The allure of the Copper Country doesn’t lie in its history alone, as interesting as that history may be. What makes the region so unique is how that history haunts the landscape of today, an afterimage of the past etched into the peripheral of the present day. One of the greatest examples of this are the soaring concrete monoliths rising high outside the Tamarack City Park . Too large and too hard to move, these grand monuments to the great Copper Empire stand like a modern day equivalent of Stonehenge.
Yet it wasn’t celestial alignment that these modern monoliths marked. Instead these were support pedestals, marking the locations of massive iron contraptions known as stamps – the heart and soul of a Copper Country Stamp Mill. Specifically the Ahmeek Stamp Mill.
The Ahmeek Mill was built in 1904, the last great Copper Empire mill to grace the Keweenaw landscape. It would serve the empire for over 60 years before finally succumbing with the rest of the empire to a changing economic reality. It would stand for a decade more before finally falling to the wrecking ball in the late 70s. Yet the mill’s massive bulk and incredible strength wouldn’t give up without a fight, stubbornly refusing to yield even to the explosives finally brought to bare against it. It was a building built to last, and that’s exactly what it would do.
The heart of that stubbornness lies within those massive concrete pedestals themselves. Stamps were incredibly heavy pieces of machinery, the constant bashing of rock within their maws adding even more attrition to any foundation on which they were placed. Thus these pillars had to withstand an amazing amount of force, and as such were incredibly hearty and robust in construction. The Ahmeek pedestals are forty feet square at their base and rise 38 feet into the air. At their tops a second concrete pedestal over four feet thick serve as an anchor foundation to the stamps themselves. Holding it all together is 61,000 cubic feet of concrete intertwined with a mile of steel cable for strength.
Also surviving is one of the iron contraptions for which those concrete monoliths were built – a steam-powered stamp. It’s a reminder that these monoliths were built not by prehistoric hands but by those firmly entrenched in the industrial age. The machine’s purpose was to smash copper bearing rock into smaller and more manageable pieces which could then be further processed within the rest of the mill’s massive superstructure. The Ahmeek Mill had eight of these machines at its disposal, each one supported by an identical concrete pedestal found at its feet.
Here’s a look at those stamps in their original habitat, deep within the steel skeleton of the mill’s upper levels. To the left was the mill’s rock bins, from which rock would have been fed down into the stamp’s waiting arms for crushing. Most of those stamps along with everything else seen in this image was ripped away by the scrappers at the building’s demise, leaving nothing but open air today.
Stepping back one can see all eight of those stamp-supporting pedestals still standing tall along the landscape (click on image to see full size) and with a little magic the shadows of those missing stamps as well. From this angle you can see just how large the old mill once was, erected in two parts over a period of ten years. The original part of the building contained just four stamps, later expanded with four additional stamps to bring the mill’s total up to eight. In this view the two halves can be clearly seen, with the older half sitting to the left and the newer addition stretching off to the right.
This image also brings into view a few other parts of the sprawling complex that have managed to survive in some capacity. There were support buildings for the mill, structures which housed the boilers, pumps, and generators required to keep the mill operating day to day.
The first piece of that supporting infrastructure was the pump house, a concrete and brick structure which housed the mill’s steam powered water pump.
Here’s a look at that water pump in its prime. The incredibly complex looking machine consisted of two major components. The first was the steam engine itself, which can be seen in the center of the picture. Behind it stands the pumping portion of the machine, connected through a large pipe to a nearby intake canal from the lake (an intake canal we’ve also explored here on CCE before). The pump could supply over 40 million gallons of water a day at full capacity.
Of course today all of this is now gone, including both the machine and the building that once housed it as well. At least most of it.
While the upper portion of the brick building is long gone its concrete foundation remains, marking the spot where the old pump house once stood. Today it takes the shape of a squat wall running along the backside of the Tamarack City Park’s picnic area. A half century ago a two-and-a-half story brick building would have sat atop this wall, obscuring any view of the concrete monoliths beyond.
After the pump houses’s demolition, its broken remains were simply dumped back into the building’s now empty basement. While a decade ago that rubble could have been easily seen through this now closed opening, today a recent clean up of the site has removed the rubble from view and filled the empty space with earth.
At the opposite end of the building a square protrusion in that foundation wall marks the location of the pump’s intake screen. It was within these walls that a connecting tunnel from the nearby intake canal could be found, bringing into the neighboring pump house water from Torch Lake. Screens within this building would filter the water entering the pumps, keeping out any debris or stamp sands that could clog the pumps. This part of the pump house can be clearly seen in the old archive postcard show earlier, taking the shape of a small house-shaped addition protruding from the pump house’s side.
Like the rest of the building its once deep bowels have since been filled in with dirt with no evidence of the old intake tunnel to be found.
Though there may have been nothing to find within the old pump house’s foundation wall, there was something that could be seen from its top – this concrete pad sitting about two dozen feet back into the old mill’s remains. This is something quite recognizable for seasoned CC explorers – a boiler stack base. Atop this pedestal would have sat the mill’s towering iron stack, a structure that rose 150 feet up into the air.
Here’s a look at that stack in all its original glory. As usual it was joined by a boiler house, a two-and-a-half steel sheathed structure attached to the mill’s backside. Inside were six 200 horsepower boilers, capable of only running the mill’s original four stamps. This was incredibly inadequate to serve the mill’s four added stamps, so the complex was doubled in size to make room for nine additional boilers. When this was done the old stack suddenly found itself right smack dab in the middle of the new expanded building, and from that point on would pierce the new boiler’s houses roof. The concrete base seen today was forever more safely tucked away inside the building’s sprawling interior.
This stack and the boiler house feeding it would both be put out of commission with the completion of the mill’s brand new and completely modern power plant erected by C&H in the 1920s. This new six story iron framed building housed the most modern boilers the company could find, accompanied by a soaring concrete stack of its own. That steam not only went into powering the mill’s stamps, but also in running a massive electric generator housed in a neighboring building erected at the same time.
Here’s a look at the super modern (and clean) new turbine building in all its sparkling new glory. This steam driven turbine would have produced electric power for the mill, power used to run the mill’s complement of jigs and wash tables along with everything else in the complex requiring electricity to operate. Though not as large and heavy as an iron stamp, this massive machine still required a substantial foundation to support it.
Here is that foundation today, still standing alongside the park’s northern edge. This odd looking structure would have cradled the heavy turbine in its clutches. Its an odd foundation that we usually don’t encounter much in the Copper Country. It was only a small part of a much larger structure which once housed the turbine, a soaring four story building erected out of steel and plaster. While the rest of the building was rather easy to demolish, this center concrete core was of a far heartier and permanent character.
Here’s a closer look, revealing that while intact a great deal of its bulk has been broken off and not lays scattered about on the ground. The hole spied up at the foundation’s top may have been an inlet opening for the steam line that fed the turbine itself, from the new boiler house which was built atop the land now occupied by the park’s playground.
The modern power plant erected by C&H would end up serving the mill for half a century. As these building’s didn’t require any type of massive foundation they were quite easily removed from the landscape. In fact the majority of the Tamarack City Park resides upon land originally occupied by this power plant with the turbine cradle and pump house foundation marking the park’s northern-most reaches. These landmarks also mark the end of the mill’s auxiliary structures, leaving just the sprawling bulk of the mill itself to occupy the rest of the block. It is these remains that we visit next…
To Be Continued…