Early investment capitalists were not afraid of wilderness

Copper Country Past & People

Alexander Agassiz was by no means the first investment capitalist to explore the Ontonagon mining district. Nor could he or the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company be considered pioneers of the Lake Superior Copper District. The distinction of being referred to as “pioneer” is reserved to men like Curtis G. Hussey and partner, Thomas Howe, who first entered the district as early as 1845, when their capitalist team was just opening the Cliff Mine on Keweenaw Point. Cyrus Mendenhall was another pioneer, opening the Lafayette Mine in 1845. His Ohio and Isle Royale Mining Company held the majority of leases on Isle Royale and was involved with the Hussey-Howe group on Keweenaw Point, on a nine-mile square mineral lease that embraced Copper Harbor. Thomas F. Mason, whose group owned the Quincy Mining Company, was a pioneer developer of Ontonagon district mines, as well.

These investors were pioneers in the true sense of the word: “a person who is among the first to explore or settle a new country or area.” They came to do one thing but in trying to accomplish it, they were compelled to do something more. Let’s look at Hussey as an example.

Curtis G. Hussey was responsible for organizing the Aztec, Adventure, National, Ogima, Knowlton, Mass, and the Great Western mining companies, according to the Annual Report of the Commissioner of Mineral Statistics of the State of Michigan, for 1880.

Along Keweenaw Point (which in 1861 became Keweenaw County), Hussey was financially involved in the organizations of the Pittsburgh & Boston Mining Company ventures in and around Copper Harbor, the Cliff, North Cliff and North American mines, along with the Northwestern, and the Central and the Medora mining companies.

As James K. Jamison stated in his 1950 book, “The Mining ventures of this Ontonagon Country,” or the most part, the early investors were men who lived in the vicinities of four or five cities: New York, Boston, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, “with some from Detroit.” New York, Boston and Pittsburgh, at the time, were the financial centers of American business and industry, where investment capital — and capitalists — were available. Hussey was no exception. Many of the early capitalists never left their eastern cities to go and see what they had invested their money in — many, but certainly not all.

According to the Charter and By-laws of the Aztec Mining Company, its first annual meeting was held at the Cliff Mine, on Keweenaw Point, on Oct. 26, 1850. Hussey, Howe, A. W. Marks, James M. Cooper, L.W. Clarke (Clarke was also the secretary-treasurer of the Atlas Mining Company) and Augustus Coburn were elected as directors. All of those men, except Clarke, were heavily invested in the Pittsburgh and Boston Mining Company, which owned the Cliff Mine and the document recorded into the Charter and By-laws state unequivocally that they were present at the Cliff Mine and had gone to the Aztec property to inspect it for themselves.

The Albion-Manhattan Mining Company began mining in 1848, working on two locations, states the 1883 publication “History of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.” Capt. Richard M. Edwards was the agent at the Albion and, according to the Aztec documents, was either requested, or contracted with, to visit and inspect the Aztec location. Captain Edward Jennings, agent at the Cliff Mine, also inspected the location. Both of these men were experienced, Cornish miners who had grown up (literally) in mines. They both gave glowing reports of the property.

What they were looking at, at the Aztec location, were ancient workings of prehistoric miners, very similar to those that led to the opening of the Minesota Mine in 1847.

Coburn, one of the Aztec’s directors, had written a letter that is included in the company’s organizational documents that read, in part, “It is intended to sink a shaft on the big diggings (prehistoric mine).”

At the same time, Hussey’s group was also developing the National as well as the Adventure mines.

Like the Keweenaw district, opening the Ontonagon region was no small feat.

“The supplies for the mining district of the county are brought in by boat to Ontonagon, and are thence hauled in wagons over many miles of rough roads to the several locations,” wrote Charles E. Wright, in his Annual Report of the Commissioner of Mineral Statistics of the State of Michigan in 1879, “and in case of navigation closing before the necessary supplies have been got in, they must be sent to L’Anse by rail, and thence hauled through the woods with teams.”

“It is easy to understand how,” he commented in his report, “that a region so isolated and inaccessible, without railroad or telegraphic communication, combined with a ‘rigorous’ climate, should be slow to settlement.”

Jamison, some 70 years later, printed a similar comment: “What you had was a great wild hinterland in which a score and a half of little mining locations were isolated in the forest.”

This brings us back to our original point. In order to open copper mines, these early investors first had to open paths to them. In so doing, they opened the wilderness to development and settlement. As James K. Jamison and Wright, the mineral commissioner, alluded to, the entire Lake Superior Copper Mining District was a “great wild hinterland in which a scor and a half of little mining locations were isolated in the forest.”

Investors like Mendenhall hoped to profit from copper. Hussey, on the other hand, whether he was aware of it or not, was on a higher level. What Hussey wanted was the copper from Michigan for his copper and brass rolling mill, which he had established in 1849. His Pittsburgh mill provided specialty fabricated parts for a country investing in the industrial revolution. Hussey was willing to develop a mining industry, in a remote corner of the Northwest frontier, to advance American industrialization in settled regions. In this regard, Hussey was far more than a pioneer capitalist investing in copper mines. Hussey was an American pioneer investing in the expansion of a nation that was, in 1845, just over 62 years young.

The opening of the Ontonagon district, and its contribution to the American Industrial Revolution and nation’s expansion, deserve a closer look. We will continue this over next week’s coffee.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.62/week.

Subscribe Today