I stood in the damp, cold, blackness of the Quincy Copper Mine, overwhelmed by a feeling of gratitude. Gratitude for the hardscrabble men who worked long, dirty shifts without weekends off and OSHA regulations to keep them safe. I thought about the women and children who waited above ground everyday, holding their breath until their husbands, fathers and sons came home safe at night. We owe our modern America to these hardworking people of the past, who built this country with their hands, sweat and lives.
Before the gold rush out west, there was a copper rush in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in the 1840s. Until the early 20th century, the U.P. was a leading producer of copper in the U.S. Known today as Copper Country, the western U.P. is dotted with hundreds of old mines. Many are just ruins. Haunting reminders of the booming industry that once thrived among the pristine rivers, lakes and forests. A few of the old mines have been preserved for history’s sake. The Quincy Copper Mine in Hancock is one of those.
The Quincy Copper Mine sits high on a ridge, overlooking Portage Lake on the Keweenaw Peninsula, just a few miles from Lake Superior. The towering Shaft House is one of the first things you see as you arrive at the mine. Here men were shuttled as deep as 9,100 feet underground, down the world’s deepest shaft, to extract copper from volcanic rock.
Today, you’ll start your visit to the mine in the No. 2 Hoist Building, which houses museum exhibits about the mine’s history.
Next, you’re asked to put on a hard hat for safety. It’s also wise to borrow one of the many coats to keep warm while in the 50 degree shaft.
From there, a cog wheel tram precariously transports you down a steep hill to Shaft No. 5 on the seventh level of the mine.
A tour guide explains what it was like to work in the mine, demonstrating and explaining different types of equipment, like the pneumatic drills that revolutionized the industry.
The guide turns off the lights to show how dark and lonely the mine was. Imagine your lantern goes out. There aren’t any other workers nearby, and it’s so dark you can’t see your flint to relight it.
Back on ground level, you’ll see and learn about the world’s largest steam-driven mine hoist, built in 1918.
The Quincy Copper Mine is also a testament to the genius of America’s architects and engineers during the Industrial Revolution. Buildings at the mine are beautiful examples of early 19th century American architecture, built to impress visiting investors. I marveled at all they accomplished without the technology we can’t seem to live without today.
There’s also an example of a typical company home miners shared with their families. Many families were first and second generation immigrants who lived modestly. The long hours in the mine provided just enough for food and clothing. The tough conditions fostered multi-cultural friendships, unusual for that time, between Cornish, Italian and Finnish families.
History books talk a lot about wars and the people who fought and died for our country’s freedom. There are thousands of biographies about founding fathers, politicians and captains of industry. But the record seems to mostly leave out the everyday Americans who quietly rolled up their sleeves and helped build the infrastructure that made war victories, western expansion and the industrial revolution possible. The Quincy Copper Mine reminds us of what those folks contributed. We owe today’s America to them.
What to Know if You Go:
- Open spring through fall. Check the website for hours and days.
- Full tour admission is $25 for adults and $10 for children.
- Plan to spend at least two hours at the mine for the full tour.
- Wear long pants and closed toed shoes if you plan to go down in the mine due to cold, wet conditions, even in the summer. Bring a jacket if you don’t want to wear one provided by the mine. You will be required to wear a hard hat while in the mine.
- They have a wonderful gift shop with a large selection of Copper Country handmade items, educational materials and souvenirs.
- When the tour is over, head directly across the street to Four Suns Fish & Chips for some of the best fresh whitefish on the Keweenaw. Owned by the family that runs the next door Peterson’s Fish Market, they catch their own fish in Lake Superior every day.