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  • Mikah Meyer

There's, Copper in Them There Hills!

Unit #21 / 412 - Keweenaw National Historical Park

When we hear of boom and bust towns in America, gold and the American West likely come to mind. But what if I told you that same history existed east of the Mississippi?

Such is the story of the Keweenaw Peninsula. A peninsula, within a peninsula, within the peninsula of Michigan.

"Have I been pronouncing the city correctly?" I asked a tour guide in Houghton. "I guess that's how people knew I wasn't from here."

"Oh, they knew you weren't from here long before that!" he chuckled.

It's true the "Yoopers" have a pride for their Upper Peninsula reminiscent of the way Texans love Texas, but the Keweenaw seems to be the Dallas of that love. Proud to be a Yooper first, but with an understanding that their section of the peninsula is the true gem.

It's a devotion that has existed for generations, from the early immigrants who came here for a better life, to their descendants who still live here today.

"Every member of my family has worked in the copper mines," our guide shared at the beginning of our tour at Quincy Mine--one of the many privately owned attractions that make up this national park site.

As she listed off the ethnicities of her personal heritage, it was a mix of the same countries we'd just read about at the NPS Calumet Visitor Center.

Finland, Italy, Wales, Poland, Germany...

The Keweenaw became a microcosm of Northern Europe, all existing harmoniously together with their fraternal orgs, churches of varying denominations, and native languages so they could mine this area which was the only place in the world containing commercial grade copper that wasn't mixed with alloy.

One of those towns was Calumet, a place more or less built by one company.

The Calumet & Hecla Mining Company ran the largest of all mining operations in this peninsula which in 1869 provided 95% of the United State's copper. Perhaps the predecessor to companies like Google/Facebook who attempt to make work life so good their employees won't leave, C&H wanted to make their community strong so their workers wouldn't unionize. Funding schools, churches of varying Christian denominations and town halls, C&H was invested in keeping their families around to pass along the family trade.

It was hard for me to believe working 10-hour shifts with a 1-hour commute via ladder each way, 6 days a week, in a cave lit only by candlelight would be a better life for immigrants of the 1800s, but compared to countries where they were either shut out from opportunities like owning property or drafted into militaries by occupying nations, it was actually a privilege to make a decent wage holding a metal rod as your son/brother/father swung a sledgehammer and hopefully hit the rod--not you.

But while C&H built their municipal-commercial enterprise, just as the gold rush boomed and busted, so too did copper. Technology, drained natural resources, and cheaper mining in the western U.S. changed this once thriving area to a current one where residents "do what they can to stay here" according to a video at the NPS Visitor Center.

But the ghost town of Calumet, and the over 22 destinations that make up the Keweenaw National Historical Park, can serve as more than a reminder of how immigrants, labor strikes, and corporate paternalism played out in America's first mining town. If anything, in an America that is becoming increasingly polarized by its residents' differences, it serves as an example of what America once proudly trumpeted: a place where people of differing backgrounds could come together to create the community they'd once dreamed about somewhere beyond the deep waters that reach this peninsula.

5 Keweenaw National Historical Park Highlights (You Can Do)!

1. Calumet Visitor Center

Not only is this a free attraction, but it contains $10 million dollars worth of development to create the museum which tells the Keweenaw's history.

I was initially a little confused about the purpose of this park, but the museum told the story in both entertaining and educational ways.

Start here before doing any other parts of the park.

2. Take a Mine Tour

While the Visitor Center did a good job of educating me on the region, I didn't really feel it until I took the Quincy Mine tour. Driving me 360 feet under the Highway 41 I'd driven to get there, this 1 mile deep and 2 mile wide mine was the 2nd best performing mine after C&H--earning the nickname "Old Reliable" for paying its investors dividends every year from 1867-1920.

Having once removed a 300-ton piece of copper, the size of a school bus, this tour was not only visually impressive, but allowed me to feel what it was like for a 19th century miner (wait till they turn off all the lights). Emotionally, it was powerful to hear the trade's financing, and how, as the tour guide said, "Everyone who got rich off this mine never even saw it."

3. Walk Among the Ruins

Whether the ghost-town feeling city of Calumet or abandoned mine buildings, it gives you a tactile chance to experience what America felt like in the 1800s.

This train was used to plow snow as it moved.

4. Visit a Mineral Museum

Want to see examples of everything mined from this "U shaped" rich mineral deposit? Visit the A.E. Seaman Mineral Museum on the campus of Michigan Technological University.

5. Explore a Peninsula...inside a Peninsula...inside a Peninsula

With the Historical Park's sites scattered throughout Copper County, a visit to this national park allows you to experience the topography of this lake-surrounded region en route to the attractions as far northeast as Copper Harbor.

Pack a lunch and enjoy a picnic on a Lake Superior beach, or if you're brave, jump in and cool off!

Upcoming Units (COMMENT with recommendations please! What should I do at each park? Local interesting detours? Food stops?)

(Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota)

-Grand Portage National Monument

-Mississippi National River & Recreation Area

-Pipestone National Monument

-Voyageurs National Park

-Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site

-Theodore Roosevelt National Park

-Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site

-Apostle Island National Lakeshore

-Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway

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