The Victoria Mine’s geographical isolation caused a great deal of original thinking when it came to how the mine would be powered. With no rail lines and only a narrow bridge and rugged road connecting the mine to the rest of the world, the usual ways of powering a mine could not work – namely the use of coal. In the beginning the early mine utilized wood, a costly and limited resource that was quickly used up. When Captain Hooper looked to re-open the mine several decades later, he knew that a much more efficient and convenient power source had to be found. Luckily for Mr. Hooper, the Victoria possessed a incredible asset just under a mile down the hill in the form of the West Branch of the Ontonagon River and its precipitous 72 foot drop over Glenn Falls. Hooper understood the importance of this resource, and built a dam (known as Hooper’s Dam) just upstream from those falls in 1902. But the dam’s purpose would not be for the usual applications, as the structure would not be used to create mechanical nor electrical power. Instead it would be used to create air power, through the use of a novel and ingenious device known as a hydraulic compressor.
While most compressors utilize mechanical energy supplied by either an electric motor or steam engine to compress air, a hydraulic compressor relies solely on the energy inherent in falling water. It is a machine that uses no moving parts, does not require any fuel to operate, and is completely self perpetuating as long as there’s an adequate supply of water. Best yet, the hydraulic compressor at Victoria was able to supply enough compressed air to run the entire operation, including the hoists, rock crushers, drills, and even the mine’s short line railroad. It was an incredible machine, one pioneered by a Canadian by the name of Charles Taylor. Before Victoria, Taylor had built an identical contraption at Ragged Chute Ontario, to provide power to neighboring mines there as well. Hooper had discovered Taylor’s amazing compressor and decided it would be the perfect solution to Victoria’s power issues. The Victoria’s Taylor Compressor was completed in 1906 at a cost of over $440,000. It would power the Victoria mine for another 15 years, up until the mine’s closure in 1921.
Here’s a very rough (and not to scale by any means) drawing of what Victoria’s hydraulic compressor looked like. The majority of the compressor was located far underground, and was essentially a large cavern opened up to the outside world through both a vertical inlet shaft and an angled outlet shaft. Water was delivered to the inlet shaft by means of a narrow channel (A) fed with water from the nearby dam. At the end of that channel was a shallow fore bay, in which the compressor’s compliment of intake shafts were located. These shafts were each five feet in diameter and lined with concrete. Water from the fore bay would then cascade down these shafts (B) over 300 feet to an underground chamber – carrying with it a large amount of trapped air bubbles in the process.
The underground chamber – known as the air chamber – was a man-made cavern 281 feet long, 18 feet wide, and 20 feet high. Once the water reached the chamber (C) it could exit by means of a narrow outlet tunnel (E) at the chamber’s opposite end. There the water would make its way back to the surface (G) through a gradually inclined up flow shaft (F). As the water flowed through the cavern any air that had been trapped within it would escape, and rise up into the air chamber (D).
While any water entering the cavern could escape through the outlet tunnel (E), that air within the chamber (D) would be trapped by a rock wall at the chamber’s far end. Thanks to a steel bell at the base of the inlet shafts that air couldn’t head back up the way it had come either. It was trapped in the chamber. As more and more water flowed into the cavern, more and more trapped air bubbles would be released into that air chamber. Though the volume of air within the chamber would increase, the space in which it resided would not. This caused the air within the chamber to naturally compress, until it reached about 117 pounds per square inch.Once the air in the chamber reached the targeted PSI, it was released through a foot wide pipe which brought the air up to the surface and fed it to the neighboring mine and mill to power the facility’s machines.
While most of the time the operation of the Taylor compressor was silent and hidden from view, there were times when its existence would be announced with much noise and fanfare. That was when a torrent of high pressure air and water would blow out of a pressure relief valve on the surface, in much the same manner as a yellowstone geyser. The impressive spectacle was actually the work of the compressor’s pressure relief valve.
As the pressure within the air chamber increased, it would push against the chamber’s walls and down on the water flowing through it. If the pressure got too high, that pressure would began to lower the water level in the cavern. If that level fell to far, it would expose a previously submerged pipe. Once exposed, a torrent of pressurized air – mixed with a good amount of water – would shoot up that pipe to escape the cavern. That air and water would blast up out of the pipe on the surface, creating the geyser seen in the above photo. Once enough pressure was released the water level within the cavern would raise back up and once again submerge that relief pipe.
Here’s a closer look at that blow off pipe in question, which is really just a narrow pipe coming up out of the river. In the shot above you can also make out what I believe is the actual compressed air pipe, which is a bit wider and snakes its way up the river bank towards the stamp mill in the distance. That pipe would also serve the mine up the hill. The water seen gushing up from just under the blow off pipe marked the exit of the up flow shaft, which sits just below the blow off pipe.
In 1930 the old dam that once fed the Taylor Compressor with water was rebuilt, but this time it was repurposed to furnish more standard electric power. The new dam was built a half mile further downstream of the original Hooper Dam, right alongside old Glenn Falls (which were rechristened as Victoria Falls). Though dormant for over a decade, the old Taylor compressor was reactivated once again to assist in the new dam’s construction. Because of this, a portion of the original diversion channel that once fed the compressor from the Hooper Dam was left intact.
In the old 1927 view of the Victoria region featured yesterday, you can quite easily make out that diversion channel as it makes its way down from the dam to the compressor’s intake shafts. You can also see the plume from the blow off valve, which sits further downstream next to the mine’s stamp mill. The compressor itself sits underground between those two points. In 1991 the dam seen here was replaced by yet another design (the dam that currently can be found here), that was built slightly downstream. After the new dam’s completion, the old 1930 dam was cut off under the water line and left to be submerged by the newly increased reservoir.
Here’s another look at that dam and diversion channel, a bit more simplified then that aerial image. Both the 1920 and 1991 dams are shown, with the older dam shaded a darker black. On the right side of dam stands its overflow weir, which allows excess water to flow harmlessly over the dam and back downstream – tumbling over the old Glenn Falls precipice in the process. The old diversion channel is seen on the left side, which makes its way down to the compressor’s intake shafts. Several hundred feet below that point sits the underground cavern, and the connecting up flow shaft which also sits underground. At the end of the up flow shaft the water that dropped down the intake shafts makes its way back up to the surface and joins the neighboring river. It is here where the blow off pipe is located.
Here’s a look down that old diversion channel, taken from the perspective of the dam. The intake shaft would sit down at the far end of the channel. (the large pipe seen to the left is the dam’s penstock, used to deliver water down to the power house which sits further downstream) For a time the dam’s owners would occasionally send water down this channel in order to activate the compressor and its spectacular relief valve, mostly to entertain the tourists. But when the 1930’s dam was replaced by the modern version seen at the site today, there was no longer any way to send water down this channel and it was abandoned. While the channel no longer exists, the old intake shafts for the compressor do still exist, and can still be seen at the end of the old channel. They take the form of a collection of rusty pipes sticking up out of the ground surrounded by a metal framework. (unfortunately I have to picture of them myself)
With the new dam’s completion in 1991, the old compressor was essentially cut off from its water source and was shut off for good. Many locals believe that due to its simple design and lack of moving parts, the old compressor could be turned back on at any time by simply submerging its intake shafts once again. While in theory that may be true, a century of neglect has no doubt left its mark on the old old compressor, most likely rusting away its relief pipe and clogging up the underground cavern with dirt and debris. But for the most part Taylor’s masterpiece still exists, buried several hundred feet under the earth. And considering only five of such devices were ever constructed throughout the history of man (and this one was reportedly the largest of those) – its something rather remarkable to still have in our back yard.