Face of copper production changes

Copper Country's past and people

The face of copper production had changed in the Lake Superior copper between 1915 and 1935, even if many area residents hadn’t noticed. Geological realities and new technologies were responsible for those changes.

At Calumet and Hecla, geologists and engineers had figured out back in the 1890s how many years the Calumet conglomerate lode could be mined profitably before its mineral content was no long economical to mine.

Meanwhile, C&H President Alexander Agassiz was mindful of the tailings from the company’s stamp mil, which had been unceremoniously dumped around the mill and into Torch Lake since the mid-1860s. Processing technology at the time could liberate up to 75 percent of the copper from ore being crushed in the stamp mills, but that left 25 percent of the available mineral bound up in the sands piling up on the shore of Torch Lake and around the mill. Starting around the turn of the century, Agassiz began applying his scientific mind to finding ways to extract that last 25 percent. For C&H, that 25 percent would be a substantial amount of copper.

For the first 20 years or so after mine operations began in 1864, the ore averaged more than 100 pounds of copper per ton of rock. Tailings nearest the mill then contained more than 20 pounds of copper per ton of mill sand. The sands created later, and consequently farther away from the mill and at greater depths of Torch Lake, were calculated to contain an average of nine pounds of copper per ton.  This was actually more than content of the Quincy Mining Company’s ore. Under Agassiz’s leadership, C&H would begin mining copper from its previously rejected stamp sands.

Agassiz once said, “With men and money, you can do anything.” His initial desire of wanting to reclaim the copper lost in tailings resulted in the company’s Reclamation Plant which, according to C&H hydrometallurgist C. Harry Benedict, was second in economic importance only to the conglomerate lode, as far as the company was concerned.

Benedict recorded that the Reclamation Plant actually consisted of five separate units, and therefore, five separate stages of processing. First was a dredge, which literally sucked sands from the floor of Torch Lake. Next was the shore pumping plant and classifying house. Then, a regrinding plant, a leaching and distillation plant, and finally a flotation plant.

While this new technology was, well – technical – it was profitable. The year the plant operated, 1915, 181,732 tons of sand were processed, yielding 1,582,802 pounds of refined copper, for a profit of $187,562.04. Equipped the Reclamation Plant, C&H had placed itself in a position to brace itself against the closing of the conglomerate mine. In 1939, the year the conglomerate mine was permanently capped, the Reclamation Plant produced 16,865,000 pounds of copper at a profit of 5.18 cents per pound while the market price stood at 10.51 cents.

Eleven miles to the south at the Quincy mine, no such new technology existed to extend the life of the company. As the Great Depression slowly waned, the Quincy Mining Company seemed to continue on out of sheer tenacity – or greed. Operating now from only shaft Numbers 6 and 8, the mine operated more out of pride than profit, or it seemed. General Manager Charles Lawton, always severely underrated by the company board, continued to keep the exhausted mine operating on a profitable basis, despite impossible odds. First opened in 1856, the mine’s Number 2 shaft had reached a depth of 9,200 feet on the incline, before it was abandoned permanently in 1936. By 1940, the mine was deep, it was old, and its 19th century technology was antiquated. For example, while other mines were moving toward electrically powered hoisting engines, Quincy stubbornly clung to steam power. While the board offered its argument defending its position on the matter, the arguments were weak. The bottom line was the directors would wring the last dime out of the operations before spending a dollar to modernize the facility. In short, they preferred to turn a fast nickel rather than a slow dime.

Farther south, the Copper Range Company followed a similar path to C&H. With the loss of their Baltic and Trimountain mines, the Copper Range was now limited to just the Champion for its survival, at least in the Copper Country. However, the company had purchased a copper fabricating company, C.G. Hussey and Company of Pittsburgh. As the Great Depression receded, Copper Range focused more on its new acquisition and less on its Copper Country holdings. While Copper Range would supply its fabricating plant with copper produced at the Champion mine, it would soon need other sources of raw material.

While the mining companies focused on either their longevity, as did Copper Range and C&H, while Quincy focused on dividends, the last thing on the minds of company directors was the survival of the communities in the Copper Country which had sustained their mines since the 1840s. The local communities were forced to formulate their own agendas for survival which, in Keweenaw County, was tourism, while in Ontonagon County it was largely fishing, logging, and agriculture. In Houghton County, it had become the Michigan College of Mines.