Mining leaders, learning from each other as they went

Many times we have discussed the isolation and loneliness suffered by the pioneer residents of the Lake Superior copper district. What tells us about them are what are referred to as primary sources: letters, documents, reports, newspaper accounts, company records, etcetera, created by the people who were present at the time.

But to a historian, there is never enough information, never enough documents, letters or photographs. In the absence of more, existing documents can be read closer, compared and contrasted to reveal more clues, more details, more evidence, and a new perspective. Or just clarification.

For instance, while the labor class may have been isolated and confined to one mining location or another for long periods of time, there is strong evidence to suggest that the “leading people,” as John H. Forster liked to call them, were quite mobile, which in turn suggests still more detail regarding conditions in the region in the mid-1840s.

William Pettit, a stockholder of the Pittsburgh and Boston Copper Harbor Mining Company, was the superintendent of the Cliff Mine when it began operations in 1845. In 1847, the Journal of the Franklin Institute published an article written by him, in which he briefly discussed the Lake Superior Copper Company’s workings on Eagle River, about five miles from the Cliff Mine. He mentioned a specimen of copper from the Eagle River Mine that weighed seven pounds.

“A beautiful specimen,” Pettit wrote, “fell under my own observation.”

He went on to discuss the milling machinery on the river being erected.

He then discussed descending a shaft at the Copper Falls Mine to see a 10-ton copper mass being mined, and how it was being done.

The contents of his article make it clear that Pettit was given a tour of the mine at Eagle River, as well as the surface plant, then went on to visit the Copper Falls location. Pettit was in communication with other mine managers, engineers, mining captains, and others. When his article is compared to other documents, such as “A Brief Account of the Lake Superior Copper Company,” Charles T. Jackson’s reports to the same company, and reports of the Copper Falls Mining Company, they combine details to allow us to know that Pettit visited these mines in the summer of 1846. But they suggest something far more significant: Pettit was looking for guidance.

Pettit at the Cliff and Copper Harbor, Charles H. Gratiot at Eagle River, and Joshua Child at the Copper Falls Mine, were not functioning as heads of competing companies. They were a small group of men put into a wilderness, on pure native copper formations that the mining world said did not, and could not, exist, and which left world-renowned geologists baffled. These men were on their own, and were trying to learn from each other.

In a January 1845 report from Gratiot to his directors, he wrote of a “soft soapy black substance” in his mine at Eagle River, “resembling the stuff Mr. (John) Hays was getting out of his shaft at Copper Harbor.”

Gratiot was mining native copper and silver in a basalt rock formation, while Hays was mining copper oxide in a conglomerate rock formation overlaying basalt. Yet, in both shafts being worked, the “soft soapy black substance” appeared in both rock formations, in different copper. Gratiot wrote that he thought Jackson had examined it, but said nothing more on the topic. Nobody knew much of anything, and they were looking to each other for answers.

When Gratiot gave Pettit the tour at Eagle River, Pettit paid attention to the milling machinery Jackson had designed and erected. The mill failed the summer they erected it, and Pettit learned from Gratiot.

When milling became necessary at the Cliff Mine, Cornish drop stamps were selected and installed.

This is why the Cornish and Irish mine workers and their skills were so valuable to the early ventures. They knew how to access a mineral lode, either vertically, horizontally, or at an incline. They knew a mine needed a minimum of two shafts, one for production and one for mine ventilation. They knew stone grinding wheels, while good for grinding cornmeal or flour, were not adequate for mine rock. Gratiot and Jackson learned the hard way what the Cornish and Irish had known for 200 years.

The entire mining system adopted in the Lake Superior region was transplanted, with modifications, from Cornwall and Ireland. That included mining techniques, engineering, and what went on above ground. Company physicians, medical deductions, milling practices, contract terms, both below and above ground, even housing rental, in the case of the Irish, was influenced by Irish practice.

In every applicable situation, gravity was used to a miner’s advantage. Gravity saved time in picking rock up, it decreased the need of labor and machinery which, in turn, reduced expenses. Overhand stoping was one example.

This method of stoping demanded mining teams drill upward. One miner would hold a long steel drill, and his two teammates would take turns striking the end of the drill, swinging an eight or nine-pound sledgehammer upwards over their heads. Once the desired number of holes were drilled into the top of the stope, the holes were packed with black powder and blown, or “blasted.”

This technique was physically demanding, but it was a preferred method, because it allowed the rock to fall to the floor of the mine, where it could be removed by trammers, who hauled it to the shaft.

After the blast was completed, the next team of miners could stand on the rubble on the floor, more easily reaching the top of the stope to continue drilling. If it was mass copper, in many mines, once the mass was dislodged, it was left to copper cutters to cut the mass into smaller pieces while the stopers moved on. What became of the copper after it was extracted and cut up was not the miners’ concern.

Once up and out of the shaft, it was the responsibility of the “grass hands,” or the surface workers.

But much of this had to be learned on a trial-and-error basis, just like Gratiot and Jackson had learned with their crushing mill that operated with stone rollers rather than iron-shoed stamps.