Michigan mines tourist treasure THE PARK THAT COPPER MADE

July 16, 1995|By Jay Clarke | Jay Clarke,Knight-Ridder News Service

Calumet, Mich. -- Copper is the metal pennies are made of. It isn't as glamorous as gold or silver, but it certainly made a lot of people rich here on the Keweenaw Peninsula.

A half-dozen years before California's famed Gold Rush, the discovery of copper here in 1843 set off an enormous mineral boom. Thousands of immigrants, entrepreneurs and camp followers flocked to Keweenaw. Mines were dug, cities and towns established, roads and railroads constructed, ports dredged, fortunes made and grand homes built. For decades, most of the country's copper production came from this region.

Now, that heritage is being preserved in one of the nation's newest national parks, Keweenaw National Historical Park, established in 1992.

Long before the park was created, however, copper country was already attracting tourists. Homes and mine buildings had been preserved, museums established. So these have become what park superintendent William O. Fink calls "cooperating sites," and they are the nucleus of the new preserve.

The story these sites tell is not well known outside the Upper Midwest, perhaps because "copper rush" doesn't have the same attention-getting zing as "gold rush."

Nevertheless, the discovery of copper here sparked a rush that was as far-reaching as those that involved more precious metals.

What makes this region unusual is that copper was found here not just as an ore, but in its native form, which is to say, as the pure metal. "This is the only place in the world where commercially abundant pure copper has been found," said Mr. Fink. Hundreds of millions of tons of copper were extracted here before the veins became uneconomic to work.

Only one mine, the White Pine, still operates on the Keweenaw, but there's still a lot of copper around. Shops in town and at the museums offer chunks of pure copper from the region, as well as souvenir goods made of the metal -- mugs, earrings, metal flowers, the usual tourist stuff.

You can even buy copper chunks at roadside stands; at one, two boys were offering good-sized pieces for $5 to $6.

Hundreds of mines once operated in the Keweenaw, and the peninsula is honeycombed with tunnels -- there are 2,000 miles of horizontal passages plus many vertical shafts.

One of the biggest mines was the Quincy, whose 150-foot-high shaft house atop the ridge above the city of Houghton can be seen for miles around.

Though it is no longer an active mine, it is open to the public. Visitors can descend into the mine, the deepest in the Western Hemisphere at 9,300 feet, just as the copper miners of old did every day. Far underground, the tour takes them into side tunnels, some of which lead to huge mined-out rooms called stopes. A separate building on the surface houses the world's largest steam hoist, used to bring the mined mineral to the surface. Its drum, 33 feet in diameter, looks like a huge, grooved child's top.

Near the tip of peninsula, another former mine, the Delaware, also welcomes visitors. Tours take visitors into tunnels where veins of pure copper can be seen in the walls.

Mines were scattered over the peninsula, but Calumet became the business hub of the industry. Situated totally within the park boundary, Calumet seems unchanged from its heyday around 1915, when 60,000 people made their home here. (Today, its population is only 10,000.)

Its downtown streets are lined with Victorian-era storefronts, a good number offering copper-themed items. A walking-tour brochure of the historic district is available at the visitor center on Highway 41.

Coppertown U.S.A., a mining museum in Calumet, provides a good overview of the copper industry here. Besides mining gear and operations, the museum also displays large nuggets of pure copper found in this region. Some weigh several hundred pounds.

But the crown jewel of historic Calumet is the Red Jacket Town Hall and Opera House, dating to 1886, which houses the restored Calumet Theater, a rococo dream decorated in crimson, cream, gilt and green. It presents 60 to 80 events annually, including theater, symphonies, opera, folk music and jazz.

Part of the neighboring town of Laurium, where the mining elite built grand homes, is also within the park's boundary. In addition to large homes dating to the turn of the century, Laurium is also noted as the hometown of Notre Dame's George Gipp, of "win-one-for-the-Gipper" fame.

Though all of Calumet and part of Laurium lie within the park, they and their businesses are not owned by the park service, nor will they be. Individual businesses will continue to operate as they have before.

Superintendent Fink calls the Keweenaw park "a prototype of what national parks will be like in the 21st century. There will be a federal presence, but it won't be dominant."

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