Forward to the Hinterland, Part 6 Atlantic Mine

 “Once you have lived on the land, been a partner with its’ moods, secrets, and seasons you cannot leave.  The living land remembers, touching you in unguarded moments saying, ‘I am here, you are part of me,’” from the book The Land Remembers by Ben Logon. 

 

Atlantic Mine began as an outcropping of native copper in 1872 than to a mining community of homes, markets, butchers, an ice rink, bowling alley, churches, saloons, farms, even a flour mill.  Atlantic Mine thrives and becomes part of the Copper Country that stretches from Copper Harbor on the northern tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula to Ontonagon on the southern end.  After a slow start the mine expands operation along a northeast to southwest load adding shafts, and starts paying out dividends to shareholders continuously from 1880 to 1891; then slowly declines as copper prices fall, cost of materials increase, labor unrest, and an underground phenomena called “air blasts” (air blasts happen when rock falls from a mined area and “compresses” the air creating a manmade earthquake).  With the mine’s days numbered the Stratton Handle Factory begins producing wooden broom handles for commercial use in 1913 and closes in 1949 leaving no other major employer in town; the only mining operations going on at this time is reclamation of copper from stamp sand (the by-product of copper bearing rock) which continues into the late 1960’s.  Dad is born here in 1926 second to youngest of four brothers and two sisters their mother and father (Matilda “Lulu” and Gustaf Arivd Pyykkonen) also born in Atlantic Mine around 1890 and 1893, and their parents emigrated from Norway and Finland.  Dad’s grandfather Juho (John) Pyykkonen worked in the Atlantic Mine and involved in tram accident losing both legs below the knee.

The Atlantic Mine I grew up with is a mere shell, a pocket watch with no innards, of its former mining days.  The village park, Triangle Park, is off the road from Houghton and holds the village’s war memorial but in it’s heyday was a gathering spot for Fourth of July celebrations and other community gatherings a “gateway” to Atlantic Mine.  Six mineshaft buildings and an elevated tramway that linked them are long gone, the mine shafts capped and buried nothing remains of the trestle but some rock bases, trees grow from the cement foundation of the Atlantic Mine Flour Mill.  Just beyond the tramway and mining location off of Atlantic Avenue Dad planted pine trees with the Cub Scouts in the 1930’s to beautify an area depleted of timber used in mining operations.  

Other remains from this conglomerate of production:  Copper Range Railroad tracks, about 100’ in front of Lulu’s house, that still carry stamp sand to the mills in Freda on Lake Superior and a curious open area with siding track nearby.  Here the Atlantic Mine depot stood that served the “school train” beginning in 1908 picking up students from Freda to South Range including Atlantic Mine dropping them off at Painesdale schools until busing implemented in 1941.  The only business left is Lantto’s store which “the four of us” (brother David and Tad, sister Linda and myself) make the one half mile walk down two lane Atlantic Avenue under sunny, summer skies with average temperatures of 70 degrees.  Due to a lack of urban hindrance it is so darn quiet and rubber tires on cars are heard on pavement well in advance of their appearance, conversations among others are so crystal clear you would swear the people are standing next to you but are actually a few blocks away.  Going in the opposite direction Atlantic Avenue heads to Lake Obenoff and a few twist and turns of the road ends in Freda on Lake Superior.  Dad often talked about “the road to Obenoff” and walking the couple of miles to go swimming; he also talked about World War II experiences in the South Pacific at Okinawa my young mind not yet understanding world geography mixes the two together in a sort of romantic way Okinawa is Lake Obenoff, Lake Obenoff is Okinawa.  I didn’t know. 

Grandmother Pyykkonen’s two story grey, tar shingled house, with outside TV antenna reaching above the roof and two large willow trees in front is our base camp for adventure.  The TV attached to the tall antenna outside is never on when visiting why, I never ask instead Dad’s sister, Florence, lives not 25’ from Lulu’s home, and does use her television which “the four of us” are welcomed to watch.  The stations to choose from come out of Houghton, Marquette, Rhinelander, Wisconsin, and one out of Thunder Bay, Ontario Canada the latter, beamed across vast Lake Superior, adds an exotic touch to the Copper Country.  Behind grandma’s house a pile of field rock from land cleared by immigrants for farming provides a fortress like playground for us and, with adult supervision allowed to toss some of the rocks into an abandon well.  Out here in this remote region spring mud and winter snow can be a problem in the home, the first room entered is the mudroom where outer garments and boots are removed.  Stepping inside there is a stairway to the upstairs to the immediate right the cavernous kitchen welcomes us with linoleum L-shaped counter, appliances, and only one window for sunlit, a circular fluorescent light in the ceiling with greenish glow and constant hum contributes.  In the days before refrigeration holes were cut into the cool ground to store perishables grandma’s is located where the kitchen merges into the dining room with it’s four by four cover cut from the brown, red, and white linoleum floor.  The dining room with table accommodates 12 people and shares space with the oil-burning furnace that heats not only the lower level but also the second floor through open grates in the ceiling.  The heater is peculiar because of a ring of fire I constantly stare at through the glass access door that is nothing like ours at home which is downstairs out of sight and mind.  It is the dinning room that, after trekking up and down the Keweenaw Peninsula looking over remnants of boom towns that we all come together for that tasty Pasty diner and other home cooked meals from Lulu’s kitchen. 

After diner the adults gather in the living room to recap the day or catch up on family news “the four of us” listen or thumb through grandma’s photo album.  The pictures are of family and friends of her youth some of the people look stiff, stern in heavy winter coats contrasted against the deep snow they stand in, one captured young hockey players, others record various outings.  Once as I studied these images the blast of a freighter’s horn echoes through the black Copper Country night from three miles away as it passes through Portage Canal.  Startled, goose bumps overcome.  The adult conversations go on late into the evening and one by one the four of us head up creaking stairs to bed sometimes diverting and hover over a heating grate listening to muffled voices and the wall clock below, tick tock, tick tock.  “The attic” is our bedroom and a fun room ofcollected items including Uncle Raymond’s World War II gun belt and helmet, memories all around, under the beds as well as between them. 

The tracks running in front of grandmas provide a footpath to adventure and discovery the morning, since the air is cool, fresh as if all passed through a cleansing filter during the night, is the best time.  Whether we walk north toward Houghton or south towards Painesdale where the grade is steep we never know what is around the bend ahead:  someone out for a nature stroll, black bears, or even a train.  On one venture we are off to Mill Mine Junction a terminal, one mile from the house that directed freight trains to the mills or mines.  On the southern edge of town individuals are in conversation that sounds like it is coming from the brush a feet away, we stop and listen.  Moments later it is determined the chat is coming from nearby Ontario Road 400’ to the east!  Upon reaching this once busy area nothing but ruins of rock foundations, scattered debris, and a junction being reclaimed by nature.  On another walk east of Ontario Road across an open field void of timber a big sky vista is before us, as a cement trench is discovered and upon close examination the trench(similar to those used when changing car oil) was used in the maintenance of locomotives.  In the early morning one day in base camp a sharp, loud, blast of an approaching train’s horn sounds down the line, the screen door of the mudroom flies open and four excited kids race trackside to meet the inevitable treats thrown from the caboose by the conductor.  Five long minutes pass and no train Aunt Florence stands close by concerned facial expression saying don’t get on the tracks but four curious minds win the day and, looking both ways, spy a train dead in its tracks 600’ down the line to the northeast.  Eight little feet race down the tracks taking advantage of a golden opportunity, Aunt Florence bringing up the rear, the engineer graciously shows the train to four thrilled kids and one relieved aunt.  Over the next hour it takes to get the train moving any type of nature disaster couldn’t have moved us and, as the train, now repaired, started back on its journey the conductor, keeping with tradition, tosses candy out a caboose window.  Other trains zip by in ground shakingawe, but nothing beats the time when four out-of-town youngsters where in the right place at the right time to tour one these beasts of burden. 

Sadly, our two weeks in Shangri-La is over and we pack up for and early exit home.  The following morning Dad backs the Chevy wagon out and onto Atlantic Avenue with grandmother and Aunt Florence waving goodbye.  This is the somber part of the trip I dread heading downstate but in my luggage is a copy of the Daily Mining Gazette newspaper to keep the Copper Country alive throughout the year:  the strong breeze off Lake Superior, the sound of silence, Fort Wilkins, and that vitalizing, pure air.  Mmmmmmmmmmmmm

The family trips to the Hinterland continue until 1977 when Lulu Pyykkonen passes away ending two eras at once.  Between 1977 and 1980 I drive to Atlantic Mine on my own to visit relatives and for a fix of stimulating air, once with friends to pick up some of Lulu’s furniture for Mom and Dad, and out of curiosity spend one week during the winter, magic.  That winter, 1978/79, a record snowfall of 390.4” fell which is just over 30’ an average for winter is 187.4” or just over 14 feet.  Today, I reside in southern Washington State and on morning walks with my dog Smokey Joe the only sound is of the wind fresh and cool, it is the land calling.  I stop to answer and am back on the Keweenaw atop Brockway Mountain, listening to distant cars along Atlantic Avenue, or marching down abandoned railroad tracks of Atlantic Mine, moments pass, then Joe tugs on the leash and we move on. 

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