20th century marked distinctive change in copper district

Photo: pasty.net The remains of the long-abandoned Cliff Mine surface plant, in the early 1900s. The building in the foreground was the ore processing plant, indicated by the raised railroad (tram) trestle terminating in the upper story of the structure. The Cliff was typical of the early companies, in that it was a small corporation when compared to the giant conglomerates of the early 20th century. While the company remained small, however, director Curtis Grubb Hussey, used copper from the mine to created the first vertically integrated company in America.

Without the luxury of being able to sit down to coffee and talk with them, it is difficult to know for sure why certain men came to the Lake Superior copper district, or why they were so eager to invest so heavily in a region that had not proven itself yet. Some, of course, thought copper investing would yield quick returns, like gold. When they found out first-hand the opposite was true, they got out of copper quickly and found something else in which to invest.

Others got involved in copper on a whim, and something about it became addictive to them. They earned and lost fortunes, but stayed with it until they died. Just one such man was a New Englander named Quincy Adams Shaw.

Shaw’s many biographies make sure to mention he was a “Boston Brahmin investor.” A Boston promotional publication describes “Brahmin” as a very wealthy, 19th century Beacon Hill (in Boston) family. Many of these so-called Brahmin families descended from the original Puritan settlers of Massachusetts.

Quincy Adams Shaw, incidentally, was an uncle of a more famous Shaw, George Gould, colonel of the 54th Massachusetts regiment, the first combat regiment composed of former slaves, and immortalized in the 1989 movie, “Glory,” which starred Matthew Broderick.

“Quince” Shaw was married in 1841 to Pauline Agassiz, daughter of Swiss immigrant zoologist Louis Agassiz, whose son was named Alexander. Both Louis and son Alexander became world renowned zoologists in their time.

Shaw’s apparent claim to fame was his investment in the Calumet and Hecla Mining Companies in 1867, and he became president of the company when the two merged in 1871 to become the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company. C&H, however, was not his first investment, nor his second, and he lost heavily in the first two companies in which he invested.

Shaw was one of the major investors in the Quincy Mining Company in 1848, but the company was not immediately successful, and he lost heavily in the venture before the directors sold the company and got out from under it. It did nothing to dissuade Shaw from investing in other prospects.

In 1855, he invested, again heavily, in the Huron Mining Company upon its organization in South Portage Lake district, where Edwin Hulbert, a civil engineer and surveyor, was appointed the mine agent. Not learning anything from Charles T. Jackson’s 1845 rock milling folly at Eagle River, Hulbert erected a similar rolling mill at the Huron mine which, like Jackson’s mill, failed miserably. By that time, Hulbert was also managing the Calumet Mining Company, and was no more successful there than at the Huron, and when the Calumet venture was not profitting, Hulbert used funds from the Huron company to pay the Calumet miners, with the obvious results: Both mines economically crashed. Although Hulbert had discovered both the Calumet and Hecla veins, he lost his job as manager of both the Calumet and the Huron mines, lost his investment in the Calumet mine, and Shaw lost his entire inheritance when the Huron closed. Close to broke he, however, stayed with the Calumet venture, and it eventually reversed his losses and made him richer than he was before.

Horatio Bigelow was another eastern investor who seemed to have his fingers in many pies in the copper district, and was in for the long haul. Bigelow was secretary-treasurer, or otherwise involved in, several mines in the copper district, including the Phoenix, Central, and Copper Falls companies. Eventually, Bigelow and his investment group found real success with the Osceola and Tamarack mining companies, but like Shaw, initially lost heavily in several earlier investments.

There were other long-term investors, such as the Mason family who owned the Quincy Mine, the Adventure and some others in the Ontonagon district, but Shaw and Bigelow suffice for examples of the lot of the whole.

Was it money and greed that compelled this caliber of men? Was it an addiction to high-stakes gambling? Or was it a collective case of ridiculously rich men with nothing real to do, looking for ways to feel important while stroking their egos? Was money the reward of investment, or a symbol of self-importance, perhaps?

As president of C&H, Shaw received $100,000 per year, plus another $40,000 as a director, stated the Brotherhood of Locomotive Fireman and Engineers Magazine in 1913. To put that into some perspective, while the average miner earned $30 per month, Shaw was paid the equivalent of 333 miners.

While $140,000 per year, minus stock dividends, was a ridiculous salary at the turn of the 20th century, it would make a man feel mighty important indeed to sit at a mahogany table in a black, leather chair in an walnut paneled board room, making decisions that would affect the richest non-ferrous metal mine in the world, and set policy that would control the lives of everyone working for the corporation or living on its property. It was, after all, the very epitome of American capitalism, and in the case of the Lake Superior mines, it would be very easy for corporate directors to see themselves as gods, or at least on a equal status with the Medieval nobility, who controlled large tracts of land and the people who lived on them.

Directors were the heaviest investors, and held the majority of the corporate shares, which is how they became directors. They set policies at and in the mine, made the financial decisions, determined the wages of employees, rental house and land lease rates, and whatever other decisions they felt necessary or desired.

By 1901, the Lake Superior copper district had changed dramatically from what it had been in, say, 1848, when the Cliff, Copper Falls, and a few lesser mines were operating. None of them were huge, corporate conglomerated giants.

In 1848, the Lake Superior Copper Company in Eagle River went broke and sold its property to the Phoenix Mining Company. The Quincy Mining Company was organized to mine a mineral tract atop the hill above Portage Lake.

By 1901, the small independent companies were gone, for the most part, replaced by hostile corporations like the Isle Royale Consolidated Copper Company, which had purchased or taken over the mines in and around Houghton and Dodgeville, including the old Huron Mine. The Quincy Mining Company had acquired the Pewabic and Arcadian companies in a hostile takeover, and had purchased the Franklin Mining Companies property. On the south end of the district, several small mines were grouped together to form the Michigan Mining Company.

With the rise of these giant, eastern funded corporations, the Lake Superior copper district lost much of its early identity and personal atmosphere that had existed in the early days when managers from the Cliff Mine were trying to learn copper mining from the Eagle River mine, who was learning from the Copper Harbor mine, who was learning from the Eagle River mine. The turn of the 20th century marked a drastic and significant departure from the pioneer years of just 50 years before.