Copper mining here imitated model in Cornwall

Copper Country's past and people

MTU Archives This 1853 Leslie’s Weekly illustration depicts the horse whim used at the Cliff Mine.

Some mines in the Lake Superior copper district were developed in a period of years, where as it had taken the copper and tin mines of Cornwall in Great Britain centuries to achieve the same efficiency. This was largely because the Lake mines received the benefits of an industrial revolution begun in Cornwall some 130 years before the Treaty of La Pointe opened the lake district to mining.

Lake Superior mines also received the expertise of mine workers who literally grew up in the mines of Cornwall. The Cornish had spent centuries developing deep-shaft, hard-rock mining, the process evolving slowly as its mines went deeper. It was common for many to begin working in Cornish mines as young as eight years of age.

Cornish miners brought with them to the Lake Superior district the skills necessary to extracting ore from a mine, including ways of drilling holes at proper angles and depths, and the proper ways by which to pack the holes with black powder to blow the rock loose onto the mine floor. They also brought with them the expertise of the application of steam power.

The Lake Superior mines were opened at a point in time at which they were at the forefront of the American Industrial Revolution, but smart company directors listened when their Cornish immigrant mine agents and mining captains instructed them on how to proceed. That included avoiding costly expenditures before the vein being explored proved its worth and value.

The Cliff Mine, owned by the Pittsburgh and Boston Mining Company, opened in 1845, and almost immediately the lode proved its worth. Still, its management proceeded very cautiously. Between 1949 and 1850, the production of copper decreased significantly, but it was not due to diminishing mineral content.

“It is due, therefore, to the stockholders,” stated the Cliff’s annual report of 1851, “that the directors should briefly allude to some of the causes which have produced this result.”

One of the causes, the report stated, was simply a lack of hoisting power as the mine went deeper. During the one-year period, the mine’s No.1 Shaft increased in depth from 276 feet to 310 feet. Up to that time, hoisting had been done with a horse whim, which was a large wooden drum on a vertical axle, to which one or more horses were harnessed. Around the drum was wound either chain or rope, which was attached to a large iron bucket that was referred to in Cornish terminology as a kibble.

The same technology was used in Cornish mines until the early 18th century, when Thomas Newcomen developed a steam-powered atmospheric engine for pumping water from a tin mine in Devon, Cornwall in 1712. Steam power quickly evolved after that, and found practical applications in other industries, which triggered England’s Industrial Revolution.

At the Cliff, the whim was replaced by a “steam engine of great power,” in 1849, the annual report stated. The cost of the engine and its assembly, excluding shipping, totaled just under $6,000. For comparison, the annual earnings of a miner during that period averaged $360.

“The Cliff Mine may now be said to have been worked for a period of four years,” the report stated. What is interesting to note is that the mine had operated for four years before the directors finally converted from primitive to modern technology. Long before the order was placed with the manufacturer for the steam engine, the mine had been thoroughly developed and was profiting, yet it still relied on a horse whim until the whim impeded production.

John Slawson was the agent at the Cliff Mine, and Curtiss G. Hussey and Thomas Howe were among the six directors. Hussey and Howe were also on the Board of Directors of the Northwestern Mining Company. And while Slawson was appointed agent at this mine as well, the venture ended in failure, because it did just the opposite of what was done at the Cliff.

The Northwestern was organized in 1845, and re-organized three years later. Between 1845 and 1852, the company sank four shafts and opened a 1,250-foot adit. In 1852 the company finally shipped its first mineral, which yielded just two-and-a-half tons of refined copper. But at the same time, the directors went ahead and purchased and erected a 12-head stamp mill, and a steam hoist and machinery for the No.4 Shaft. The company had opened the vein on too many points and invested too much capital in steam technology before the mine could prove it worth or value. After exhausting repeated assessments, and $228,000 of its capital stock, the directors dared not call in another assessment, and work at the property was stopped. Had the directors allowed the agent and the mining captain more time to explore the mineral vein, they could have determined whether it was worth further development or not, and further capital investment.

The success of the Cliff, and the failure of the Northwestern, is more attributable to the directors than copper veins or the agent, for while Slawson was agent at both mines, he was also the man who discovered the vein upon which the Central Mining Company was organized in 1854. Slawson, Samuel Hill, Abel Bennett, John Robinson and Waterman Palmer, all local men, purchased the property, and Hill, a geologist who had worked under Douglass Houghton on the 1840 geological survey of the Upper Peninsula, was appointed agent. Slawson and Bennett were both experienced Cornishmen, both grew up working in Cornish mines, and both knew their business. Hill was a college-educated geologist with experience in the formations of Lake Superior copper rock.

As at the Cliff, at the Central, the company moved ahead cautiously. A horse whim was erected to service the two shafts that were dug, and just three houses were built. Available capital was reserved for development of the mine. As a result, the Central Mine enjoyed the status of being the only Lake Superior copper mine to pay a dividend in its first year of operation. Once the vein had been explored, and proved its richness, only then did the company abandon its primitive horse whim and advance to steam.

The advantages were obvious. Steam-powered hoists were more powerful than whims. They could hoist faster from greater depths, and could be operated around the clock, which vastly increased the amount of rock coming from the mine to the surface.

The mines of the Lake Superior copper district relied almost exclusively on skill and technology developed in the Cornish copper and tin mines. Those men who worked in the Lake Superior copper district from its early years, witnessed something probably few realized they were seeing. In working the Lake Superior mines, they saw, in a matter of years, the evolution of thousands of years of Cornish deep-shaft, hard-rock mining compressed into the development of such mines as the Cliff, the Central, the Quincy, and the Minesota.

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