Multiple mistakes forced end of Lake Superior company

Copper Country's past and people

Charles Gratiot and John Hays were, to be blunt, the pioneers of mining in the Lake Superior copper district. They were the first to explore for mineral veins, agents of the first organized mining companies, the first to bring teams of miners into the region, and the first to engage in systematic mining. That’s pretty much where the similarities end.

Gratiot grew up in the Galena lead mining district, where his father and his uncle partnered to build a very successful mining and smelting firm that employed, for the most part, Cornish immigrant miners.

Hays on the other hand, was a soft-spoken Quaker and druggist from Pittsburgh. When Gratiot arrived on Keweenaw Point in 1843, he arrived with a team of a dozen or so Cornish miners. When Hays landed at Copper Harbor in the spring of 1844, he brought with him a team of German immigrant coal miners from Pennsylvania. One is left to wonder if the German miners had a rough time of hard-rock, deep-shaft mining, or if they found it preferable to soft-rock mining. One thing is certain: They found it different, and something they were not trained to do. The August 1908-July 1909 edition of the Colliery Engineer explained the problem.

“The driving of rock shafts and tunnels is very unlike the mining of coal,” the publication stated. “A different class of workmen, different foreman, and different tools are needed. It is seldom that a good coal mine foreman is also a good (shaft) sinker, and good sinkers, unattached, are not always easy to obtain.”

The magazine went on to explain the risks involved in using coal miners for ore mining: “In ore mines, the foregoing is not apply; sinking shafts is part of the day’s work, and all the miners are rock men, but in opening a new mine, the question of time is still to be considered. The loss of interest on the investment in a large property before it is developed may amount to several hundred dollars a day, and every day lost in sinking adds that much to the cost of the shaft.”

Coal miners, therefore, put Hays at a distinct disadvantage in the copper district. The difference between Cornish hard-rock, deep-shaft miners and German coal miners can be seen today in comparing the shafts and stopes of the mines around Fort Wilkins in Copper Harbor, and those of the Delaware Mine or the Adventure Mine in Ontonagon County.

Clearly, Gratiot had a very great advantage in employing Cornish miners. Yet, all the advantages in the world would gain him or his company nothing if the ground being mined contained little or no copper. It goes without saying that no copper was a serious drawback. So, too, was the corporate structure of the Lake Superior Copper Company.

The Pittsburgh and Boston Copper Harbor Mining Company was organized with a full board of directors and a full complement of officers. The LSCCo., on the other hand, had no president or secretary, or even a board of directors. The company’s Articles of Association, in fact, stated that all of the responsibility for, and authority over, the entire corporation rested in the hands of just three men, who were referred to as Trustees, one of whom was David Henshaw.

Henshaw was a politician from Boston. A Massachusetts Democrat, he was the collector of the Port of Boston, a state senator, and a political appointee to the office of Secretary of the Navy, but the appointment was never confirmed by Congress. Henshaw was a man used to getting his own way, and he got it this time in the person of Charles Thomas Jackson, a physician, mineralogist, chemist and geologist, who was also from Boston.

Jackson was arguably the most astute and perceptive geologist to have studied the copper district. But he also could not be wrong. It was just beyond his ability to be mistaken. So, when Jackson recommended mining on the copper vein at Eagle River, he would become the captain to go down with the ship.

Jackson claimed that the vein at Eagle River was the most valuable of all the veins found on the company’s mineral tracts. He went so far as to claim it was the most valuable in the entire copper district, and continued claiming that even after the Cliff Mine began producing mass after mass of pure copper weighing as much as 50 tons apiece.

Jackson did what any good geologist would have done: He examined the vein, saw that it contained copper, along with some silver, and advised Gratiot where to start a shaft, and Gratiot put his miners to work. To make a long story short, there was no vein. What there was a number of fluke copper deposits that contained flecks of copper in amygdaloid rock, but not enough to cover payroll. Still, Jackson persisted, claiming again it was the most valuable lode ever found. He ordered a stamp mill erected (which was not within his authority to do). Henshaw took it upon himself to sell all the mineral tracts in company possession, except the square mile on which the mine on the Eagle River was located, and some shoreline in Eagle Harbor. Unfortunately for the company, among the land sold was that containing what would become the Copper Falls Mining Company.

When the mining at Copper Harbor failed, the Pittsburgh and Boston company did not panic, because they still had the lease on which the Cliff Mine was operating, and they also owned the National Mine in Ontonagon County, which was adjacent to the Minesota Mine. The Pittsburgh and Boston company survived several decades, but because of delusional geologist and a poorly formed corporate structure, the Lake Superior company lasted just five years.