Column: Optimism came hard to the Copper Country in WWI

By summer 1914, developments and advancements in steam, milling and mining technologies had combined to put the Lake Superior copper mines to break all previous production records.

At the shafts, the majority of the old second-motion friction-gear hoists had been replaced by much larger, more powerful, direct-acting hoists. On these modern hoists, referred to as winders in Cornwall, the hoisting drum was attached to the engine, or engines, making them more efficient — and safer. They could also operate in tandem; while the drum rotated in one direction, it could hoist a loaded rock skip up the shaft, while it simultaneously lowered and empty skip down into the mine.

These larger, more powerful hoists also significantly increased the sizes of the skips for increased rock tonnages being delivered to the shaft/rockhouses. Five-ton capacity skips were replaced with skips of six, eight, and even ten-ton capacity, often hoisting them at speeds approaching 30 mph.

The shaft/rockhouses, too, received significant re-design, configuration and engineering to increase efficiency in that department. A loaded rock skip was hoisted into the upper level of the building, where it was dumped onto an iron grate, called a grizzly, which was set at an angle. As the skip was emptied, smaller sized rock fell between the bars of the grizzly and into a multi-ton storage bin underneath. Larger rocks rolled and slid off the grizzly into waiting jaw crushers. When the rocks were crushed fine enough, they fell through the bottom of the crusher and into the same storage bin.

The bottom of the storage bin, elevated above railroad tracks, was equipped with chutes with gates that were controlled by compressed air. The chutes and their gates were engineered with such precision that when the gates were opened, they could allow rock cars passing underneath to be filled with such speed and efficiency that it was unnecessary for a locomotive to come to a stop during the process. Production at the mine now matched the rate at which the stamp mills could receive and process the mine rock.

The Quincy Mine, in Jan. 1910, reported that the method of handling rock in that company’s No. 8 rockhouse had been reconfigured resulting in an operating cost of less than three cents per ton of rock treated. During the year 1910, the Annual Report stated that a 12-inch by 18-inch rock crusher had been installed in the No. 6 rockhouse “for crushing the poor rock, as large quantities of crushed stone are needed for railway ballast and for concrete at mine, mill, and smelter.”

Technology underground had also improved, particularly in the area of pneumatic drills. The Annual Report of the Directors of the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company for 1912 reported that:

“After two years’ experiments with various types of drilling machines, the Leyner-Ingersoll one-man drill has been adopted as a standard for this lode, and these machines are being introduced as fast as practicable. The results are an increase in the wages of the miners and a decrease in the cost of drifting and stoping.”

By the outbreak of the Great War, the Lake Superior mines were producing more copper than at any previous time in their histories.

High mineral production came at a cost, however. Copper was not a renewable resource; the high profits paid out today came at the expense of the mine’s future. The region’s richest mine, the Calumet & Hecla, had already seen the rapid dropping off of copper content on the southern end of its mine, the Hecla Branch. The company’s Summary of Operations for 1904 remarked:

“The new openings of the pas year on the conglomerate belt in the vicinity of the Red Jacket Shaft have continued unsatisfactory. Rock mine in that district shows a decrease of about fifteen percent. The marked cutting out of the southern extension of our copper bearing ground has continued. We have abandoned all work of exploration in No. 12 Hecla Shaft (our most southern opening), and are taking out the pillars of No. 11 Hecla Shaft, not ground of value having been developed by the deepest openings of that shaft.” By the end of 1914, the work of removing shaft pillars and arches from that shaft had progressed upward to the second level from the surface. The annual report for that year still had license to brag, though. For that year, the company still produced 53,691,562 pounds of copper. The world renowned Calumet Conglomerate Lode was slowly running out of copper.

Company President, Alexander Agassiz did not concern himself with that at the beginning of the 20th century. He had been aware all along of the copper content still bound up in the tailings at the C&H stamp mills, which had been piling up since 1868. The search for the most efficient grinding, milling and other technologies to reclaim that copper was ongoing and showing positive results.

Of course, the directors of the mining companies placed their operations at the top of their priorities, but they still retained some sense of responsibility to their workers out in Michigan, along with the communities they had created.

Villages like Calumet, Laurium, South Range, Houghton, Hancock, Lake Linden, Ahmeek and others, had developed extensive retail districts that provided goods to residents that they otherwise could only obtain through mail-order companies like Sears. There were exceptions to that. Other milling communities, like Redridge, Edgemere, Beacon Hill and Freda, never did have stores, beyond those operated by their parent companies, which they did only out necessity.

The outbreak of the Great War in August 1914, disrupted the world copper market, forcing the companies to drastically curtail mining operations, which in turn compelled drastic reductions in working hours and wages. As always happens in times of war, however, the market quickly recovered and mining was resumed full-time early in 1915.

While the price of copper would assure high profits during the war, and the companies had the machinery and technology to produce record amounts of copper, what remained unsure was the availability of adequate labor to achieve the quotas directors set for the mines. Scarcity of labor was a problem the mining companies had faced since the labor strike of 1913, when thousands of the region’s best workers left the district to find work in other industries.


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