Earlier this month CCE quietly passed another milestone as it entered yet another year of copper country exploring after an incredible 11 years . To help celebrate CCE’s birthday, I’ve decided to take a tour of CCE’s early years back before I obtained my first high-resolution camera. As most of you know, back then I was using nothing more than a video camera to take the photos for this site – an instrument that created the smallest and lowest-quality photos one could find. Since those photos are far to old to be given the HD treatment, I’ve decided to simply repackage the old posts in our new format with a little bit of modern editing and polishing thrown in for good measure. These posts originally appeared as a three-part series, published in November of 2006. Make sure to click on the panoramic image at the bottom of the post to see it in its full sized glory. Enjoy…
Sitting on the shores of Torch Lake, just north of the town of Mason, sits the expansive facilities of the Quincy Stamp Mill. It operated for over 60 years, and was one of the last mine facilities closed in the Copper Country. Because of this, most of the facility still stands, providing one of the most expansive ruins in the Keweenaw. Exploring the mill alone can take more than a day, let alone the rest of the numerous buildings at the site. Even then, however, there is more exploring to be done as there is yet another treasure to be found on the property. It’s a treasure that lies largely hidden, tucked away deep in the back of the complex and one that most people rarely visit or even know exists at all. That treasure is a rather insignificant trickle of water which has miraculously carved a rather impressive canyon into the side of the hill above the ruins – a creek marked on most maps as Quincy Creek.
The presence of the creek may today be overlooked, but a century ago when the Quincy Mine elected to build its new milling complex in its path the creek was an integral part of the mine’s plans. The Copper Empire was an empire built upon steam, a technology whose Archilese heal was its dependence upon water – and lots of it. While the deep blue waters of Torch Lake sat just down the hill, those waters sat far too distant to efficiently feed the needs of what Quincy was erecting farther up the hill – a railroad. Those trains that would bring down copper-bearing rock from the mother mine needed a place to refuel their thirsty boilers and while that water could have been pumped up from the lake it also could have more efficiently been brought down to the engines by gravity alone. Thus the small creek running through the property was perfect, once the mine built a small dam across its path and filled the narrow gorge behind it with enough water to fill thirsty engines day and night.
While important to the mine’s railroad, it was more a hinderance to its mill. This was because the creek ran right through where Quincy’s mill was to be built. To solve the problem the creek was diverted through a series of man-made underground conduits, erasing it from the landscape until almost the very end of its run down into the lake. That makes finding the creek rather difficult, especially if you don’t know where to look. But follow the old rail line up along the top of the ridge, and the sounds of the creek flowing nearby will quickly betray its existence. Yet even still the creek is far from view, its flow of water buried deep in the lush gorge through which it meanders in solitude. You have to get off the trail and bushwhack your way through the dense foliage and down into the depths of the gorge to find the prize.
Once down there you will find the stream itself to be rather underwhelming, but the environment in which it flowed something else entirely. The trickle of water flowed and ebbed its way in and around a collection of moss-covered rocks of various shapes and sizes attempting in vain to block the water’s movement. Meanwhile the thick foliage along the edges of the creek interlace their leafy branches high above, forming a fairy-tale like tunnel of green which extends upstream along the tumbling waterway’s route. Downstream another tunnel comes into view, though this one is made not of greenery but instead of concrete and stone. This is a tunnel built not by nature, but by man.
Around the opening to the tunnel was a tangle of debris. At one time it looked as if a large grate built from rails covered the tunnel. Some of the rails still crossed the gap, but others had fallen into the stream creating a blockage. Here on both sides of the streambed were high man-made walls built from poor rock. These smooth walls forced the stream into the tunnel. Moving around the blockage, we peered down the long and dark tunnel. At the far end a narrow dot of light could be seen marking the tunnel’s opposite end. The tunnel was long, and yelling down it’s length brought back only an incredibly delayed answer. While plenty large enough to enter, the structural integrity of a hundred year old tunnel was far to suspect for our taste and we passed.
Instead we turned back upstream and hopped from boulder to boulder to make our way towards discoveries yet to be made. Along the way the sloped sides of the gorge were becoming increasingly steep; the rims high above us beginning to block any sunlight that tried to reach us. Because of this, the amount of vegetation we encountered diminished and the riverbed opened up ahead of us. The sounds of rushing water echoed around us, and every tinkle or drip seemed thunderous.
That sound of water only increased as we pushed forward and the gorge around us tightened in further. The round boulders we had become accustomed too within the stream bed were now being replaced with much larger and more angular rocks – most likely chunks of the surrounding gorge that had broken free and crashed into the stream. Soon the sounds of the rushing water were overpowered by another sound – the unmistakable roar of a waterfall. As we made our way around a particularly large gorge remnant blocking our path the source of that epic sound came into view.
It was probably one of the most awesome sights we had seen on any of our travels across this very scenic land. Ahead of us the gorge quickly became a canyon, and on either side of us sheer rock faces reached high above our heads a good thirty feet or more. They were immense, and seemed as if they could crash down upon us at any time. At their tops, large trees arched out over the expanse, creating a green roof above our heads. Framed by these massive pillars, a small dam could be seen filling the gap ahead. Water was flowing over it’s top, and in a step-stair fashion dropped from one rock pool to another until ending up at our feet. It was like looking up at the soaring roof of a large cathedral above our heads and for a moment we could only stand in awe.
In addition to the natural wonder of it all, the looming gorge around us was also a treasure trove of historical treasures. First of all was the dam itself, a structure built over a century ago to provide water for the mine’s locomotives. Though nothing more than a thick concrete wall placed across the gorge’s impressive maw, it served its purpose of creating a good sized reservoir of water on its backend. Unfortunately after a century of time, that reservoir was mostly filled in with silt and rock washed down to the dam from above. Because of this only a shallow stream bed could be found at the dam’s top, in place of the deep pool that most likely once existed there. In fact if it wasn’t for the dam’s obvious concrete construction, one might assume the entire thing was just a natural waterfall formed by a stubborn outcropping of rock.
But the dam’s concrete construction was obvious, and so too were the lengths of old iron pipe making its way from that dam and down the river back towards the direction we had come. These pipes – and there were several of them – once provided a route for the water from the old reservoir to be transported down to the railroad water tower found at the mill site. Over the last century the pipe had broken and fallen into the rocky riverbed, its remnants not scattered about like sprinkles of forgotten history. Also found scattered about were pieces of the concrete dam itself, small chunks that had been broken loose after one too many spring floods.
It was all an incredible find, especially after our rather long walk up the stream bed. It was an exciting experience to come across signs of man’s presence so far from the modern civilized world. Here in the deep gorge the sounds of the highway had disappeared long ago, replaced with nothing but the bubbling stream and the waterfall ahead of us. Yet as far into the wilderness we had apparently come we found that the hand of man had already shaped the landscape around us. It seems no place is safe across the lands of the copper country and you’ll never know where you will find remnants of man’s great copper empire for exploring.