Upper Michigan’s Copper Country

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Copper Nugget from Michigan's Upper Peninsula
Copper Nugget from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

People tend to overlook their backyards when it comes to collecting, but with the energy shortage (and the price of gasoline) one should try and find a place to collect close to home. I know, that’s easy to say if you happen to live in Butte or Bisbee, but what about Milwaukee or Chicago?

A trip to Upper Michigan and the Copper Country is the answer.  Whether your a fan of copper jewelry, or just love to collect minerals and rocks.  Situated on that long peninsula that sticks out into Lake Superior, it extends west as far as Porcupine Mountain State Park, and south as far as Baraga. The mines themselves line up on either side of M-26, and any pile of rocks you see can be a rockhound’s dream.

It would take a book to locate and describe all the different mines and their particularities. Since I’m not writing a book I’ll stick to the minerals I’ve found and the mines I’ve visited for the past two summers.

Here’s a list of the minerals you’re likely to find:

  • Copper: A metal detector is not necessary for finding copper. It occurs as round ‘shot” filling bubbles in the basalt, masses and sheets filling cracks, and as crystals. Look for rocks with a greenish color, those with an irregular shape, rocks which are cracked but don’t split apart, and in short, anything that doesn’t look like a rock.
  • Silver: Once you’ve found it there’s no mistaking it. It usually is found with the copper, and looks like silver.
  • Mohawkite: Actually a mixture of copper arsenides (domeykite, algodonite, and whitneyite). It’s metallic, silver to copper colored, but much harder and tougher than the metals. It’s usually found massive with. ankerite (a mineral resembling calcite). When it’s found with milky quartz, it becomes a valuable cabbing material.
  • Quartz: It’s found in vesicles (bubbles) and seams, Colored, clear, and milky; crystalline and massive. The easiest way to find good crystals is to look for seams of calcite. Sometimes between the calcite and the wall rock there is a layer of quartz. Dissolve the calcite away with acid, and you’ll have a nice specimen.
  • Prehnite: A pale green mineral usually found with calcite. Look for it the same way you would for quartz. When prehnite occurs with quartz, the locals call it “patricianite” and use it for cabbing.
  • Epidotc: Shiny dark green crystals lining vesicles in the basalt.
  • Datolite: If there was one stone that the Copper Country was most famous for, it has to be datolite. It’s not easy to find, but it’s worth the trouble to look for. It comes in round nodules with a cauliflower-like surface. It looks a lot like California howellite, but comes in colors, from white to chocolate brown, with the yellows and greens the rarest. Datolite also occurs in salmon red crystals in the fissure mines at the northern end of the district.

And now that you know what to look for, starting at the south end of the district, this is where to look.

Michigan Copper Deposit Ranges
Michigan Copper Deposit Ranges

The Minesota mine, near Rockland, can blame the misspelling of its name on an illiterate clerk who drew up the first company charter. It was one of the first paying mines in the district, and can trace its history back 2,000 years. The miners of the 1840’s. just located the old Indian pits and continued downward. It’s possible to find all the minerals on the list except mohawkite. Copper and calcite are the most abundant, and in some spots good crystals can be found. If you are up there in the Fall, climb to the top of the hill. The fall colors are terrific with the red maples, the yellow tamaracks, and the little pond reflecting them all.

The Mass mines and the Caledonia mine near the town of Mass have always been productive collecting spots. Good crystalline copper and silver can be found there, along with a lot of datolite. You’re also likely to find quartz, adularia, and calcite. The closest of these mines is right beside the old road to Greenland, and they extend back into the woods for several miles. Be careful of your car, the roads are rough, and it’s best to ask for good directions at the bank in Mass. The Caledonia mine was the scene of one of the few “disasters” in the Copper Country. The 80-year-old Caledonia was being reopened in the 1950’s when a gas explosion killed eight miners, so you see, it’s not only the coal mines that have gas. In this case the methane was formed by rotting underwater timbers in the old workings. Everyone knew that the gas was there, the miners said that the water was “carbonated” with methane, but none expected it would go off.

If your time is limited and you have to pick one or two! mines to visit, the Adventure is one to pick. Not only are there extensive rock piles to collect on, but there is also a guided tour of part of the mine, a campground, picnic area, and rocks for sale. Collecting is good, ip an hour I picked up a double handfull of copper without my metal detector. It makes you wonder how any of these companies made any ,money when they left so much copper in the waste. I would rate this tour above that of the other underground tour in the area. They take you all the way through the mountain, you come out the other side half way up the mountain with a panoramic view of miles. You’ll get to see an old Indian mine, and will be pretty much free to explore all you want on the surface.

I’m going to skip over the mines at Winona, Atlantic, Trimountain, Painesdale, South Range, and Baltic. They are not much different from any others, except that most of them are under lease and posted. Ask locally, and stay away from operating concerns. Some copper sulfides are found at the Baltics.

There is a story that the Isle Royal mining company almost went broke on their namesake island before they came over to the peninsula and struck the lode. The mines are near the town of Dodgeville in the same general area as the Atlantics, etc. Look for boulders seamed with quartz. Splitting them open will sometimes reward you with pockets of crystals. Seams of calcite may contain analcite and natrolite, of course there’s copper, and this is a good locality for datolite and patricianite.

Try to ignore the mines between Hancock and Calumet, collecting on them is forbidden. If your willpower is weak take the road along the canal to McLain beach state park, or the road through Lake Linden. Either way will take you to Calumet, one way past some good scenery and the other way past the county historical society in Lake Linden. Then once you have your fill of copper you can come back on 26 past the famous Quincy Mines. The Historical Society has preserved the hoist from the Quincy No. 2 mine, along with some of the history of the Quincy company. You’d never believe it but Quincy Mining Company is still operating, even though they haven’t mined an ounce since 1945.

The reason:  they invested in a few blocks of property in a city called New York. That shaft below the dilapidated shafthouse next to the highway is over 9,000 feet deep and contributed to one of the most successful companies up there. Temperatures down there must have been over 100 degrees, they were running out of ore, and their equipment was at its limit. So they shut her down.

From Calumet on north the mines belong to the Calumet Division of Universal Oil Products. What’s an oil company doing in the copper mining business? Well, it sure made a nice tax write off when the strike shut them down. Officially you’re not supposed to collect on their land, but unofficially you’re free to collect as long as you stay away from the properties which still have buildings on them, whether they look abandoned or not.

Michigan's Copper Mines
Michigan’s Copper Mines

The Laurium mine is one such “safe” collecting spot. Just south of Calumet on a little dirt road to a radio tower on the west side of the highway. The Laurium has just been rediscovered and is producing lots of crystalline copper, silver, epidote, calcite, and quartz. The minerals are easy to find, the little vugs are in almost every piece you pick up. The last time I was there it looked like a battlefield, with craters inside of craters. Don’t bother with a metal detector if you have one, it will just buzz continuously. The best way to find the good copper and silver is to find a spot in the area where everyone else has been digging, and go to work. I have had my best luck in holes at least two feet deep. There seems to be a layer of it down there somewhere. Why so much? The nearest anyone has been able to figure is that sometime after the mine closed a crew was sent in for some exploratory drifting, there was no processing equipment left, and so the material was just dumped. That seems to be the case, because the rich material seems to be much younger than that in the rest of the dump, which wouldn’t be the case if it were a stockpile from the operating mine.

Depressions and recessions hit these mines awfully hard and the project may then have been put off and forgotten. The copper of the Kearsarge lode for Calumet to Mohawk was mined through a total of 35 shafts by eight different companies. the names of the companies correspond to the names of the towns along the highway; Centennial, Kearsarge, Wolverine, Allouez, Ahmeek, Mohawk, and even Calumet.

Calumet is a boom town that survived the bust. Unlike so many Western towns that died with the mines, Calumet has survived. Take a drive through the town down the main street, then left a block and back in the direction you came. Look for the church at the south end of town, and the fire hall and opera house. These are massive red sandstone structures that do more than hint at the riches this town once saw. Turn right just past the “Centennial” sign to the Centennial No. 2 mine. Actually this is the location of the one and two shafts,but the number one has been covered for so long no one remembers where it is. On the rockpile you dan find the vesicle filling minerals such as epidote and quartz. Occasionally one finds datolite, and of course there’s copper.

If you (and your car) are adventurous, go out and look for the Kearsarge mines. Turn right on the Copper City road and right again past the gravel piles, (on the road, not the railroad) and from there you’re on your own. The Kearsarges are nothing special, so don’t feel too bad if you have to miss them. The Wolverine mines east of the Wolverine market are the same way as the Kearsarges and the Centennials. If you’ve seen one.

The Ahmeek mines are a different story. In a fissure vein between the number one and the number two shaft is a vein of mohawkite in milky white quartz. Called “spiderweb mohawkite” by those who cut cabs, these two were the only mines in the world who produced it. We’ve heard the same kind of story many times before: the stuff was no good as ore because of the arsenic content, so it was just piled underground. Some of it found its way onto the dumps and you might be lucky. The best pile to look at is the number one pile. At last word the number two pile was pretty well watched and still owned by C & H. However things do change. It may now be owned by the same company that runs the factory there; Copper Country Homes. There’s no harm in asking there. The mines dumps by the three and four shafts aren’t very productive; most of the good stuff was hauled away several years ago for reprocessing and what’s left is extra barren. And as with all of the mines on the Kearsarge lode there is copper, silver, epidote, quartz, prehnite, and some datolite.

Massive mohawkjte is found on nearly all of the Mohawk thines. The piles are practically in town, east of the highway. The easiest way to get to Mohawk from the Ahmeeks is to keep on the road that goes by the factory. It will come back to the main highway before.

The last productive mine on the lode is the Seneca (or Gratiot) mine. It’s north, of Mohawk, on the right, just past the railroad crossing, and before the sawmill. This is another place where half of the treasure is in the scenery. From the top of the pile you can see Lake Superior a long way off. If you can keep your eyes on the ground you will find more massive mohawkite, copper, silver, prehnite, and maybe datolite, natrolite, analcite, calcite, and maybe even some barite.

There are mines on theleft side of the road between Calumet and here, and a few on the right which I haven’t mentioned. These mines, with their rockhouses still standing, are “conglomerate mines.” While those of the Kearsarge lode mine their copper from a layer of basalt, the copper in the conglomerate mines, as you might guess, comes in a conglomerate. Few crystalline minerals are found in these mines, but the ore itself makes an interesting specimen. Imagine a red or green conglomerate cemented together with copper. These mines are now being operated by Homestake Copper Company, and at last word they don’t allow collecting.

North of Seneca the character of the mines changes. Some of the oldest mines in the district are up here, and the first dividend-paying mine in the U.S., the Cliff mine, is one of them. These mines are grouped under the classification of fissure deposits. This means the ore was found as a fault zone filling, rather than within the beds as were the lodes. The fissure deposits were richer but less predictable, and by 1880 most of them were played out. Very few people know it but these deposits spurred the first mineral “rush” in the U.S. Four years before the Fortyniners started for California, groups of equally adventurous men headed for the Copper Country. Of course, there were no hostile Indians and no cross-continent wagon trips. Just a few weeks on a boat from Albany or Cleveland. But there were swamps, and mosquitoes, and cold winters.

Along with the character, the mineralogy of the deposits changes. Crystalline minerals become easier to find, and the crystals are bigger and better. Even the datolite is crystalline, and others which were mostly massive down south, such as laumontite, natrolite, analcite, calcite, and quartz, are well-crystalined up here. The mines themselves are harder to find and, the best directions I can give are “ask someone”. If you’re prepared for a little off-road travel, look for mines like the Copper Falls, Petherick, Delaware, Clark, and Mandan. The first two are good for minerals, and the last are notcd for their massive datolite.

And here are a few thoughts if you’re still looking for something to do: Eagle River, an old harbor and mining town. Look along the dunes south of the river for remains of the part of town that burned a century ago. Copper Harbor; another old town. Find your way to the Estivant pines, the last virgin forest in the area. Ft. Wilkins;  restoration of fort built to protect the Indians from the prospectors. Hungarian and Douglas Houghton Falls in Lake Linden are disappointments after a long dry spell, but swell after a rain and in the Spring. The Michigan Tech, mineral museum is currently closed for repairs, but a portion of it is exhibited on the second floor of the school’s lihrary.

I feel obliged, before I end, to add a few words of warning. Even though the mine inspector and road commission have done a thorough job in sealing all the old shafts, a few remain open deep in the woods, and a few easily accessible ones open up in the Spring. So watch out for leaf-filled depressions near old piles, and funnel shaped depressions anywhere. The Keweenaw County Sheriff is friendly with strangers, and if you’re nice to him he may let you out in the evenings to watch a little TV.

The Copper Country is an all-year affair. In the Winter when the snow covers the rocks, there is still some of the best snowmobiling and ski touring around, with miles of trails and abandoned railroad lines. The Spring is short, the Summer mild, and the Fall beautiful. And even if you don’t collect rocks, there is lots to do!

Upper Michigan’s Copper Country, 8.5 out of 10 based on 2 ratings

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