An unlikely mine developer in a mountainous wilderness

Copper Country's past and people

`Samuel Knapp grew up in a period when more value was placed on work than education. By modern standards, Knapp, like too many other children of the time, really didn’t have a childhood.

Born in Royalton, Vermont, Knapp was apprenticed to a woolen manufacturer when he was just 10 years old. In just two years, at the age of 12, he placed in charge of the carding department. By the age of 18, he was the superintendent of the spinning department, as well as the carding department. But like so many other children growing up in the New England textile industry, by the time he was 28, his health was ruined, primarily the result of nearly two decades of inhaling woolen dust and fibers.

Hoping to improve his health, he took a job keeping a hotel in Northfield. He apparently was a dyed-in-the-wool textile manufacturer, because not long after he became a hotel keeper, he went to Michigan to assemble and start machinery for woolen manufacture at the Michigan State Prison in Jackson. He became the superintendent of the prison woolen factory, but after a year and a half, he had apparently had enough of wool. In 1846, he went on a prospecting tour to the Lake Superior copper district with a group of men, and found himself in the Ontonagon copper district. He was in the employ of a group of New York merchants who were speculating in mining, and was actually sent to the Ontonagon to explore a mineral tract, known in the Mineral Land Agency ledgers as Lease 98. Looking over the property, he became optimistic over something or other he found, because he spent the winter of 1846-47 in the east, but late in the season, went to Detroit to gather supplies and mining equipment, and to recruit workers.

There was still snow on the ground in the spring of 1847when Knapp and his crew of 20 laborers reached the lease, 13 miles upstream from the mouth of the Ontonagon River. There, the ambitious Knapp did not wait for the snow to melt, when he began exploring the property. What he expected to find with the ground still buried in snow, is unknown, but he found a series of depressions, even through the blanket of white, while walking the face of a ridge. Again, he did not waste time waiting for the snow to melt, before he began examining the depressions. Uncovering one, he crawled into it to discover it was actually an ancient, open-pit mine, containing stone hammers and tools that appeared to have come from the Stone-Age, along with an enormous mass of copper at the bottom of the pit, broken off from its vein and sitting on a rotting timber crib.

Knapp reported his findings to his employees, who formed the Minnesota Mining Company. Why a group of New York investors wanted to name a mine in Michigan after Minnesota is a mystery, but in filing the paperwork, a clerk misspelled the name, and the venture was recorded into the legislative books as the Minesota Mining Company, and no correction was ever made. The newly elected Board of Directors appointed Knapp as the mine agent.

Knapp, to be sure, did not have any practical experience in mining, but his record amply demonstrated that whatever he lacked in experience, he made up for on the business side of a venture, and he applied himself to the job.

He was faced with the same dilemmas and challenges as every other agent in the Lake Superior mining district. Before he could open the mine, he must first open a road. And a housing community. And cord up cord of wood for fuel. For Knapp, however, this would be a bit more complicated than it had been for the mines on Keweenaw Point.

The Minesota site was 13 miles from the Lake. He possessed neither the resources, nor the men, to build a 13-mile road through rough forest to the Lake. He did, though, have the resources and men to cut a road through the woods, down the hill, to the bank of the Ontonagon River, which for the next 12 years, would serve the neighboring mines as the highway downriver to the Lake.

In 1853, the Mining Magazine provided a description of the company’s landing, as well as the road from it to the mine.

“Thirteen miles from the Lake, you arrive at the landings of the mine,” the magazine states on page 632-33, “and (you) are surprised to see a huge pile of mass copper lying upon well built docks, with apparatus for handling with ease four and five tons weight.”

The article goes on to describe well constructed roads, “rising up gentle slopes,” devoid of large rocks and “precipices to climb over,” obstacles the roads on Keweenaw Point were well known for.

Three years later, the same publication wrote of that the Ontonagon River was “navigable by flat boats for 20 miles, and all the mines situated within the vicinity receive the greater portion of their supplies, and ship their copper, by this means.”

With a keen understanding of the difficulties and expense of the company’s reliance on flat boats and ships that sank, Knapp also gave serious consideration to the site becoming as self-reliant as possible.

As forest was cleared away for the construction of dwellings and mining buildings, Knapp also directed the clearing of land for agricultural purposes.

“Rising up gentle slopes,” the 1853 magazine had stated, “you come upon moving fields of grain and oats — comfortable houses — the puffing of engines, and are surprised to find yourself in a village of 400. This is one of the mines, one and a half miles from the river — all around under cultivation.”

It did not Samuel Knapp long to become one of the ablest mine agents on the Lake. In building a site on which to mine and handle copper, he also kept focus on the duality of his position: to economically produce copper from a wilderness, while at the same time, keeping the workers and their families, content, comfortable, warm, and well fed.