A Tale of Two Cities

Over 10 billion pounds of copper has made it’s way out of the Copper Country over the last century, an amount with an estimated street value of nearly 2 billion dollars (in turn of the century dollars). Yet for having produced such incredible wealth, the Keweenaw has very little to show for it. That’s because almost all that money was either invested back into the mines – which are now gone – or was sent east to line the pockets of Boston managers and investors. Very little remained here to be invested back into the area. You can see the evidence of this by just looking at what remains here in terms of public buildings and amenities; the infrastructure that the mining industry has bestowed on the region.

Let’s look at a few examples of the mining industry’s legacy as illustrated by three of the region’s most celebrated and impressive structures. We start with the Calumet Opera House, a pubic structure built with a massive village surplus thanks to C&H’s paternalistic ways. At the turn of the century that building cost an impressive $70,000 to erect. Across the way, our most opulent and impressive home – the Laurium Manor – cost $85,000 fully furnished. And one of the most expensive buildings ever built here – the soaring St. Joseph’s (now St. Paul’s) church – came in at an outstanding $100,000 at the turn of the century. As impressive as these figures seem to be, they are nothing when compared to the types of figures you find when taking a look at a city with real wealth.

A few weeks back my family took a trip to Chicago, a city that I admire both historically and architecturally. The city was born just twenty years before the Keweenaw’s copper would be discovered, but the great Chicago fire of 1871 essentially wiped the city off the map and it was reborn anew. Thus as Chicago rose from its ashes, the great Calumet metropolis was also rising up from the northern wilderness. From then on the two would be linked together in various ways, most famously through the Columbian Exhibition as discussed last week. But what’s most interesting about these two cities are their juxtaposition, especially when you consider the amount of wealth each could claim for itself. This fact became all to clear during my visit, when by pure chance I found myself exploring one of Chicago’s most magnificent structures.

This is the Chicago Cultural Center, originally built in 1897 to house the city’s central library. It was erected around the same time as Calumet’s own great buildings were going up, including the Calumet Opera House, St. Joseph’s church, and the Hoatson House. But while those buildings cost around $100,000 each, this grand building seen above came in at over 2 million dollars. That’s right. Two Million with an “M”. In 1897.

There’s a good reason why this was the case. All you have to do is walk through the front doors and you’re immediately assaulted with architectural nirvana. (keep in mind that these pictures were shot with my rather cruddy point and shoot camera and not the SLR I normally use here on CCE, so they’re not quite as great as they should be. But they’ll do the trick).

You enter at the base of a grand staircase, and by grand I really mean grand. The staircase makes its way up three floors before opening up to the view above. Everything you see is covered in ceramic tiles, intricately placed in beautiful mosaics and patterns. The picture really doesn’t do it justice, as the place is incredibly amazing to see in person.

Besides the tiling, the walls are also painstakingly hand painted with intricately flowing strokes and flowering motifs.

The tile work includes several names of famous authors as well as short epitaphs like this one for Benjamin Franklin.

Up above the ceiling features a sea of deep coffers, each showcasing egg molding and painted floral motifs of their own. The brass chandeliers are just the icing on the cake. But the real attraction here is what sits above all these marble and tile work of the grand staircase. That would be what’s considered to be the world’s largest Tiffany Dome.

This massive stained glass dome is 38 feet in diameter, covers a thousand square feet of area, and features over 30,000 pieces of glass. Once again this picture doesn’t do it justice, as when you’re standing below it the entire thing is just incredible to behold.

Below the dome is the Preston Bradley Hall, a large public space available for weddings and other public gatherings. The entire building is free and open to the public, though it no longer houses the central library. We were allowed to wander at will up and down the halls, gawking at all the beauty that it holds. Simply amazing, and if you ever find yourself in Chicago I definitely recommend a visit. It’s conveniently located right across the street from Millennium Park.

I bring this up because while inside this magnificent structure I was reminded of how the Keweenaw was denied such incredible structures. While the region could claim the majority of the country’s (and the world’s) copper production for some time you really couldn’t tell by looking at it today. While the Calumet Opera House is held up as a prime example of the region’s metropolitan identity, it pales in comparison to the Chicago Cultural Center. In fact the Keweenaw never even had its own public library, save for the rather small and insignificant Carnegie built one in Houghton (requiring donations from outside the area to complete no less). It’s all just a rather obvious example of for all the wealth the mines of the Keweenaw produced, the area had very little to show for it.

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  1. What a great observation to make. It just shows the greed of the industry and what money can do to people. Had someone from the region had the capital to bankroll some of the mining operations the landscape might have appeared a little bit different.

  2. Wow, I’ve spent my whole life in that Chicago and I’ve never been to the cultural center. Need to go downtown more often. Mike- don’t diss the point and shoot, SLR or not those are some good pictures.

  3. If you want to see what happened to the wealth of Copper Country, Boston, Pittsburgh or Detroit might be a better place to visit. Copper paid the workers on the Keweenaw but the dividends and other properties bought were the results from the profits.

    Chicago did and does have some wonderful places, like the Museum of Science and Industry, the Art Museum and Marshall Fields. The area also had some places to work that were not that great. The Stock Yards, Pullman and other places at the ends of the 19th Century were not a lot different for the average working person than the copper mines. It’s interesting that some of my wife’s family were socialist agitators in Chicago and, after a lot of labor unrest there, ended up moving to Schoolcraft County, Michigan.

  4. Hey Ashcat…
    My family roots go back to the Schoolcraft Co, area, but after getting “Blackballed” for refusing to work Sundays without overtime, my Grandfather moved to Chicago. He even worked at Pullman for a short time.

  5. Great post Mike!

    The whole time I read it I couldn’t help but picture Rodney Dangerfield and his infamous, ” I get no respect,” line.


  6. Calumet has gone the way of most mining communities, or any community dependent on one industry. With mining, once it becomes uneconomical to extract the product the mines close and the surrounding area declines.
    Copper mining requires large amounts of capital and Boston was the place to get it when the Copper Country was opened. True, fortunes were made and the capitalists prospered on Michigan copper, but for the most part these guys reinvested much of their Michigan profits in other ventures. Of the “big four” the Clarke, Bigelow, & Lewisohn group did the most to expand and integrate their Copper Country ventures with the wire mill in Dollar Bay. They also invested in other CC mining ventures and many Western mines. Once they were their CC holdings were taken over by C&H, they took their money west. The Stanton-Paine group reinvested allot in the Copper Country. C&H was a different beast whose nature reflected that of Agassiz. He knew he had the richest load and spent much capital to develop and protect it, ensuring plenty of dividends. Then he turned to his science at Harvard. It was only when the limits of the Calumet Conglomerate were realized that C&H started cannibalizing its neighbors and acquiring manufacturing plants. Major C&H share holders, however, like Livermore, did invest heavily in other mining ventures.
    Calumet is the victim of geology and geography. The low grade, hard rock, deep mines could not compete in the world market. The decline was accelerated by the labor shortages caused by higher wages in mid-west manufacturing and the exodus during and after the 1913 strike. The relatively remote location is not favorable for manufacturing, especially as the transportation net contracts.
    Greed? “Greed is good”. Sounds negative, but just about all of us want to improve our lot in life. Just about 100% of the labor force in and around the mines were there to improve on the lives they had in Europe or other places. Most did, even the Putrich family of the Seeberville massacre fame ended up owning their own home in Illinois. Some were either better at the game or were lucky and made millions. At least back in the day, when a company failed the capitalists of that time stood a good chance of going under with it. Now we have CEO’s who take their golden parachutes and move on to the next disaster when a company fails. We, the investors via our retirement plans, take the hit.
    Not sure Detroit is such a good example of where Copper Country profits went or a good place to visit.

  7. actually Detroit is a good place to visit, seeing as it is where a large number of poor miners migrated to after the copper dried up, because the auto industry was an even better bet for straight employment. in fact for many, it was a RETURN to detroit.

    detroit does not have many fancy public blgs that popped up from copper mining profits, but it shares many connections with the copper county….not the least of which, incidentally, was Mary Chase Perry Stratton and her Pewabic Pottery.

  8. While the auto industry in Detroit has not been particularily well operated in the last 50 years, in my opinion, it was a place where miners from the UP could go to take advantage of Mr. Ford’s $5 for a days work pay rate a hundred years ago.. Detroit is also a place where Wolverine Tube was a prosperous looking operation 30 years ago.

    Walter T. Mills and Abraham S. Byers started a socialist colony based on Mill’s book called “The Product Sharing Village” and in 1893 the Hiawatha Village Association was formed in Schoolcraft County near Manistique in a compact based on the book. John Randall lead a group of people from Chicago who had previously marched on Washington as part of Coxey’s Army complaining about the life of the workingman of the time.

    The Association did have over 1000 acres, 125 cattle and 25 horses. They operated a sawmill, farmed and erected their own homes. The Association was not particularly successful but a few of the people did last for a long time in the UP. The Alva Kepler Log Cabin, now owned by the Schoolcraft County Historical Society was the last surviving building from Hiawatha Village.

    A book called “Utopia In Upper Michigan: The Story of a Cooperative Village” was written by Olive Anderson and published by the Northern Michigan University Press in 1982 tells about Hiawatha Village.

    It’s also interesting that the same Henry Ford who offered jobs in Detroit at more than the mining industry wanted to pay workers also had three sawmills and many other investments in the UP. And it seems that he liked the place so much that he built a summer place near to the Keweenaw.

    Seems like we do have a pretty good benefit to be in a place where we can move to another job or another location if we think we can do better. The old idea of doing your best for a company and they will do good things for you is long past.

  9. While many copper embellishments grace the skyscrapers of Detroit (including those which had resided on abandoned buildings, most of which have now been stolen), I’m not sure how much of that material actually came from the Keweenaw, or if the city had any relationship to the area at all. No mining company’s offices were even located down here. Like previously stated, Detroit was mostly the place where former miners could run to to escape the Copper Country as the mines slowly closed down – my grandpa’s life story includes this fleeing from the area.

    Henry Ford did have a summer home in the area of the Keweenaw. He also owned a large sawmill complex in L’Anse or Baraga – sources list both cities, although the present-day historical site where his sawmill used to be sits just east of L’Anse, I’m pretty sure. Although not a direct link to the Copper Country, Ford’s lake boats were a common site in the area from the 1920’s until about WWII, when his mill was closed. Ford even tried monopolizing on iron mines in the region, much like Andrew Carnegie had done in the 1890’s in the days just before U.S. Steel, but laws put an end to his plans about the same time the government took away his control of the Detroit, Toledo & Ironton railroad, running from Detroit to southern Ohio, simply because progressive era reforms made it illegal for a large corporation to own an exclusive interstate railway.

  10. Small correction ashcat… The Kepler cabin is not the only building left from Hiawatha Village. There is another one that was moved years ago and still survives in its new location.

  11. Thought the Detroit comment might generate some comments. While most of my mother’s side of the family left the Copper Country for Wisconsin, some did go to Detroit in the ’20’s and ’30’s. They did well there and loved the city until the 1970’s, they abandoned their plans to spend the rest of their lives in the big city and moved to Laurium. While at MSU I had lots of Detroit area friends and roommates; so spent a fair amount of time there. That was the the ’65-’69 time frame. The city still was a great place but the end was beginning. Riots and fires were leaving their mark. When I was last back there about 4 years ago, it was depressing to see the remains.
    I agree, the Copper Country contributed to Detroit’s labor pool in a big way.

  12. Supposedly Henry Ford built his place at Pequaming because the original members of the Huron Mountain Club wouldn’t let him join since they thought he was a jerk. He was eventually allowed to join.

    There’s supposedly a similar story regarding the HMC not allowing an individual to join, this time because he was Jewish. He simply built his “cabin” down the road a ways…Granot Loma.

  13. Living in the suburbs, we’ve all come to regard Detroit as this dangerous place where you never go unless for a Tigers game or a trip to Henry Ford Hospital. But there’s merit behind that; some spots in Detroit are downright awful. It’s hard to think that not too long ago it was such a vibrant city, but the riots, coupled with the fall in the auto industry from the early 80’s to now, plus the constant mass of people fleeing for the suburbs, has left it in ruins. I’d love to explore some of the ruins of Detroit’s factories and such as I do in the Keweenaw, but there’s always a fear of the danger there that keeps me away. If I had my choice I’d follow the path of your family, Paul, and move to the Copper Country, but option just isn’t there for me.

  14. Ian, this summer I went to Belle Isle to compare some pictures that I have of the island to how it looks at present. While I was there, I hiked from the parking area nearest to the lighthouse to the north end of the island. While I was gone for about half an hour, someone stole my catalytic converter. This cost $450 to replace and, if they had done an even a worse job of cutting it off, would have cost a lot more for an O2 sensor. After getting that fixed, I found that they had also tried to punch the lock on a door. That cost another $50 to fix. My mechanic says it takes 3 minutes to cut the converter off and a scrap dealer will buy a “used” converter for $80.

    There are a lot of ways for a trip to Detroit to be expensive.

  15. ashcat,have a cousin that’s a railroad engineer and when pulling a train load of new autos through Detroit some enterprizing fellows will drop off the overpasses onto the moving train break through the covered RR cars and collect whatever new parts they want and then abadoned ship.

  16. I was in several bicycle races on Belle Isle in ’67 and ’68. It was a nice place back then.
    Actually there are places in Chicago and Milwaukee you don’t want to be in, but Detroit seems to be the leader in total percentage of the city you don’t want to be in.

  17. I’ve been going to Belle Isle and the Dossin Museum for years with no problem. And I have a railroad engineer friend who found a concrete block suspended from a bridge just at locomotive cab level in one of the higher priced suburbs of Chicago in the 1970s. That was bored teenagers. They never got all the small pieces of glass out of his eyes. You just never know.

  18. Ashcat,
    Getting rocked, stoned, or even shot at became a common urban hazard for railroaders starting in that era. The counter measure was sheeting over caboose windows and putting grates over locomotive windshields. There are some really messed up people running loose.

    The attached link shows Ford’s Highland Park plant in 1914, a likely new employer of Cooper Country men who left during and after the strike. This just came up on the Shorpy site today.

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