The Ghosts of Copper Country

For a long time, copper was a big part of life in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Though the mines are closed today, copper inspired a rush of white settlers starting in the 1840s. Before that, indigenous people mined copper here for hundreds of years.

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During our vacation last July, our cabin was near the center of the UP’s copper belt. Not far from us an old mining settlement had been partially restored by local volunteers, so we decided to visit. On our way we passed through fields of grass and blooming yellow wildflowers. Hardly any cultivated fields. Given the cold climate and the rocky soil, farming is a tough proposition around here.

Once again we were struck by how empty this region is. We passed few cars and fewer houses.

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Eventually we reached the restoration, which is known as Old Victoria. The settlement was created to house workers at the Victoria Copper Mine, which closed in the 1920s.

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The miners, some single men and some with families, lived in cabins built of hand hewn logs. Restored cabins were rebuilt using the original techniques. I was interested to see these dovetail joints.

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Volunteers have collected memorabilia from the families that once lived here. A large proportion were Finnish immigrants, and the settlement was sometimes called Finn Town.

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A volunteer was on hand to provide a tour and answer questions. I was impressed that local amateur historians are so dedicated to the memory of those that once lived here. The work of restoring the cabins was done entirely with donated labor.

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Old crafts were practiced here as a matter of necessity.

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There was no electricity or running water. No stores either – a merchant from town would drive a truck or wagon into the village once a week or so.

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Wood stoves provided heat.

Hard to imagine the kind of isolation that must have been part of life here – especially during the long UP winters. I imagine boredom would have been a big problem were it not for the unending toil required of both men and women. Alcohol was forbidden by the mining company, though I’m guessing this rule was hard to enforce completely.

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In addition to taking care of their own families, the wives cooked and did laundry for the single men in order to bring in extra income.

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Some families took in boarders as well.

DSC_0159Not far from the restored cabins you can find remains of the old mine. There wasn’t much to see, though, mostly old crumbling walls and piles of rocks.

Did the folks here think that their settlement would continue to grow, that the mine and their lives here would be permanent? Perhaps they did. Or perhaps they were people with few choices who came to this hard place for just as long as the money was good, with no assumptions as to how long that would be.

There is some talk of a new copper mine opening up just west of the Porcupine Mountains. There are few jobs in the UP, so I imagine many would welcome such a development. But copper mines are hard on the land, while the prosperity they bring may not last long.

25 Comments on “The Ghosts of Copper Country”

  1. Interesting. I have been to the UP several times but had never thought about how these people make a living now or in the past. I love it up there. That feeling of quiet and not so many people. I am afraid that the long winters might make me crazy. I guess you would get used to it.

  2. Wonderful post with such thoughtful questions. I am sure the isolation was hard to take, but the house featured looks snug and cozy, a good place to live. Whenever I feel bogged down by work, I think of my ancestors, who like the miners and their families, worked hard every single day to put food on the table or to stay warm or to make the many things they needed.

  3. I enjoyed this post which makes my going to work today seem much easier. Can you imagine depending on a wood stove for heat in such a cold climate? I’m off to search the web to learn about the indigenous people’s use of copper.

  4. I loved visiting this beautifully restored site. It’s so far off the beaten path, I almost think the volunteers put it together for themselves to remember and honor their ancestors, more than for outside visitors, though they were very welcoming.

    I was really struck by how much these houses reminded me of my grandmother’s house, in a town of 800 people in South Dakota. Even I n the 1950s and early 60s, my grandmother only had water from a pump. My brother and I would fight to be the one who got to pump the water, but if we had lived there, it would have gotten old fast. Faces were washed at a stand with a bowl and pitcher, and baths when we were small were in a galvanize tub on the kitchen floor. No, I’m not 102 years old – My grandmother was a woman who did not believe in spending money on modern fripperies. She had an outhouse and would not hear of my parents paying for indoor plumbing.

    So in this copper miners’ village, many of the old kitchen pots and pans, the ancient toaster (almost nothing but bare wires and a rack to hold the bread against them), homemade quilts and rag rugs, jars of home canned vegetables, looked exactly like my grandmother’s house.

    Those were some tough, hard-working women – my grandmother, and even more so the miners’ wives.

  5. Very interesting post .. extending my knowledge of US history and also because my Dad worked on a Coppermine in Africa when I was young. You are so right about short term gain for long term devastation for the land. I never complain about working because remembering my Dad going underground every day was much worse…

  6. Cool place. I know it’s really beautiful up there, and only lightly populated. We spent some time up there many years ago and enjoyed it. Great place to visit, but I could never live up there because the winters are even harsher than they are in Madison. The history and the people who keep the stories going are wonderful.

  7. How fascinating. As you likely know, parts of California are famous for ghost towns, and many were built with the expectation that they were only temporary settlements. Even as a Californian, that sound weird to me. I could not imagine moving to a town that I expected to be there only for a few years. If you have ever heard of Almaden Wine, it is from a region of San Jose that was once the town of New Almaden, and is now known more simply as Almaden. It was the second largest mercury deposit in the World, so was named after the largest, which is Almaden in Spain. Copper was also mined in the region. Instead of becoming a ghost town, Almaden was annexed into San Jose, and for a while, was one of the more desirable neighborhoods. It is still an excellent neighborhood. The origin town has the silly distinction of Old New Almaden, and since it was ‘revitalized in the 1990s, some jokingly refer to it as New Old New Almaden. I just know it as Almaden.

  8. What a lovely post and a reminder of how easy our lives are for so many of us today. My husband always tells the story of going over to his grandmother’s house to see her “new stove.” It was new, but it was another wood-burner rather than anything more modern that was available then. She knew how to cook on one of those and was sticking with it.

    • Not sure if the mine will really open. I can understand why people would want it but I’m afraid it will not be worth the cost in terms of environmental damage. And things are so mechanized these days that mines don’t necessarily mean lots of jobs anymore.

  9. Jason, interesting post! I was surprised to see houses or cabins as you write, made from wooden logs, that isn’t typical for American. Of course, these people were from European Northern areas, I recognized the wooden building that are popular in Finland, Northern Russia and Sweden. The homemade rugs are the similar we have here as well. There people who worked at the copper mines were hard-workers, they did everything they need for their lives.
    Thanks for sharing!

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