Some new miners to Copper Country knew little, learned less

Copper Country's past and people

Early in 1843, Charles H. Gratiot was contracted by DeGarmo Jones, of Detroit, to explore a number of mineral leases for which he and his business associates held permits from the federal government.

Gratiot arrived in the Lake Superior copper district in June, 1843, with 10 Cornish miners, and explored a tract that embraced Eagle Harbor, but found nothing of value. As he and his team were winding up their explorations there, geologist Columbus Christopher Douglass arrived to assist him.

Almost as an afterthought, Jones sent Gratiot a geologist, and Douglass, also of Detroit, was an excellent choice. Douglass, a cousin to State Geologist Douglass Houghton, had worked as an assistant to Houghton on his 1840 survey of the Upper Peninsula that included Keweenaw Point. C.C. Douglass was very familiar with the copper and geology of the region.

While Gratiot was winding things up at Eagle Harbor, Douglass explored another tract, and located what looked as though might have been a promising vein in the west bank of the Eagle River that he felt was was worthy of a closer look.

He showed it to Gratiot, who directed his miners to poke some holes into the vein for a better look. At the end of the season, Gratiot and his miners returned to Vinegar Hill in southern Wisconsin, and Douglass returned to Detroit to report the season’s discoveries to DeGarmo Jones.

He must have been impressed, because on Feb. 22, 1844, the Lake Superior Copper Company was incorporated, with Jones, David Henshaw, and Lemuel Williams as the corporate board. Gratiot became agent for the company. As soon as the shipping season opened, Douglass, Gratiot and his miners were back at Eagle River, further exploring the vein.

In July, David Henshaw showed up with his own contract geologist, a Charles T. Jackson of Boston. It was Jackson and Henshaw who sealed the new company’s doom. For some reason that remains unclear, Douglass was made subordinate to Jackson. That was Henshaw’s first fatal mistake.

Douglass did not seem to care; he was getting paid. Jackson went off to examine the lodes and veins Douglass located, and Douglass had found some very good veins — very good veins. At the end of the season, Jackson wrote his geological report, and his opinions, to the trustees.

“This is the most important and valuable of all the locations belonging to the company yet discovered,” Jackson wrote of the Eagle River site.

This is where Henshaw’s second fatal mistake occurred: he took Jackson at his word without having Douglass confirm Jackson’s opinion, which is what it was: just an opinion. Judging by subsequent mining activities, Jackson simply had no practical knowledge of native copper veins. In fact, no one did, but Jackson could not allow himself to be just another geologist.

Gratiot was supposed to be an experienced miner from the lead districts of Galena and Wisconsin. His father had been one of the pioneers of both the Missouri and the Galena lead districts. But evidently, he did not know any more than Jackson, and Jackson did not know any more than Gratiot.

“At this random (sic) a flat floor has (been) put in and the copper taken out,” Gratiot wrote in a Jan. 25, 1845, report to the trustees, “and in its place a soft soapy substance, resembling the stuff that Mr. Hays was getting out of the shaft at Copper Harbor.” Neither Douglass nor Jackson left record of having identified the soapy substance.

Various reports from the mine to the corporate office together paint a picture of the alleged vein being elusive, and always dipping to the west. Varying in mineral content and quality, between Oct. 22 and Jan. 15, Gratiot had sunk three different shafts, trying to find the richness of the vein Jackson convinced everyone was there, just waiting to make men rich beyond their wildest dreams. Gratiot kept poking holes in, and thrashing around the rock formations looking for it.

Douglass probably knew the reality by early spring. But, he was no longer getting paid to know anything, so he kept his mouth shut, while Jackson, now showing signs of a declining mental stability, still insisted the mine was richer than even the Copper Falls vein that Douglass had located. Apparently Gratiot still did not know any more than Jackson, even when others not associated with the mine had figured out what was going on at Eagle River.

“They say this mine,” stated the Aug. 21, 1845, Washington City’s Daily Union newspaper, “is a deposit mine of native silver and copper in pure trap-rock, and no vein at all; that it presents the appearance of these metals being mingled broadcast in the mass of trap-rock; that, in sinking a shaft, the constant danger is, that while a few successive blasts may bring up very rich specimens of the metals, the succeeding blast or stroke of the pick-axe may bring up nothing but plain rock. In other words, that, in all such deposite mines, including deposition of diffused particles of native meteals, there is no certainty their permanent character. How far this mine will extend through the trap, or how long it will hold out, is a matter of uncertainty. Indeed, time alone will show.”

Time showed. After investing more than $105,000 in the Eagle River mine location, including two stamp mills designed by Jackson that failed, the Lake Superior Copper Company closed its mines, sold its properties, liquidated its assets, and went out of existence. Another company purchased the Eagle River tract in 1849, and relocated mining to the cliff a bit further west of the river, and opened the Phoenix mine.

The Copper Falls site was also purchased, re-organized into the Copper Falls Mining Company, and with geologist Samuel Hill as agent, became one of the most successful mass copper mines in the Lake Superior copper district. In the end, neither Gratiot, nor Jackson had lived up to their reputations.