Mining began in Ontonagon before Revolutionary War

Copper Country's past and people

For as much as we have discussed mining activities on Keweenaw Point, one might conclude there was no activity anywhere else in the Lake Superior copper district. But that, of course, is not the case.

For example, while Col. Charles Gratiot was exploring the copper and silver deposit on the Eagle River in 1844, the Ontonagon Copper Company was organized to explore two mineral leases, one of which was on the Ontonagon River, and included the spot on which the Ontonagon Boulder was located and removed by Julius Eldred in 1843.

The explorations conducted by the Ontonagon company were definitely not the first on this tract. It was on the bank of the Ontonagon River, opposite the copper boulder where British fur trader Alexander Henry attempted mining in 1771.

Henry might have been a good trader, but he was a terrible miner. The men he retained to open the mine were not miners, either.

They started an adit into the clay bank of the river but did not properly support the excavation, and it caved in. According to Henry’s narrative, the men barely survived the cave-in, then nearly starved to death while waiting for him to return in the spring of 1772.

This debacle ended attempts under the British to mine copper. This may have partially been due to the Revolution, which occupied the British until they were defeated by the French and colonists in one of the greatest upsets in military history.

The Ontonagon company explored the vicinity in 1845-46, and while they did find evidence of Henry’s diggings, they found no more copper there than Henry’s men had 74 years earlier.

The company’s men did, however, manage to locate copper near a ridge along the river when they discovered some open-pit mines dug thousands of years earlier by ancient miners. A few amygdaloid lodes veins were also discovered on the property, and the mine operated until 1853, when it became part of the Forest Mining Company.

It is sad that so little remains of the Ontonagon Copper Company’s historical record, because conducting archaeological work on the site is impossible. Today it is under the water of the Victoria Dam.

The Ontonagon Company was not alone in failing to find copper. The United States Mining Company began operations the same year as the Ontonagon, 1845, and searched until 1852. Like the Ontonagon, it found no copper.

The Ontonagon company was taken over by the Forest Mining Company in 1852, which was organized in 1850. This company conducted exploration and development of the Cushin Mine in 1849.

The Forest company, in turn, was unable to make a profit from either the Ontonagon or the Cushin mines. These mines were taken over by the Victoria Mining Company in 1858. To confuse matters more, another mining company was established when the Forest Mining Company set off a mineral tract on which the Glenn Mining Company was organized in 1852, which also absorbed by the Victoria Mining Company.

Although many companies were organized in the Ontonagon district, and many of them failed, not all of them did. The line of ancient open-pit mines found by Samuel Knapp in 1847 became the greatest mine in the Ontonagon River district and the second most famous copper fissure vein in the world, the Minesota Mining Company.

The owners and agents of the Minesota mine would find the same problems with the district that earlier companies did. One of the worst difficulties with the Ontonagon region was its natural topography.

The Keweenaw Point district was comprised largely of hills and cliffs, but it was much easier to penetrate inland from the lake shore than was the Ontonagon district. Few of the copper veins exploited in the Ontonagon district were located on easily accessible places, or near Lake Superior.

Just like the Keweenaw district, there were no interior roads in the 1840s. If a vein in the district was discovered, building a road to it could be a nightmare, and in many instances it was nearly impossible. The road was built from the mine site to a cleared landing on the river bank. The river itself was used as the main avenue for transporting goods to and from the mine to the mouth of the river.

For the first 10 years of its operation, the Minesota company relied on flat boats to transport copper to its warehouse at the mouth of the river and to deliver materials and equipment to the mine. Even then, the company built a road from the river to the mine site.

The Minesota’s next-door neighbor, the National company, organized in 1848, had the same problem.

In spite of transportation issues, the Minesota and National mines would become two of just three of the mines in the Ontonagon district that paid dividends to investors.

Mining started at the Minesota site in 1848. Just three years later, the company employed 150 men, who had extended the first level of the mine 1,000 feet across three shafts, each 160 feet deep, and had begun producing masses of copper.

The small cluster of log houses around the site quickly began to grow. The company set off a parcel of land and founded the village of Rosendale, which today is part of the town of Rockland.