardwalks, and rows of townhouses. But through it all the Smelter has remained. Though battered and bruised and showing her age, the old gal continues to remind us all of the copper country’s rich industrial heritage.
Thanks to the Quincy Smelter Association (QSA), Franklin Township and the Keweenaw Historical Park (KHP), I was fortunate enough to partake in a rather detailed look at the Quincy Smelter site during a special two hour photo tour of the sprawling complex. During that tour I was allowed access to almost every building on site – both externally and internally. Utilizing the 500+ photos taken during that tour, along with dozens of maps, diagrams, building plans, and technical drawings available through the HAER online database I’ve put together the most comprehensive and in-depth exploration of the site available today – over 25 posts in all.
In addition to the material presented here at CCE, we have also partnered with the good folks over at the Quincy Smelter Blog to provide expanded information about some of the sites I feature here. Simply click on the “Visit the Smelter Blog to Learn More” link at the bottom of each post to be taken to their site where more details await. And if you want to join in on the fun, we’ve opened up a thread over at the Copper Country Forum dedicated exclusively to the Quincy Smelter where you can post your own photos and stories about the site to share with other CC History folks out there. Check out the thread HERE.
To begin our series on the Quincy Smelting Works, I thought it would be a good idea to start off with a little historical background on the subject courtesy guest writer Craig Wilson. Craig is a board member of the Quincy Smelter Association and also the talent behind the Quincy Smelter Blog, where he will be contributing his own virtual tour of the site parallel to my own. This article was originally publish at the Smelter Blog on September 29…
Like all of the early mines on the Keweenaw Peninsula, the Quincy Mining Company originally relied upon smelters beyond the Lake Superior region to smelt the copper extracted from its underground workings. As mentioned above, by the mid-1860s Quincy sent its copper to the Portage Lake Smelting Works for treatment, an arrangement that apparently continued for several years. However, as the underground workings at Quincy rapidly expanded through the 1890s, the need for a company-owned smelter became clear. After constructing a railroad, a new stamp mill complex, and expanding its surface works, Quincy began construction on a new smelter in Ripley in 1898.
Work began on the Ripley smelter in May 1898. Continuing through the summer and autumn months, the smelter was “practically completed” by December 1, the day smelting began. Company reports for 1898 assured stockholders that the smelter was “of the most modern design, and it cannot fail to be a profitable investment, as well as a source of much gratification to the Company.”[i] The smelter was designed and built under the direction of Superintendent James R. Cooper, who quickly moved into a “commodious dwelling” constructed for him in 1900.[ii] As initially constructed, the smelter featured a furnace building 84 feet by 144 feet, constructed of redstone finished ashlar. Inside were four reverberatory furnaces vented by 75 foot tall smokestacks. To service the furnaces, the smelter also featured an older warehouse, a newer 50 by 100 foot warehouse (constructed in 1900), a stone casting house, a coal shed, cooper shop, and an engine house. In the first two years of operation, it was reported that the new smelter saved the Quincy Mining Company approximately $100,000 in costs previously devoted to shipping copper under contract to other smelters.[iii]
In the early years of the Quincy Smelting Works, the smelting complex was almost continually expanded and upgraded. In 1902 another warehouse, designed for storing refined copper previous to shipment, was constructed. In 1904 a number of significant improvements were made to the smelter. A large sandstone mineral warehouse was constructed to house copper rock as it arrived from the stamp mills on Torch Lake. To economize movement from the mineral storage building to the furnaces, tram track were laid to deliver mineral directly above the charging doors of all four furnaces, thus eliminating the hand ladling previously required to charge the furnaces. In the same year Quincy also took on an increasing amount of custom smelting work for other area mines, so a fifth reverbratory furnace was constructed, housed in a 50 by 78 foot steel building. This new furnace processed 40,000 pounds of refined copper every 24 hours.[iv]
Over the next several years similarly significant additions were made to the smelter. In 1905 an elevated trolley system was installed to transport slag from the cupola furnace building to the vacant lot behind the smelter. A 150-horspower Cook boiler was installed in a new boilerhouse to power parts of the complex, and a belt conveyor was added to the No. 5 furnace (constructed in 1904) for rapid charging. In 1906 a briquetting plant was added to handle low-grade mineral, and electric trolleys were added to move slag pots, a task previously carried out by hand. Support structures such as a machine shop and mineral scales were added in 1907, while a testing laboratory was constructed in 1908. Using electrolytic testing, the lab routinely checked copper samples for conductivity and chemical composition, and further tested the quality of slag, iron, oxide, and lime drawn every half hour from the cupola. By 1909 the smelter was producing round billets for use in seamless tube construction, and in 1910 yet another new reverberatory furnace was added to replace the No. 5. To deal with the ever-increasing production demands, over a mile of railroad track was laid throughout the complex to connect the buildings, and the lakeshore near the warehouse dock was dredged to allow better access for shipping.[v]
During this period of rapid growth (1898-1910), the Quincy Smelter handled copper produced in the Quincy Mine as well as the products of several other local mines. Between its construction in 1898 and 1908, no less than 13 mines (Arcadian, Michigan, Franklin tribute, Mass Consolidated, Champion, Adventure Consolidated, Winona, Phoenix Consolidated, Rhode Island, Victoria, Franklin, Centennial, and Allouez) sent their copper to Ripley to be smelted by Quincy.[vi] Due to the somewhat variable nature of copper smelting, the Quincy Smelter employed different numbers of men at different times, ranging from 16 men (working on a Sunday, when the works were typically closed) to 80 to 90 men. After the cupola was put out of blast, the cupola workers were no longer needed, returning to work when the furnace was restarted.
After this initial period of prosperity and expansion, the Quincy Smelter experienced the first of many difficult times which reflected the increasingly precarious position of the Keweenaw copper mines in general. In 1913 the labor unrest and general strike emanating from the Calumet and Hecla mines spread to Quincy, which closed its mines for 10 days in August. Although workers slowly returned to the underground and surface plants, the smelter was closed for over two months, reopening with one furnace lit on October 19. Additionally, as World War One broke out in 1914, the demand for copper fell off, leaving the smelter with little work. As the war dragged on, custom orders increased, but high operating costs meant that little more than maintenance work was performed at the smelter. Then, in another flurry of construction in 1919, a new 16 by 32 foot furnace was added. In an effort to reduce costs and increase efficiency, the new furnace was capable of refining 130,000 pounds of copper per charge, more than double the capacity of the older furnaces. The new furnace was charged with a 12 ½ ton overhead crane, and tapped into a 22 foot diameter Walker casting wheel. The casting room was equipped with a 6 ton crane, and cooled castings from the Walker machine were automatically transported via an elevated trolley to the dockside warehouse.[vii]
Despite these improvements, 1920 marked the first time in 50 years that the Quincy Mining Company failed to pay dividends to its stockholders, beginning a long, slow slide towards closure. The smelter closed in 1931, followed by the Quincy Mine in 1932. While the mine reopened for business in 1937, the smelter remained closed but in a state of readiness, maintained on a yearly budget of $6,000. Even while closed, the smelter did generate some small profit for Quincy, as in 1940, when cleanup of the site yielded a small amount of recoverable copper. The Quincy Mine permanently closed on September 1, 1945; however, the smelter would soon see an upswing in activity.[viii]
Although the Quincy Mine closed for good in 1945, the Quincy Smelter actually reopened in 1948. Reactivated to smelt small amounts of Calumet and Hecla mineral on a toll basis, a small furnace was built at the smelter to handle rock reclaimed from Torch Lake, marking the first smelting activity at the site since 1931. To cope with the increased workload, the No.5 furnace was rebuilt and reconfigured to use pulverized coal fuel.[ix] The smelter continued to operate through the 1950s and 1960s, slowly shifting from the treatment of reclaimed stamp sands to scrap copper. Faced with increasing environmental regulations, the smelter closed permanently in 1971.
[i] Annual Report of the Quincy Mining Company for the Year 1898. Pg. 12.
[ii] QMC Annual Report, 1900.
[iii] Stevens The Copper Handbook, Vol. 3, 1903, pg, XXX.
[iv] QMC Annual Reports, 1902, 1904.
[v] QMC Annual Reports, 1905-1910.
[vi] Record Book of the Quincy Smelting Works, 1898-1908.
[vii] QMC Annual Reports, 1910-1920.
[viii] QMC Annual Reports, 1928-1929, 1937, 1939-1940, 1945
[ix] QMC Annual Reports, 1948-1950.