Another geological phenomenon, the Upper Penninsula of Michigan is home to the largest native copper deposits in the world. This area of Michigan hosted the first mineral boom in the United States, in 1843, as people flocked to the UP to mine copper, silver and iron, but while the first mine was opened in the Houghton/Hancock area in 1771, Native Americans harvested copper from surface pits and glacial eratics long before that. At first, settlers moving westward overlooked the UP because it was known for its “inhospitable wilderness” but after Douglass Houghton (Michigan’s first state Geologist, the namesake for the town that all of American cross country skiing made pilgrimage to for US Nationals in January), published reporting the promising geology of the area, including presence of copper on the Keweenaw peninsula, people stopped avoiding it so steadfastly, and started to find it as a destination.
The Keweenenaw Peninsula falls on the southern flank of the Mid Continental Rift of North America. Copper mineralization occurred during the rifting 1.1 billion years ago, although it still isn’t entirely known how it was emplaced. The most likely theory is that burial metamorphism of basalts at high temperatures generated a copper rich ore fluid, and as these lavas erupted, degassing removed much of the sulfur content. As it flowed through faults and fractures during compression that followed the rifting, the copper-laden magma made its way into the form from which it was mined. Since the age of the native copper matches the timing of compression and faulting, it makes sense that this would have provided the plumbing to its final deposition. It doesn’t explain why other locations in the area that would have experienced the same activity have not produced the same deposits, but it nonetheless resulted in the unique geology and resulting culture that is the UP of Michigan and more specifically, Houghton.
Quincy mine was the most productive of the mines in the UP, and open from 1846 to 1945, it was the longest running mine in the country. At its closure, it had the deepest mine shaft in the world, 9260 feet, following the dip of the deposit, at an angle of 55 degrees. While most of the work happens underground, the built infrastructure functionally responds to to it, a visual link the the work hiding beneath. The Quincy #2 shaft house has an iconic look, built with this 55 degree slope so that mine cars can come up directly to unload and not need to change angles. This shaft rockhouse is one of two, of the original 75, that are still standing.
Beyond it’s functional construction for removing rock from the ground, Quincy Mine, and the other major mines were responsible for other construction contributing to the vernacular and aesthetic still standing today. They built housing for workers, hoping they’d stay on with their families; two clusters of T-shaped, wood frame houses were named after the mine shafts there. Limerick and Hardscrabble were two such communities built in 1864, 68 homes rented to the mining workers for $1 a month. With the next influx of workers, Quincy mine also sponsored the building of Swedetown, another 37 log houses. Quincy mine also was responsible for building a hospital, school district, rented garden space workers for $4/year.
The Michigan School of Mines had sprouted while the mines were active, evolving along with the mine as a technical education institution, morphing into a greater role as the mines came to a close, and expanding just in time for the post war Baby Boomers to go college, as it became Michigan Technological University in the 1960s. Filling the void the mining industry left, Michigan Tech is now the main employer in the Houghton/Hancock area. It is also complemented by forest products industry and manufacturing, as well as tourism, snowmobiling and cross country skiing in the winter, as we’re privy to as ski racers flocking to Houghton.
Although now the outskirts of Houghton resemble those of many other towns across America- box stores, chain restaurants, a Wal-Mart- Houghton has managed to maintain some of its historical legacy amongst the new homogenized cookie cutter corporations. Inside the McDonalds a stained glass window depicts the historical mining landscape; poor rock (discards from the mining operation) was used to shore hillsides and create the massive flat areas for the box stores to be built upon. The restaurant we frequented most often two years ago at these races, the Rock House Hardwood Grille adjacent to the Mine Shaft bowling alley, harkens back to Houghton’s mining beginnings.
While Houghton is unique in preserving a lot of its history into its current purpose, it is not alone in the role of mining-town-turned-ski-destination. Several of the places I have visited either for racing or training have their roots in mining, specifically Park City for it’s silver mine and Hatcher's Pass (home to Independence Mine, a gold mine) in Alaska. Park City has grown to a ski resort, and Independence Mine is a historical landmark for tourists in the summer, groomed for skiing in the winter. I’m sure there is more ongoing heritage in those areas than I have yet to recognize, but it is noteworthy that Houghton seems to have uniquely maintained its roots to this history. Houghton is still innately tied to its mining history and origins as a western industrial town in a way that many other places are not. It has grown into the modernized world while maintaining these connections, specifically as Michigan Tech was born out of the School of Mines, rather than being totally abandoned for new endeavors. Houghton remains recognizable to its history despite a rapidly modernizing world, making it that much more interesting to learn about, and making me a much more appreciative visitor.
Hollowed Ground: Copper Mining and Community Building on Lake Superior, 1840s-1990s by Larry Lankton