Explore Upper Peninsula Mines and Mine Museums
On a fall drive through the Upper Peninsula, the copper boom still echoes throughout the tours, scenic routes and historic sites.
Grab a hard hat, a heavy coat and sturdy shoes. For the next hour or so, you’re a copper miner in the Upper Peninsula, following in the footsteps of those who toiled here long ago.
The complete mine effect sets in on the full tour once you’re inside the shaft at Quincy Mine, where it’s dark, chilly (the temperature stays in the 40s year-round) and damp (water drips and pools). Only then do you begin to appreciate the physical and mental strength it must have taken to spend 12-hour days hammering, setting charges, blasting rock and extracting copper lodes.
Descending into an abandoned mine and touring mining museums connect visitors to the UP copper mining boom of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Keweenaw National Historical Park (KNHP) works with local partners to preserve many of these sites.
The industrial copper boom began in the early 1840s, when word spread of the UP’s copper deposits in the Keweenaw Peninsula, a finger of rock and forest projecting into Lake Superior. More than 400 companies staked claims in the area as people began flooding into a wilderness previously valued only by fur traders and loggers.
Immigrants from more than 30 nations came for mining jobs and stayed to raise families. The heady times continued into the early 1900s as demand for copper wiring in telephones and electric power grids tripled national copper consumption.
By the Depression, though, falling ore prices and industry changes forced most UP mines to close, triggering a mass exodus from company towns.
Located in the Keweenaw Peninsula’s largest modern town of Hancock, Quincy Mine ran for 99 years and was dubbed Old Reliable for consistent profitability.
KNHP partners with the nonprofit Quincy Mine Hoist Association to preserve the abandoned mine and provide tours (available through mid-October). Full tours start with the buildings above ground, including the No. 2 shaft hoist house, home of the world’s largest steam-powered hoist. The mechanism used to raise workers and ore out of the mine’s nearly 2-mile-long No. 2 shaft.
After visitors tour the surface buildings, they ride a cogwheel tram down the steep, wooded hillside. It’s like a slow-motion roller coaster ride—and a beautiful one when fall colors peak. An electric battery-powered vehicle takes the tour group through an adit (a horizontal entrance) to the No. 5 shaft. Inside the shaft, sights include early air-powered drills and a stope (a step-like excavation) dug before the Civil War.
From Hancock, drive about 35 miles on US-41 to Delaware near the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula. Delaware Mine offers self-guided tours (through mid-October). Though a tour takes less than an hour, it does involve a chilly, damp walk underground, so a jacket and solid walking shoes are musts. A flashlight helps illuminate darker recesses. Tours start with a prep video above ground, then it’s time to pick a hard hat and head down about 100 stairs into the No. 1 shaft.
A long tunnel provides a close look at where miners chipped away at the rock in search of prized copper. Signage explains what’s visible, including mining tools and remnants of railroad tracks. There’s even a designated place to picnic underground.
Above ground, trails lead past the ruins of the original pump house and hoist house, now interspersed with birch trees that have grown in and around the long-vacant structures. The high ground offers panoramic views of wooded hillsides ablaze in color. Visitors try their luck digging through “poor rock” (waste rock) piles for bits of copper. It’s not easy to spot. If that doesn’t pan out, the gift shop sells locally made copper items.
Delaware Mine, one of the region’s oldest, operated from 1847 to 1887. Though the mine provided workers with a decent living, it was never very profitable, despite having famed newspaper editor Horace Greeley (“Go West, young man!”) as an investor.
Most of the mine’s workers came from Cornwall in England. The Cornish miners get credit for introducing the pasty, a handheld folded meat pie they carried under their hard hats. The portable pasty stuck and became a signature UP food.
On the Keweenaw Peninsula, the Keweenaw National Historic Park Calumet Visitor Center in the town’s historic Union Building includes a mining museum. Calumet (formerly called Red Jacket), was once the center of UP mining. In its heyday, the Calumet area amassed a population of more than 30,000 and had visions of dethroning Chicago as king of the Midwest.
The town even built the Calumet Theatre, a lavish opera house (still operating as a live performance venue) that attracted world-famous performers. A moving exhibit in the mining museum recalls the 1913 Italian Hall tragedy, in which 73 people, mostly children, died in a stampede at a party for striking mine workers on Christmas Eve. The museum is open year-round, with limited hours in winter.
The Michigan Iron Industry Museum in Negaunee (9 miles west of Marquette), offers photos of everyday life in mining towns and a timeline of how mine work evolved. Outside, a trail connects the museum to the 47-mile Iron Ore Heritage Trail, which passes artwork, interpretive signs and relics of the region’s mining history.
Story by Gary Thompson