Geologists didn’t always get copper mining right

Native copper was, to state it bluntly, a geologic fluke. It did not occur in commercial quantities anywhere on Earth except in the Lake Superior copper district. Although its existence in the region had been known in Europe and the American colonies since the French had discovered it in the 1600s, most knowledgeable people who had seen specimens disregarded native copper as an absolute and isolated freak of nature.

As a freak of nature, however, native copper stumped many geologists.

Some geologists, like Douglass Houghton, Columbus C. Douglass and Samuel Hill, did not focus their studies so much on why native copper occurred, but rather on how much of it occurred. Could it be profitable? Was there enough to mine? Was it pure?

Other geologists, like Boston-based Charles T. Jackson, never did seem able grasp anything about native copper.

In 1845, Lake Superior Mining Company Trustee David Henshaw contracted with Jackson to inspect every copper vein C.C. Douglass had located on all seven leases held by the company. It is difficult to guess why Henshaw chose a Boston geologist to second-guess Douglass, who himself was a capable and experienced geologist.

Douglass was more experienced than Jackson regarding the Lake Superior region, because he had served under his cousin, Douglass Houghton, on his 1840 Upper Peninsula geological expedition. So had Sam Hill.

Either Hill or Douglass would have been better suited to Henshaw’s wants, and Douglass was already on Henshaw’s payroll. The capabilities of all three would become apparent in the copper district.

Of the many veins Douglass located on the LSMCo properties, Jackson’s report to the company trustees advised focusing on a vein located in the west bank of the Eagle River. Heeding Jackson’s advice, the trustees suspended exploratory work on another vein and focused all their investment capital on developing the Eagle River mine. In hindsight, it was an unfortunate mistake, because the vein they suspended work on was the Copper Falls vein.

Although Jackson had written a glowing review of the Copper Falls vein, apparently he did little more than examine the vein itself, ignoring the geology surrounding it. The next owners of the mine commented on that very point.

“Without any preliminary examination in reference to the geological position of the rock,” stated the 1852 annual report of the Copper Falls Mining Company, “mining was commenced near the point where the vein was discovered.”

Before the LSMCo sold the property to the next party, they had expended a great amount of capital without any return on the investment.

“The great error was in commencing a mine without a proper geologic examination of the territory,” the report stated. It went on to state that when owned by the LSMCo, the mine “was operated under instructions from the trustees.”

Henshaw, in trying to protect his investment, micromanaged operations, trusting himself more than the men he hired. Again, it is hard to second-guess Henshaw’s actions, but it can be safely argued he knew nothing about mining, because at the time, he was the secretary of the United States Navy.

When the new directors took ownership of the Copper Falls mine, they contracted with Hill to supervise the operations, demonstrating far more confidence in him than in Jackson. They left Hill alone to do his job. As history records, the Copper Falls mine quickly became very profitable under Hill.

Meanwhile, for the next four years, the trustees of the LSMCo focused all their attention and capital on the mine at Eagle River. The glowing reports of the vein written by Jackson proved to be very wrong.

The vein Jackson said was so rich in copper and silver was not a vein at all, but a bunchy pocket of mineral that broke the company. It sold the property in 1849, which then became the Phoenix Mining Company. The directors of the Pheonix Company disregarded any of Jackson’s reports and located a lode on the west side of the Eagle River, and operated until 1899.

To be fair, Jackson’s mistakes in judgment and examinations were not entirely his fault. The 1852 report of the Pittsburgh and Boston Company, which owned the Cliff Mine, summed up the Lake Superior copper district very well:

“The business of mining for richer minerals in this country,” the report stated, “is comparatively new and the character of the mine is entirely different from any which have heretofore been worked in any in any other quarter of the globe. Hence, from want of that experience, which time only can supply, many unexpected contingencies arise from time to time, causing vexatious delays and contributing to defeat what appears in advance to be well-grounded expectations.”

While some directors placed their trust in geologists, others placed theirs in their Cornish immigrant mining captains and agents. While their geology was, in most instances, amateur, it was their lifelong experience with mineral lodes that enabled them to trace a mineral vein.

It was Cornish mining technology that taught those in the Lake Superior copper — and largely the iron — districts how to efficiently open and develop hard-rock, deep-shaft mines. Today, most of the mining terminology used in discussing Lake Superior copper mines and mining originated with Cornish mine workers.

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