A Michigan Smelter

Here’s another great high-resolution shot of the old Copper Country, this time showcasing the Copper Range’s Michigan Smelter. This massive complex smelted the ore from all of the Copper Range properties (Baltic, Trimountain, Champion) as well as a few other independent mines scattered across the peninsula. The smelter utilized its hill-side location rather effectively, taking advantage of gravity to move mineral and materials throughout the complex. Elevated trestles delivered coal, limestone, and copper into storage bins built along the side of the hill. From there those minerals were dumped onto small tram cars for delivery down to the complex’s furnace building located at the base of the hill.

As with the rest of these high-resolution photographs I’ve been featuring recently, there’s quite a few interesting details to be found among the pixels. Here’s a few that caught my eye…

Starting at the smelter itself we find a line of Copper Range RR cars parked along a siding. These box cars would have been used to haul the finished copper ingots and cakes back to the company’s docks in Houghton. I love the lettering used on the left car, which is quite the contrast to the more dignified look of the adjacent car. More intriguing – though not visible here – are the labels on the next two cars: Missouri Pacific and the Chicago Milwaukee and Saint Paul. I would guess that these cars were bought off of those other railroads and Copper Range hadn’t changed the labeling yet.

Speaking of wrong cars at the wrong place, here’s a line of Mineral Range box cars (and attached gondola’s) sitting atop the smelter’s coal trestle. Not only are these tracks Copper Range tracks, but any coal coming to the smelter would have arrived from the Copper Range coal docks back at Houghton. I suppose these cars could also have been bought up by Copper Range and they have yet to change the graphics.

This particular item doesn’t appear on Sanborn maps from the period, but I’m pretty confident its a slag trestle. Waste slag from the furnaces would have been transported across this trestle and dumped here for disposal. The complex had a second one of these, but that one dumped its slag directly into the Portage Canal. By the looks of the small waste pile at this slag trestle’s feet it would appear that it wasn’t used too frequently.

Sitting at the bottom of the photo just outside the smelter’s industrial landscape we have a small glimpse of daily life in the Copper Country. A delivery man has made a house call to a small farm near the smelter. From what I can make out on the side of the buggy it appears he hails from a local bakery. It’s interesting to see that he’s taking the time to close the gate behind him, though I suppose if he didn’t those cows roaming about would have gotten out.

The only significant part of this entire complex still standing today is this building – the facility’s main office. Today it’s an apartment building.

Just a bit further up the canal from that office building we find this small structure. This is the Michigan School, which served the students living in around the smelter complex as well as the neighboring Atlantic Mill location. Perhaps more interesting than the school is the stamp sand shore on which that school is built. It looks as if this entire length of shore from the Atlantic Mill to the smelter is built up entirely of stamp sand. You can see a glimpse of the old shoreline up behind the school, where the road to the smelter makes its curvy and winding way (marked by a line of telephone poles).

Moving still further up along the Portage Canal shoreline we come across the Atlantic Mill location. The mill itself is mostly shrouded in the greenery of the hillside, but its soaring smoke stack can easily be seen rising up out of the canopy. Atop the hill in the distance stands on of the Isle Royale Mine rock-houses. I’m pretty confident it’s the number 2, and by the looks of the smoke coming from its adjacent stacks the shaft is in full production.

Taking a gander across the pond to the Hancock side we find a few more large buildings garnering our attention. The larger of the two shoreline structures is the old HCTC power house. You can make out it’s coal dock just to its right. Sitting in front of the power house is Hancock’s waterworks complex, used to provide drinking water to the city from the nearby lake. Lastly, up on the hill overlooking both structures, is the newly erected (1904) St. Joseph Hospital. St. Joseph’s continues to serve the community as a hospital still today, though its now known as Portage Health.

Last but not least we have this odd detail to consider. The first time I featured these photographs I had identified this structure as a launder, used to move tailings from the Atlantic Mill down to this point for disposal. My thinking was that the Atlantic had been forced to stop dumping its tailings into the canal, so it brought them down here instead. Several readers weren’t so sure and called me on it. With the low resolution of that last photo we couldn’t really tell one way or the other. Now with a much better resolution at our disposal we take a second look. Unfortunately things aren’t that much more clear.

Whatever it is it does appear to have been some type of trestle or launder. But by this time it appears to have been sitting out in that water for some time, since it looks to be falling down in several places. It also doesn’t appear to be going anywhere in particular, nor does it seem to come from the Atlantic Mill either. Perhaps someone out there has a clue to what this thing was for, but I’m all out of guesses.

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  1. Could that pipe in the last picture be a water inlet? Not sure how much steam would be used in a smelter complex though.

  2. I wonder if that unknown item has something to do with the winter ice harvest – looking a the large photo, it seems to lead in that general direction.

    Jay – these photos are from the Library of Congress’ website, though their Digital Collections division:

    You can find super high res tiff version of these if you are brave enough – 150megs each!

  3. Jay, I was trying to keep it a secret until I was finished with the series but I guess the gigs up. These guys are from the Library of Congress American Memory website as part of the Detroit Publishing Company collection. They’ve had these photos on-line for a while (in fact I’ve featured some of these before HERE) but only now are there high-resolution images available. I was blown away when I discovered they had been updated, and had to throw together these posts to share them with you all.

  4. Concerning the cars labeled from the Missouri Pacific and the Milawukee Road (CM&St.P)… the Copper Range interchanged with the Milwaukee Road at the end of its line in McKeever. An interchange between two railroads allowed each railroad to swap cars intended for desdinations or cargoes out of the home railroad’s reach. Thus, it is quite possible that copper being loaded into CM&St.P car is bound for a customer out west, and that the car was interchanged from the Milwaukee Road line to the CR’s, where a CR engine would take it to the smelter and, once loaded, back to McKeever where a Milwaukee Road engine would once again pick it up. The presence of the MP car follows the same principle, though it would’ve had to have gone through another interchange between the MP and CM&St.L before it could be shipped to McKeever for transportation on the CR.

  5. the link to the VIEW MORE tab on the photo is busted / does not work.

    thanks for doing these INCREDIBLE posts !!!

    gd !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  6. Very cool Mike. You have to be creative in your search on there though. I found some pictures from “Calliment, Michigan” .

    A lot of mislabeled pics (a poor rock pile in Allouez labelled as a
    “stock pile” and the Quincy hoist labelled a “rock crusher”)

  7. Matt – Sorry I jumped on your toes there with the LOC info. (I just found your comment in my to-be-approved pile, after I had already answered Jay’s question) As you pointed out though the site has the full high resolution images available, but they are real big files. In fact the “view more” version I show here are only a fraction of the size you can get over at the LOC website. But i couldn’t afford the bandwidth if I posted them here that large (we’re talking 16 MB or more per photo, and with the pans that would be dozens of MB’s before all was said and done) But I encourage everyone to go check them out and wait for those HD images to load – its well worth it. As for that long trestle relating to the ice harvest, its very possible. It just seems like a hazard to navigation sitting out there half submerged. (but it isn’t in the channel itself so I suppose its out of the way enough)

    Below the Bridge – the link is fixed now, thanks for bringing it to my attention! (and thanks for the compliment! you’re welcome!)

    Doug – My guess is that the photo was taken from atop the Houghton County poor farm building or somewhere on the same hillside. This would be the hill that rises up on the other side of Cole’s Creek road (today its marked by a large sand pit)

  8. Ian beat me to it. Was gonna add that part about the Milwaukee Road. Also that the Milwaukee Road had passenger service to Calumet as well, so there was a fair bit of overlap in the area.

  9. Mike, your little round of secret keeping on these photos reminded me something I wanted to propose – a links page where whatever resources the rest of us find on the web can go and be organized. Or even something as easy on the main page as to a click-through to a regular posting string (like this one) where we can post links in the comments,(only to relevent sites, I know a few of you out there might have certain other dodgy sites in mind), and hopefully a nice description about what’s on there. That might be the better route (less of your time) There is a good amount of interesting information out there for free, but not always the easiest to find, especially the academic works on the copper country.

  10. I downloaded a few of these last night with my high speed service, they take about 10 minutes. But they are so cool, the Tamarack area ones are unbelieveable.

  11. I see on an old map there were three adits driven up from the bank of Portage Lake east of Cole Creek in section 34 fairly close to your trestle.I wonder if those were for storing the ice?

  12. Gordy… those tamarack photos are definitely the highlight of the whole collection. The amount of detail you can see on those shots is breathtaking. In fact I’m thinking I might need to delay the Centennial mill posts for another week and take a closer look at those here on CCE. There’s just so much there to see and comment on…

  13. These hi-res shots are just unbelieveable, I printed the ship getting loaded with copper out at 13×19, I just can’t get over the detail.
    I almost fell on the floor when I saw the Tamarack shots.
    Really makes you wonder what other shots exist like this in detail.

    I did find a few shots of interest in the FSA shots from the depression, they are listed as Franklin Mine, but when you start through them, they are Quincy. But as I looked, there are 5 shots of Franklin at Boston, at least I think they are Boston. Going to have to do some comparison of the photos and Sanborn maps.

  14. What was the underground U-shaped tunnel lined with fire brick for at that site? Was there recently and im wondering

  15. I enjoyed the photos of the Michigan Smelter. I am told that my Grandfather used to run the smelter at some time so the photos are special to me. Thank you for the history.

  16. Reviewing this post, I realized something we’ve all missed about those Mineral Range cars. They’re not out of place; at this time (I’m assuming the photo was taken pre-1917) the Mohawk and Wolverine mines processed their copper here at the Michigan Smelter through their Stanton connection to Copper Range, though these mines were accessed only by the Mineral Range railroad. The MR loaded their mineral at the mills at Gay, brought it to either Houghton or Calumet where they were interchanged with and coupled to a CR train, unloaded at the smelter, and then returned to the MR.

  17. Also with R.R. cars. Some came to a r.r. as interchange,. But may have been used by the local r.r. a bit before being loaded for the cars named r.r. Some r.r.’s in fact did not hurry to get cars back to their owners and used them quite a while as free cars on their r.r.

  18. Ian and Allen are right on about RR car use, both in the Copper Country and nationally. There is a beautiful picture of the Tamarack and Osceola mills in the same era with a cut of Copper Range rock cars in the foreground on the H&C Lake Shore line. THAT I find more mysterious than the Mineral Range boxcars at the smelter.
    Unless specifically placarded to return to a specific agent, empty foreign road cars were supposed to be routed back to their home road empty or loaded. The Milwaukee and MoPac cars could be loaded for a long haul or they could be making a short trip down to the dock before being sent home. 50 years ago this summer I joined the real world work force loading grain in southeast Wisc. during the small grains rush. For a 15 year old railfan it was quite the experience since we were loading directly into boxcars along the Milwaukee Road mainline. The station agent did everything he could to get us cars so we got a variety of 40 foot boxcars, the one that stands out in my memory was a very new Canadian Pacific car proudly labeled “Newsprint Service Only return empty to CPR”. We nailed the grain doors in and it left with the evening patrol loaded with barley for Pabst! It was technically on its way back to the CPR, but I’m sure the evidence of its short trip in grain service did not go unnoticed! The paper trail had to have been interesting.

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