Sam Hill and Copper Falls mine: Success from two failures

The Lake Superior Copper Company failed, simply stated, because an inexperienced management blindly accepted the opinions and instructions of an incompetent geologist, Charles T. Jackson of Boston.

In his initial report to the company trustees, Jackson mentioned the copper vein at Copper Falls discovered by Joseph Hempstead and Columbus Christopher Douglass in 1845, on Lease Number 9, a vein Jackson referred to as “Vein No. 5.”

“Vein No. 5 is considered next in value to the Eagle River veins,” Jackson wrote, “and may be wrought after those have have been satisfactorily been explored, for the results at Eagle River will shed light on the nature of the copper deposits, and will prove the metalliferous value of the region.”

They did neither.

Because so few records of the Lake Superior Copper Company survive, it is difficult to ascertain what exactly occurred in regards to the Copper Falls vein between 1845 and 1849, but in early 1846, Lease No. 9 was set off from the Lake Superior company. The Copper Falls Company was organized and in 1846. This new company, under the same trustees as the Lake Superior company, began exploring the Copper Falls vein, with or without Jackson’s approval or consent.

An adit was driven, four shafts were sunk, and at a depth of about 50 feet, a mass of copper was discovered that weighed seven tons. Other, but smaller, masses were also uncovered. Within two years, the company, of which Joshua Child was agent, had built several houses and offices around the mine, as well as purchasing and installing machinery for pumping water from the mine. A two and a half mile road from the mine to Eagle Harbor was also cut through and built.

In the fall of 1849, the Lake Superior Copper Company, owner of the Copper Falls mine and those at Eagle River, ceased to exist. Work at Eagle River was stopped and the property was sold to the Phoenix Mining Company, under president Cyrus Mendenhall. The Cliff mine was sold to a newly organized company under John Heard, with headquarters in Boston.

Under the new ownership, Child was kept on as agent, and he was instructed by the directors to continue with mine developments begun under the previous management. Following the mine drifts previously opened, exploring upward and creating stopes, Child either lost the vein, or it petered out; he wasn’t sure which. After exploring different areas around the vein, Child was directed sink another shaft and extend adits from it. It didn’t work. in 1850, he gave up. He discharged the miners and suspended operations. The Copper Falls mine didn’t look promising after all. President Heard blamed Jackson for Child’s failure.

“The great error was in commencing a mine without a proper geological examination of the territory,” he stated in his 1852 annual report to the directors.

Samuel Hill, legendary for his excessive use of profanity, was a practical geologist with an intimate knowledge of the geology of the Lake Superior District, who preferred to conduct his own surveys and examinations, arriving at his own scientific conclusions. While some had argued, and continue to argue to this day, that Jackson had relied more on Douglass Houghton’s reports and field notes than on his own examinations, Hill didn’t really bother to take the time to read Houghton’s reports and notes. But that was largely because he had contributed heavily to them as Houghton’s assistant on his geological surveys of the state. The Copper Falls Company entered into a contract with Hill, who would neither rely on Jackson’s reports nor Child’s explorations.

Hill, who the annual report stated was “imminently qualified for the work,” was to make a thorough exploration of the of location, Lease No. 9, but the winter and its snows rendered any explorations impossible. The following spring, however, Hill located a vein that he was hugely satisfied with, which was a half a mile west of the vein Jackson said was so valuable. Hill was so impressed with it, in fact, that he didn’t wait for approval from the directors before he, with four men, opened the vein and began developing a new mine. The directors, in turn, were so impressed with Hill’s work, he was retained as agent at the mine.

By the summer of 1852, Hill had 63 contract workers at the mine. There is something interesting in the details of the annual report: of the 63 contract workers, 40 were miners, and 10 were wheelers and windlass men. It indicates that Hill was conservative in his expenditures, and would wait until sales resulted in profits sufficient to purchase horses or engines for hoisting. That the report mentions wheelers is indicative of this, also, for wheelers were contracted to haul ore and mine rock from the drifts to the shaft, using wheelbarrows. He had not laid tracks for tram cars yet. There were also two blacksmiths, two carpenters, and a teamster, a surface man, two shingle makers, two sawyers, in addition to a clerk and an assistant superintendent. There were now 14 houses, a blacksmith shop, a carpenter shop, a store house and the office.

After two failures, the Copper Falls mine was finally on the verge of taking its place among the districts largest producers.