Upper Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula was the site of one of the world’s most abundant deposits of pure, elemental copper. The copper range here forms a narrow spine around which tens of thousands of people came to coax copper from out of the ground. In the 19th century, Americans and immigrants flocked here to fulfill the American Dream and improve their own lives. They developed a complex system of mining, processing, smelting, and transporting copper, which stimulated America’s Industrial Revolution. The thousands of people worldwide who sought success and the large corporate mining companies who were eager to make a profit transformed the Keweenaw Peninsula, forever changing its landscape and cultural makeup.
Today, Keweenaw National Historical Park, at its Calumet and Quincy units, preserves and interprets the varied elements of the copper mining industry and tells the stories of the diverse people who settled in the area and worked the mines. The many preserved buildings, streets, and mines in the Calumet National Historic Landmark District and the Quincy Mining Company National Historic Landmark District within the park provide visitors with a snapshot of how the newly industrialized America looked and felt. Dozens of cultural sites throughout the Keweenaw Peninsula (inside and outside of official park boundaries), including those of 19 official Keweenaw Heritage Site partners, also help tell the stories associated with Keweenaw’s mining history.
American Indians began mining and using copper in the Keweenaw Peninsula over 7,000 years ago, as evident from the area’s prehistoric mining sites. Native peoples used copper to construct tools and make items to trade. When European priests and explorers reached the Keweenaw Peninsula in the 1600s, they learned of the copper from the Ojibwa tribe. The early European explorers attempted to mine the copper but were unsuccessful. By the 1840s, people started having success extracting copper from the earth, prompting one of the first mineral mining rushes in the United States — one that predated the California gold rush by six years.
For a time, the Keweenaw Peninsula saw a massive rush of individual fortune seekers. After this initial rush, other entrepreneurs arrived to direct a more systematic extraction of copper. A more lasting copper industry evolved with the establishment of the major mining companies, the Quincy Mining Company and, later, the Calumet & Hecla (C&H) Company. By 1849, this area provided 96% of the entire United States copper production; from 1845 to 1887, it was the largest copper-producing region in the United States. By the late 1880s, the Keweenaw Peninsula lost its dominant position as the leading copper-producing region to mines located further west. Still, for over a hundred years, the copper mining industry directly affected the lives and landscapes of the people and communities in this area.
Between 1843 and 1920, miners and immigrants from all over the world, including Canada, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Finland, Croatia, China, and Lebanon, among others, flocked to the area to work in the mines and the industries that supported their operation. These workers provided a large labor force and contributed to the evolution of a varied and diverse cultural landscape throughout the peninsula. While many first-generation immigrants came to work in the mines, second and third-generation Americans found ways to enter other occupations. Some opened, managed, or worked in groceries, hotels, restaurants, and sawmills, while others taught school, farmed, or logged forests. Others began commercial fishing operations in Lake Superior, which surrounds the Keweenaw.
Immigrants established benevolent ethnic societies and churches. Visitors can still see some of them today, like St. Anne’s Catholic Church (originally built for a thriving French-Canadian population), the Community Church of Calumet (initially serving a Scottish Presbyterian congregation), St. John the Baptist Church (originally for Calumet’s Croatian Community), and the Norwegian Lutheran Church. These institutions helped new arrivals make their way into the community and find jobs and places to live. Churches and benevolent societies played a crucial role in immigrants’ lives by attending to their spiritual needs and providing them places to speak their native tongue comfortably, listen to their traditional music, and eat their traditional food. Established immigrants built hotels or apartment buildings like the Coppo Block and the Holman Block, which visitors can walk by today in downtown Calumet. At one time, at least 38 different ethnic groups lived in the area. The workers and their families varied in dress, politics, religions, foods, and languages, but they shared a common interest in their goals and intense desire for better lives.
Visitors can learn about the social, ethnic, commercial, and company-planned aspects of a mining community by visiting the Calumet Unit of Keweenaw National Historical Park. In the historic village of Calumet, known as Red Jacket until 1929, and throughout the C&H Mining Company’s property, visitors can see what it was like to live and work on the Keweenaw Peninsula in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Visitors can take the Calumet Walking Tour, a 1.5-hour and 1.5-mile easy terrain walking tour to explore the former C&H Mining Company’s industrial area and downtown Calumet’s historic business district.
In its heyday, the C&H Mining Company produced one-half of the country’s copper. Swiss-born Alexander Agassiz led the company for many years and achieved success through its highly efficient management of people and natural resources. The company utilized modern technologies and the management style known as paternalism to build its reputation as one of the nation’s best-known business enterprises.
By practicing corporate paternalism, C&H created a mutually dependent relationship between the company and its workers by offering benefits and constraints to its workers and the nearby communities. Like many mining companies, C&H provided jobs, schools, homes, bathhouses, hospitals, tennis courts, bowling alleys, a swimming pool, and a library for its workers. The company also provided land for fraternal organizations, churches, and other social groups. Many of these corporate-sponsored community buildings are still standing today, including the C&H Public Library, Calumet grade schools, the C&H Bathhouse, the Miscowaubik Club, and the churches on God’s Little Acre. By 1898, C&H owned nearly 1,000 dwellings and the land on which many other employee-built houses stood. C&H’s fire department served the mines and surrounding communities, and the company’s water system pumped water to employee houses.
While company management saw paternalism as the benign manifestation of a new age of enlightened capitalism, it allowed the company to control many aspects of the workers’ lives, including discouraging the organization of labor unions. In 1913, workers’ frustration with the impersonal management style, low wages, long hours, and poor working conditions culminated in a strike that lasted nearly a year. C&H never fully recovered from the strike. The company enjoyed some profits in the early 20th century, but as the depths of the mines increased, the copper content diminished. In 1968, the mines closed permanently, but the C&H Mining Company left its mark on the people, land, and communities of the Keweenaw Peninsula.
Twelve miles from the Calumet Unit, visitors can explore the Quincy Unit of the park to learn about the processes and technologies of copper mining. The Quincy Unit, just northeast of the Hancock community and adjacent to the Portage Lake waterway, preserves the remnant structures and mines of the Quincy Mining Company, established in 1846. Visitors can take the Quincy Ruins Walk, a guided 1.5-hour, one-mile walking tour to explore the surface ruins of the mine.
Quincy and C&H share similar histories. The Quincy Copper Mining Company was also a leader in copper production in the late 19th century. It attracted workers from various ethnic groups, practiced paternalism with its workers, and suffered greatly from the strike of 1913. The company eventually closed its mines for good in 1945. Today, visitors can explore the Quincy No. 2 mine shaft and hoist, a Keweenaw Heritage Site owned and operated by the Quincy Mine Hoist Association. Visitors can also see the world’s largest steam hoist, explore the mine’s surface area and ruins, and ride a cog-wheel tram to a mine side entrance. From there, visitors can go underground to have a firsthand view of the mine and see the miners’ working conditions for themselves.
Visitors can also explore the 19 Keweenaw Heritage Sites associated with the park. Places such as the Coppertown Mining Museum in the former C&H Pattern Shop, the former St. Anne’s Church that is now the Keweenaw Heritage Center, the Red Jacket Fire Station that is now the Upper Peninsula Firefighters Memorial Museum, and the Laurium Manor Mansion Tours, all help tell the stories of copper mining and the birth of an industrialized society.
Keweenaw National Historical Park, a unit of the National Park System, is located on the Keweenaw Peninsula of Upper Michigan.
Keweenaw National Historical Park
25970 Red Jacket Road
Calumet, MI 49913
Compiled & edited by Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated January 2023. Source: National Park Service
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