Top 10 Most Iconic Copper Country WPA Projects

While the Great Depression greatly effected the entire nation during the 1930s, the Copper Empire was especially hard hit. As copper prices plummeted, mine after mine was forced to shut their doors and lay off their workforce. At the Depression’s peak virtually every mine, mill, and smelter in the region had closed its doors resulting in thousands of workers finding themselves out of work and without pay – nearly three fourths of the region’s population. To help combat this problem,  State and Federal governments instituted a series of publicly funded work projects designed to provide much needed employment to those effected. These projects were administered and funded by a revolving door of  federal agencies such as the Civil Works Administration (CWA), Works Progress Administration, and later the Work Projects Administration (WPA).  These projects were often large in scope, and in an area like the Copper Country – inundated with skilled tradesmen and laborers –  that work often involved the construction of public infrastructure such as bridges, parks, and roadways.  Before the Depression had run its course, these publicly funded projects helped create some of the region’s most iconic and impressive attractions. Last week we featured just a few of these projects – the Kearsarge stone boat and the Hancock stairway – but there exists a great deal more scattered about the peninsula.

Today we will take a look at a few more of these projects, specifically  those projects which have left a distinct mark on the region and have become an integral part of the region’s own identity. These are my Top 10 Most Iconic Copper Country WPA Projects…

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10. Mohawk School Yard

Though the mines were closed, the small town of Mohawk was still home to thousands of residents and a pair of large schools which served several small towns in the area. In 1939 the town would become recipient of a WPA project designed to help improve and beautify those schools by encircling them in a short stone perimeter wall. Along with the wall came school yard improvements including a new baseball diamond and sidewalks. Today the schools no longer stand, but the beautifully crafted masonry wall remains – now encircling a nicely equipped public park built in the schools’ absence. Its a striking image for those venturing north into the Keweenaw – a nice introduction to the peninsula’s rugged small town charm.

9. Stone Boats

Of course these sandstone and rock monuments have a place on our list, as they are easily one of the most unique and intriguing oddities to be found along the peninsula. While three were built, only two remain standing to this day. One in Kearsarge now stands as a Veteran’s memorial, while the second in Centennial Heights serves as a one-of-a-kind piece of playground equipment. Idiosyncratic and intriguing, these stone monuments always manage to attract the attention of most anyone passing by.

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8. Roadside Signs

Easily the most iconic image of the Keweenaw are these rustic roadside signs found all along the county’s roadways and trail-ways. Erected in mass at the very tail end of the Depression the signs were part of a multi-faceted Keweenaw Country roadways improvement project funded by the state but administered by the WPA. A century later these signs are torch-bearers for the peninsula’s auto-touring roots and rustic character, and the Keweenaw would not be the same without them.

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7. Copper Falls Park

Briefly known as Van Wagoner State Park, this small roadside green space had been abandoned and left for dead before becoming the target of a WPA project in the early 1940s. The park remains were cleaned up, and new amenities were installed including a small rustic gazebo. A small spring fed fountain was also installed, complete with a rubble rock waterfall, fish pond, and small pedestrian bridge crossing the stream. Remote and far removed from the main tourist routes, this quaint little spot is exactly what the Keweenaw is all about – the discovery of unique and interesting places in the unlikeliest of places.

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6. Silver River Culvert

While this masonry structure may technically be nothing more then an oversized culvert allowing  Silver River to cross under US41, its easily one of the most beautiful and impressive culverts to be found almost anywhere. Built at the very dawn of the Depression – 1930 – the culvert was one of several erected across the newly built Lakeshore drive connecting Eagle Harbor to Copper Harbor. Joining it was a small roadside park accented with a series of rustic stone stairs cut into the banks of the river for viewing the Silver River Falls found just downstream from the road. Like the rest of the Keweenaw its the perfect blend of man made spender and natural beauty – all accessible from the side of the road.

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5. Esrey Park

Esrey Park was one of several roadside parks built to compliment Keweenaw’s county  Lakeshore Drive drive – a stretch of road connecting Eagle Harbor and Copper Harbor built at the dawn of the Depression. Though the road and its parks were originally erected in 1933, the park we know today was largely crafted in a subsequent improvement project undertaken by the WPA a half decade later. It was during that time that the stone steps were carved into the park’s iconic rock outcropping, along with the stone pathways and rustic gazebo gracing its top. This impressive piece of lakeshore is easily one of the Keweenaw’s most scenic stops and the stone steps and paths only encourage visitors to take a hike atop the rock bluff and do a little exploring of their own.

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4. Fort Wilkins State Park

Before the Depression, Fort Wilkins was nothing more then an abandoned set of empty and partially collapsed buildings rotting away along the shore of Fanny Hoe Lake. While the park was officially formed in 1923, it was largely ignored and left “as is” for the visitors making the long trek up to the fort. That would change in 1939 when the WPA embarked on an ambitious project to return the decaying fort back to all its former glory. At a cost of over a million dollars (in today’s money) the existing building were stabilized and repaired, while new structures were built to replace missing or destroyed structures. The East Campground was also cleared, along with the park store and several bathrooms. By the time the three year project was complete, the old park had become the impressive historic attraction is is today.

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3. Sand Dunes Drive

Its almost impossible to believe that this incredibly scenic roadway along the Keweenaw’s north shore between Eagle Harbor and Eagle River hadn’t even existed until 1938. But with no mines or ports to be found along this stretch of sand dunes and rocky outcroppings, there was never a need to build a road. With the mines closed, however, tourism became the region’s new master and towards that end a brand new tourist-centered scenic roadway would be built through lands once thought useless to the Copper Empire.  In a move only plausible with a government funded project, the roadway was cleared and built by hand utilizing almost no mechanical contrivances (even though they were readily available). Such a cost-balooning move resulted in steady work for hundreds of Keweenaw residents along with a pair of work horses known as “Bess” and “Nellie”. It also resulted in some of the Keweenaw’s most famous attractions including Jacob’s Falls, the Great Sand Bay, and Cat Harbor.

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2. Brockway Mountain Drive

Its no surprise that this impressive mountain-top drive would make the list, especially since its easily on the region’s most visited and photographed attractions. Though the road itself was large a Keweenaw County Project, a great deal of the iconic rubble stone guardrails that line its precarious precipices were the work of the WPA around 1937. Either way the roadway was born from the Depression, and continues to impress visitors and residents of the region still today.

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1. Keweenaw Park (Keweenaw Mountain Lodge)

The grand-daddy of them all, this WPA funded public gold course and resort was begun in 1933 and would be almost continuously upgraded and expanded up until the start of the second world war. The park’s centerpiece is its rustic log club house featuring soaring vaulted ceilings and field stone fireplace. Joining it are a dozen or so log cabins built in the same rustic north-woods style, scattered about under the shade of soaring pine trees. Stone gardens and paths along with a beautifully crafted masonry perimeter wall round out the resort’s amenities – all completed under the authority of federally funded work programs. The end result is something to see for ones self – a rustic north-woods experience that seems lost in a time and place long gone from the rest of the world but still alive and well here in the Keweenaw.

Discuss…

  1. Yooper turned down under. Love the history of the Copper Country. Bravo on your publications.

  2. Re: Sand Dunes Drive

    What we today know as Sand Dunes Drive was actually the original route of the old Military Road which ran from Fort Wilkins down to Fort Howard, just outside of Green Bay; the Military Road along the “dunes stretch” was only rarely used and rather quickly reverted back to nature. Instead, a popular “short cut” road—–which ran from the Copper Falls mill area and cut across to and came out near Jacobs Falls (i.e., the now closed-off road on the north side of the Monk’s “Jampot” retail establishment) linked Eagle Harbor and Eagle River.

    Additionally, as an interesting side-light, during the course of the project, the mare team, Nellie and Bess were housed in a small, lean-to type shed, that was located immediately adjacent to where Owl Creek (an easy source for water for the animals) empties into Great Sand Bay. Until just 4 or 5 years ago (and the construction of the rather large vehicle parking area on the south side of the road) remnants of the horse shed were still quite evident at that spot.

    Paul LaVanway

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