In its infancy, copper mining in the Keweenaw was an especially labor intensive enterprise. In its most simplest form, mining was nothing more then hole digging and with little technological assistance available at the time those holes were dug primarily with men with shovels and wheelbarrows. When rock was encountered the shovels gave way to bits and hammers, requiring three men in a strenuous symphony of trading blows and twisting the bit. Black powder would help things along, but all the rock blown free would still have to be collected and wheeled away – requiring more men and more strenuous labor. Then when copper was finally found there was even more work involved in sorting, milling, and smelting that copper. With labor being one of a mine company’s costliest of expenditures – even at nineteenth century wage levels – they would increasingly turn to technology to alleviate the burden.
As a result as the new century dawned, companies embraced the industrial age whole-heartedly to fantastic results. No longer did men have to take turns hammering a bit to drill into the earth – instead air powered mining drills provided the muscle. No longer did men or animals turning windlasses haul rock up to the surface – steam powered hoists did the same work in a fraction of the time without the need for any beast of burden man or otherwise. When it came to sorting and processing that rock coming up from the underground technology had a solution for that as well – the rockhouse.
Rock coming up from the underground was one of two types – poor rock or copper rock. Poor rock contained little to no copper while copper rock had the opposite ratio – mostly copper with only a minority of other rocks mixed in. Poor rock would be dumped into piles near the shaft as waste, while the copper rock would move on to the mine’s stamp mill for further processing. Before it could do that, however, that copper bearing rock would have to be broken down into sizes small enough to fit into the mill’s stamps. This is where the rockhouse came in. Within its walls would be a selection of steam powered crushers and hammers to do just that before dumping the results – a product known as stamp rock – into tram cars for transportation to the mill.At the Quincy Mine its first dedicated rockhouse would be erected in 1872. Before that point rock was broken down using nothing more advanced then heat – after the rock was heated to high temperatures in a kiln a splash of cold water would blast the rock apart into smaller pieces. At the rockhouse, however, mechanical sorters and steam powered crushers did that work far more quickly and effeciently. Better yet the resulting rock was also of a far better size and quality then the old Kiln method could ever produce.
Yet for all its technological improvement, the rockhouse still had its problems. Though not requiring nearly as many workers as the kiln’s did, the rockhouse still required a relatively large workforce to operate – as evident by the group photo seen above. Typically a rockhouse had a main boss, a half dozen under-bosses, and a couple dozen of laborers spread out across several shifts. It was also a bottleneck in the process, as no matter how much copper rock the mine brought to the surface the rockhouse could only process a set amount each and every day. Then there was the problem of redundancy – as with a single rockhouse processing most of the mine’s product any issue at the rockhouse could halt production for the entire mine. These concerns brought forth the next evolution in rock handling efficiency. Instead of utilizing just one massive rockhouse, the mine turned to using several smaller rockhouses spread across its surface plant – each one conveniently placed atop the shafts themselves. The modern combination shaft / rockhouse was born.
Over the next several decades the shaft / rockhouse idea underwent several alterations and revisions, the concept fine-tuned and perfected along the way. Perhaps no where was the concept best implemented then at Quincy, who erected the most elaborate and impressive versions of the structures to be found anywhere. Best yet Quincy was not afraid to spend a great deal of capital to insure the most efficient and labor-anemic rockhouses stood atop their shafts. Before all was said and done the mine would go through three different versions of its shaft / rockhouses beforing settling on a masterpiece of rock handling efficiency – the Quincy’s grand opus of industrialization placed atop its longest operating shaft – the No.2.
The Quincy System
Standing nearly 150 feet into the air, the No.2’s shaft/rockhouse was an impressive size that was further heightened by its regal perch atop Quincy Hill – overlooking not only the neighboring cities of Hancock and Houghton but the entire Portage Valley as well. It continues to be a striking visual statement to this day, one that is only dwarfed by the technological prowess once found within her gleaming steel facade. Upon her completion in 1908 she was the most advanced piece of mining engineering to be found in the region – an innovator that would quickly be copied elsewhere along the range. The arrangement and layout of her interiors would be known as the Quincy Method, a system of rock sorting and crushing that would be utilized by the mine with little change for the rest of its life.
Yet that impressive height was not just a symbolic gesture, as it was also an integral component of the Quincy System itself. Turns out it was height that provided the free labor necessary to make the system as efficient and cost effective as it was – that labor being gravity itself. Once the hoist had brought the rock up to the building’s top-most reaches it would be gravity that would move that rock through the various sorting and crushing machinery with little to no human intervention. Like a giant child’s sand toy, the rock would tumble and weave its way through various contraptions before being sorted into a series of holding bins at the building’s base. Those bins reflected the three types of product that would generally be brought up to the surface: copper free poor rock, pure copper, and a mix of rock and copper known as stamp rock.
Here’s a look at that convoluted process in the abstract. Labels boxes represent machines or holding bins found along the way, while the red lines represent the paths of the rock. The final sorted bins can be found at the flowchart’s bottom, with the skip road – the avenue along which the copper rock is hauled up from the underground – rising up along the left side. Along that road are three dumps, places where the skips contents can be emptied into waiting bins or chutes. Which dump the skips will utilize depends on what type of rock the skip is carrying, telegraphed to the hoist operator and shaft men from the underground. If the skip contained large pieces of just copper, it would be dumped at the first landing where it could be loaded directly onto rail cars. If the skip contained no copper it was dropped at the second level where it would subsequently be dumped into bins to await removal to neighboring poor rock piles. If it contained copper, the skip would be brought up to the top level of the building and dumped onto sorting equipment known as grizzlies. From there it is sorted by size, crushed, and dumped into holding silos of its own to await transportation to the mill.
Taking a step outside I’ve superimposed the various levels seen in that flow chart on the building’s exterior. While the building is technically 14 stories in height, its interior is actually only divided up into five main levels. The first is the shaft level where the shaft opening and the mass-copper landing seen in the flow chart can be found. Next up is the poor rock level where poor rock is crushed and sorted into bins. Further up are the two levels of the rockhouse itself, a main floor where most of the sorting and crushing of copper rock takes place and an upper floor where a few pieces of complimenting equipment is located. Finally far at top is the building’s top-most level resides a floor that receives no rock or copper of any kind. This floor marks the top of the shaft’s head-frame and houses the two large wheels – known as sheaves – around which the hoisting rope makes its turn from the hoist down into the shaft. It is here at the top of the structure that we begin our tour.
The sheave level may appear to have nothing to do with rock handling, but it is in reality the most important component and the main reason a shaft house exists in the first place. Rock is hoisted up from the underground along a set of rails known as a skip road, named such because its along this “roadway” that the skips carrying rock from the underground travel. Those skips are pulled to the surface by means of a steal cable wound around a large drum. The drum is located a distance from the shaft itself inside a separate building known as a hoist house. To get the hoist rope to head underground along the skip road it must be turned downward – a change of direction accomplished atop a large pulley wheel or sheave set above the shaft.
In addition to turning the hoist cable downward, the sheaves also have so support the weight of whatever is being brought up from the underground. To do that the sheaves are supported atop a hearty iron framework that both holds the sheaves up in the air as well as helping to support the weights of the skips coming up the skip road. This iron truss work is the headframe, and every shaft has one. While in some cases this headframe sits out in plain sight, at the No.2 it is partially hidden within the steel skin of the rockhouse itself which was built around it.
A portion of the truss work can still be seen protruding out from the building’s hoist-facing facade. Known as a batter brace these angled series of iron beams help support the sheaves and directly counteract the forces put on the sheaves from both the hoist on one end and the skips on the other. This batter brace can be seen to the left above, seemingly propped up against the rockhouse’s main copper silo. Looking up to their tops once can see that the beams puncture the building, their length continuing upwards for several dozen more feet until meeting up with the platform supporting the sheaves themselves. Back at the opposite end we find those beams supported atop small concrete pedestals laid into the ground.
The Sheave LevelCraning our necks back skyward we set our gaze to those sheaves themselves, at least where they would be found if the steel skin of the rockhouse wasn’t blocking the view. Behind those windows is the sheave level, the hoisting cables once exiting the building through a pair of small holes found just alongside the inside frames of those windows. The two cables seen in the picture are guide wires used to help support the neighboring pulley stands. The small platform up top is a mystery to me, though I suppose its purpose was probably related to inspecting the pulley stands or the building itself. Today it serves as a communication tower, chocked full of wireless transmitters and receivers providing the area with access to the world wide web and CCE. If we were to peak inside that steel sheathing we would find a view that looks much like this. This shot was taken inside the No.2 rockhouse by Jet Lowe, a photographer for the government’s Historic American Engineering Record which documented the structure and the rest of the No.2 surface plant in 1968. Though half a century old, what’s captured in these images closely resemble what can be found still today as very little has changed for the century old structure since it was abandoned (I attempted to document the interior myself as it appears today but was denied access due to safety concerns, so these images will have to do).
The presence of two sheaves here is due to the No.2’s double road status, meaning it had two skip roads accessing the shaft at the same time. Those skip roads sat side by side, each one with its own skip, hoisting rope, and in turn its own sheave. The two skips ran on balance, meaning as one was coming up from the shaft the other was going down. This dual skip system was the first of many ways to increase the shaft’s efficiencies, as no longer would the rockhouse crew have to wait for another skip to make its way up from the underground. In the two skip road method another skip was always on its way after the other had finished unloading.
Besides some routine maintenance required on the sheaves and their axels there was very little need for men to be on this level. It would usually stand empty, with most of the workers toiling further down into the structure. It is there that we continue our exploration – into the very heart of the structure itself – the rockhouse level.
To Be Continued…