So here we are in Atlantic Mine at the base of the Keweenaw Peninsula on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula I call The Hinterland a grueling 12-hour drive from St. Clair Shores in southeastern Michigan with six people and luggage crammed into a Chevy station wagon stopping only to relax, refuel the car, and eat. Atlantic Mine is but a shell of the glory days when native copper was extracted from the bowels of the earth through six mine shafts then via the Copper Range Railroad to mills for processing and finally to market.
The morning after arriving, the “purest most vitalizing air on earth” (signage in the Copper Country proclaims) blows in through open windows and deep into our lungs encouraging an early rise next a fortifying breakfast as we will spend the entire day driving up the Keweenaw to Copper Harbor 35 miles to the north. Dad readies the Chevy in the morning chill as Linda, David, Tad, and myself (the four of us) carefully place pennies on the Copper Range Railroad tracks a mere 100’ in front of the old, grey shingled home of grandma Pyykkonen in hopes a passing freight train will run over them.
The pennies safety set, we scramble back to the Chevy where Mom and Dad wait and off we go deep into the Hinterland; grandma stays behind not interested in country she knows well and promises Pasties for supper (think beef potpie with no gravy) mmmmmmmmmmmmm. Copper Harbor here we come!
Dad motors north on U.S. 26 to Houghton and reconnects with U.S. 41 downtown then out across the Portage Canal to Hancock via the Houghton/Hancock Lift Bridge. The bridge is 500’ long with two 180’ towers the bridge’s center portion lifts 100’ above the waterway to allow boats through and is the only linkup the Keweenaw has to the rest of the Upper Peninsula. For fun Dad sometimes motors over the steel grating that is the left lane, drives Mom crazy. As a young lad I was in awe for it looked miles long, the towers, with loosely hung communication wiring between them, stretching endlessly to sky, and Portage Canal far-reaching but, not until I return as an adult do I realize just how small the bridge and waterway actually are. Now in Hancock, founded by the Quincy Mining Company in 1859 during the heyday of copper mining and named after the John Hancock, U.S. 41 winds through town and up Quincy Hill.
Cresting the hill the Quincy Mine property comes into view which extracted native copper from numerous shafts between 1846 and 1945 as well as paying back investors consistently and because of this nicknamed “Old Reliable.” The grounds were once a beehive of activity with men coming and going from the shaft houses, trains running around the clock hauling ore bearing rock, and just across the roadway company homes for the miners were constructed. Today remnants of shaft houses, support buildings, poor rock piles, and smoke stacks are that remain of a once mighty empire. The most impressive of these is the unique No.2 shaft-rock house built in 1908 and by the time digging stopped reached well over one mile into the ground at 9,260′. Impressive, most impressive!
In 1978 I make a return trip to the Copper Country alone to visit relatives and fulfill a childhood dream by exploring what was left of the Quincy Mine location, taking the above picture. Giddy as a child on Christmas morning, I look over dry rooms (miners cleaned up here after a day underground), poor rock piles, rusted overgrown railroad tracks, skeletons of boiler rooms, and hoist houses used to raise and lower miners and remove copper bearing rock from the mine. In the winter of the same year I spend one week with my aunt Florence to get a taste of the Copper Country blanketed in snow. Mother Nature does not disappoint as it snows heavily for two days however, the captivating part was driving past the Quincy Mine No. 2 and seeing the results of warm underground air colliding with the frigid winter air, the ensuing steam made the thing look like a Saturn V rocket just before liftoff! What a treat.
Dad drives on as the historical mining graveyard passes by my window in slow motion and maybe because of that pure, vitalizing air I sense something magical, mystical about the landscape, something that eludes explanation. My generation was the last to witness mining operations as the reclamation of copper from stamp sands (pulverized rock waste from the milling process) was winding down and by 1972 all operations ceased and freight trains stopped rolling except for those that, ironically, carried the remains of stamp mills to the scrap heap, an era gone. Some of the miner’s homes remain and lived in however, most are empty lots and the only evidence of a house ever existing is the hole in the ground which served as a root cellar.
Quincy fades into the background as U.S. 41 takes us through second growth forest as the communities, miner’s homes, and even mineshaft supports underground consumed all the virgin forest. Calumet is the next town and is where the great Calumet and Hecla Mining Company came together in 1864 to work the Calumet conglomerate load and between 1866 and 1886 lead all copper producers in the United States and the world between 1869 and 1876. The Calumet and Hecla mines operate continuously up to the Great Depression picking up steam again during World War II then slowly loses momentum as copper prices plummet and finally in 1970 complete shutdown. Calumet is never the same afterwards and like so many cities in the state relies on tourism all year round. The famous Norte Dame College football player George Gipp was born and raised in nearby Laurium which has erected a memorial to him; he is buried in Calumet. It is in Calumet a way back in 1913 at the height of a mining strike that miners and their families come together to celebrate Christmas in the Italian Hall when someone, no one knows who, yells, “Fire!” A panic arises amongst the partygoers and in the race to the stairs (the only escape route) 74 people are crushed trying to get out, most of the dead are children. There was no fire. As Dad drives down Main Street in Calumet we pass the only remnant of the hall, the sandstone archway of the front door, a tribute to those that perished.
We are half-way to the top of Michigan and pass by old mining locations Kearsarge, Allouez, Ahmeek, Mohawk, and the Cliff Mine which is the first copper mine to go into operation in 1844 five years before the cry of “Gold!” in California. Here miners level virgin forests of pine for construction of mining facilities, miner’s homes and even a church but as we pass the only trace of activity are towering rock piles and debris from an era long gone, nothing here to spark the imagination of a young mind breathing vitalized air. Near the remains of the Cliff copper mine Dad turns off U.S. 41 taking a two lane paved road that heads towards the shoreline of Lake Superior, the destination Brockway Mountain.
Dad steers the Chevy ever so carefully along the twists and turns of the roadway as there are no guardrails. Mom is nervous. On a previous summer vacation the entire Pykonen family drove through southeastern Canada to Niagara Falls down to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania then Washington D.C. On the drive back to Michigan we pass over the Allegheny Mountains and as Mom sits up front in the passenger seat she gets a fantastic view of the mountains and of the flimsy looking cable guardrail that is supposed to prevent a car from going over the side. Mom does not like this view or the fact that Brockway Mountain has no guardrail however, once atop a spectacular panorama 720 feet above cold, blue Lake Superior has taken her mind off guardrails. Dad parks the car near the Sky Top Inn which is nothing more than a gift shop with lite snacks, “the four of us” tumble out of the car and naturally head to mountains edge to gaze out along the Keweenaw and down on Copper Harbor. Off in the distance silently plying the treacherous waters with precious cargo we spy lake freighters; no sound, nothing but the strong blowing winds off the lake under a warming sun.
Copper Harbor, a few minutes from Brockway Mountain, gets it’s name from copper once locally mined then shipped from the harbor however; it is no longer a copper port as tourists flock to the area for recreation, fishing, boating, or to breathe some of that pure air. There is not much to do in Copper Harbor except gift shop which Mom and Dad lead “the four of us” through The Country Village Shop which is a one-story red with white trim building dating back to 1880. Stepping inside the floor creaks and wonderful aromas of potpourri and scented candles relaxes welcomed visitors. Inside one of the shops, The Old Country Store, Mom and Dad treat us from a cornucopia of candies: jawbreakers, licorice, and rock candy not to mention ice cream and as “the four of us” relish in sweets they relax sipping hot coffee, smoking, and share donuts.
A stone’s throw away is Lake Fanny Hooe surrounded by pine-covered hills a gentle breeze blows across the surface and on the north side of the lake Fort Wilkins lay.
The fort, established in 1844, consists of a bakery, hospital, soldiers barracks, and a mess halls just a few of the 27 structures, was to keep the peace between the miners rushing to the area to dig copper and the Ojibwa Indians of the region. The fort proved unnecessary as the Ojibwa accepted the influx of law-abiding miners as compared to their contemporaries in the west digging for gold. The lake is named after Fanny Hooe the sister- in- law of a young officer at the fort who disappeared leaving a variety of stories as how and why with none of them clearing up the mystery. On this mid-summer day we are the only family inside the state park as Dad snaps pictures of “the four of us” around the manicured parade grounds, whitewashed barracks, and flagpole with Lake Fanny Hooe shimmering in the background. From a preteen’s point of view running around on the parade grounds the fort appears endless and the surrounding forested hills stretch skyward as if mountains.
After all of this driving, shopping, walking, sugar, and running across parade grounds the trip back to grandma’s is low-key giving the batteries time to recharge and once home “the four of us” leap from the car as if our pants are on fire and race to the railroad tracks, dinner can wait what about those pennies!
Standing at the spot on the tracks four excited kids search endlessly and one by one find homemade souvenirs of the 16th President’s now oblong head, each of us jubilant in our triumphant meander inside for a tasty Pasty dinner.