Ahmeek MillIndustry

In the Shadow of the Empire

After the Copper Empire’s abandonment the little mill town of Tamarack City found itself without its major employer. Many of the town’s residents soon followed in the exodus, and before long the town’s businesses which relied on those residents closed their doors in turn. What was once a small but vibrant downtown was quickly transformed into nothing but empty buildings and vacant lots. Yet the town lived on, and a half century later its residents began to expect something better then those vacant lots and empty buildings could provide – a public park.

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Yet creating such a park in a town with very little revenue of its own was a challenge. It would take the community itself to make the park happen, scraping together the necessary funds through bake sales, raffles, and good old fashioned can drives. With the funds raised a small parcel of land was cleared, playground equipment was put up, and a scattering of grills and picnic tables were set about. In the years that followed more funds would be raised and more amenities obtained, including a basketball court and a large public pavilion. Not before long what was once nothing but a vacant and overgrown field had been transformed into a beautiful green space.

Yet there’s something a bit odd about this particular park. Sure it has the all the same features as most parks in the region – the same playground equipment, the same picnic tables, and the same grills. But for those visiting this particular park it doesn’t take long to discern that something not quite right is going on. Something a little crazy.

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First it seems like things are just slightly off. Case in point this concrete wall lining the picnic area. Is this some type of boundary wall? Edge of a skate park?

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Then things get a bit more weird. Is this some type of jungle gym? A swing set minus the swings?

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Whoah. What are these?! Some type of construction project? Water towers?

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Then it just gets straight up crazy.  Some type of sculpture? A crazy art piece?

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Turns out its all of those things – the walls, the pedestals, the concrete jungle gyms, and even the art piece are all part of one thing – the ruins of the Ahmeek Stamp Mill. And as crazy as it seems Tamarack City’s public park sits right in the middle of it all.

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The Ahmeek Mill was the last stamp mill to be built in the Keweenaw, a massive steel and concrete facililty originally built in 1904.  At the time of its construction suitable building sites for such a industrial complex was rare, especially along the already congested west shore of Torch Lake.  Because of this the mill had to be squeezed into a relatively narrow piece of land found smack dab in the middle of the already established village of Tamarack City, upon lands originally occupied by a lumber yard. Due to this limited space the mill was extremely condensed in comparison to its neighbors, making up in height what it could not do in length.

In the image above the mill itself sits off to the left, its compliment of four stamps fed by an overhead rock trestle arriving from the neighboring hillside (we’ve explored the remains of this trestle before, check it out HERE). The sloped building directly to the right of the mill is the complex’s boiler house, complemented by the soaring steel stack next door. Finally the semi-detached building to the far right is the pump house, used to supply the mill with its daily requirement of water from the neighboring lake.

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The Ahmeek Mill turned out to be an incredible success, and in short order the mill had to expand considerably to accommodate that success. In 1910 another four stamps were added to the mill, doubling the building’s size. With more stamps came the need for more rock bins, and in turn the need for more massive concrete foundations to support those bins. It is those bin foundations that we can see being constructed in the image above, taken while the mill’s renovations were in progress.

With the new addition came the need for more boilers to feed those stamps, and thus the boiler house was expanded as well (you can see the new boiler house addition in the image above as well, the concrete foundation being build near the ground). This would end up encasing the old boiler stack within the building itself, requiring it to exit through its roof.

By 1920 the mill had grown to an incredible size, easily dwarfing the community surrounding it. By now the mill had fallen under the control of the great C&H, along with the mine that fed it. As the youngest and most modernly equipped mill in the Keweenaw, C&H would close its own mills and bring all its copper here instead.

The company would end up expanding and updated the facility even further as a result, adding a brand new turbine building to the complex in order to utilize cheaper and more efficient electricity as a power source for most of its machinery.  The addition of the turbine meant the facility required far less steam to operate, thus prompting the abandonment of the original boiler house and the addition of a new, smaller, and more efficient boiler house in its place. Along with the new boiler house came a new concrete smoke stack, a monster of a structure standing nearly 200 feet into the air.

This new monster complex would become the heart of C&H’s operation in its later years, stamping the copper rock from all the company’s collection of mines. It would go on stamping rock for another half century, outliving almost every other mill in the region. By the 1960s only it and the Champion Mill at Freda were still operating, two of what was once dozens of similar complex’s scattered throughout the peninsula. Yet even the Ahmeek Mill could not outlive the mines that supplied her, and when C&H shut its doors for good in 1967 so too would the mill. The billowing smokestack that once signaled the heartbeat of an industry billowed no more. The Empire was dead.

The great mill would continue to stand after the empire’s demise, its silent vigil bringing hope to the region’s unemployed workforce that one day it would be opened again. There was far too much copper still left untapped under the earth, and any mine hoping to cash in on those riches would need a mill to do it. It just so happens that the region’s largest and most modern mill was just waiting to get the chance to do just that.

Only that would never happen.

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In 1976 those hopes of a resurgent Copper Empire were forever dashed when the great mill was torn asunder, sold to scrappers for rock bottom prices. The mill itself was worth almost nothing, only the equipment and scrap metal to be found within its concrete walls of interest now.  For weeks the massive building was rocked by dynamite, wrecking balls, and crews of demolition experts ripping every piece of iron and copper out of the old mill’s crumbled bones.

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Another half century of time finds those crumbled bones amazingly still standing – complete with one the mill’s original complement of stamps continuing to stand tall atop its concrete base. Rumor has it that this stamp was left intact as a monument to the great building that once stood here, a tribute paid by the scrappers responsible for the building’s unfortunate demise. Whatever its reason for being, the remains provide a haunting image for those traveling through Tamarack City today. And thanks to the public park now sitting in its shadow, people can get an even better look at the great mill that was.

To Be Continued…

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2 Comments

  1. Thanks to Jim Patrick who was the demolition/scrap contractor for leaving one stamp in place to help tell the story.

  2. While exploring during the late’60s, I liberated some car tags at the Allouez -Douglas mine. These were used to identify the car number, the mine, the type of rock (Amygdaloid or Conglomerate), and THE STAMP NUMBER at the mill. This seems to be a strong indication that there was specialization among the 8 units in the mill. Some being set up for Amygdaloid rock and some set up for Conglomerate. I don’t know if they were so specialized as to have different settings for Kearsarge v. Osceola Amygdaloid and Allouez v. Kingston (Kearsarge) v. Calumet Conglomerate. I suppose this was possible due to the need to extract the maximum amount of copper. Another factor was the need to know the yield from each mine, so they may assigned a stamp unit to each shaft in those last years. Taking that into account, the railroad crews had to have the rock cars in a specific order before pushing them into the mill. During the C&H Centennial, there were some mill tours, I would have loved to have been on one, but the necessity to work to stay in college and out of LBJ’s dirty little war took precedence. It would have been a great place to see intact!

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