Thursday, December 8, 2011

King Copper -- Nonesuch

The special relationship between copper and people across the Superior region dates back at least 7,000 years because geology made it easy.  Ordinarily underground, around the lake and significantly along the Keweenaw fault, this easily worked metal was found on or just under the ground; casually discovered, easily accessed and put to handy use. Many of our most famous historic mines were first dug on prehistoric pits and those were first dug with tools of stone often lashed with hide to wood.

By the middle 1800’s, much of the Upper Peninsula was being stripped of its great forests. By the turn of the century, what the lumbermen left fell to the axe of folk that moved in after. Notable were miners, who needed wood not only to fuel the fires of industry but to warm hearth & home. Before long the landscape that once and again nurtures wilderness resembled post-nuclear catastrophe. But at the time, it looked only like progress.

During the great copper era of the 19th Century, dozens of working mines dotted the region and if you add the wildcatters and unnamed speculations, the number climbs exponentially from there. Despite the tens of millions of 1880’s dollars invested and the mountains of material hauled from the ground through the heroic toil of thousands of mostly immigrant miners, only a rare handful of operations ever sustained any profit at all.

That brings us to Nonesuch.

Image used courtesy of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources

Located at the southeast corner of the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, Nonesuch operated in fits and starts under five different owners roughly from 1867 to 1912. Its prime years were 1879-1881, when the mine is said to have returned a profit, however marginal.

The town built to support the mine peaked at perhaps 300 souls. Though little is known of cultural life specific to Nonesuch, there was a school, a boarding house, stores, a stagecoach stop and other trappings of small town life. Still, life for the workers and their families was hard and not just by modern standards. Nonesuch lost its post office in 1887, when the machinery at the mine was disassembled and shipped away to other, more likely ventures. While some folk stayed on and though the Calumet & Hecla Mining Company later dropped some 200 tons of equipment at Nonesuch to try again, it was all downhill from there.

The town of Nonesuch as it appears today

When I first went in to Nonesuch, the site was still privately owned but thoroughly abandoned. A friend said: “Watch for the sharp turn in the South Boundary Road. There’s short gravel to park on, behind the trees. Walk the old road and when the trail hangs a left, turn right and go down the hill. Keep your eyes open.” Our eyes were soon wide open because what litters that steep hill blanketed with dense forest are sights like this:

Huge dark stones mortared into thick, towering walls rise through obscurity in a wilderness that’s worked for more than 100 years to reclaim those stones for its own.

It’s hard to overstate the case for how special this place is. Walking that trail down that hill to catch first sight of the ruins of the Nonesuch mine is still akin an explorer caught unawares by remnants of a great race of builders, with only mysterious works of stone as evidence of their existence.

The problem at Nonesuch was that unlike most of the rest of the Keweenaw where copper was found in thick veins or even in boulders on the surface, this commodity was particularly fine and all but inseparable from within a bed of sandstone and underlying shale. The customary method of separating copper from poor rock in a stamp mill failed at Nonesuch. But where there’s a resource to be tapped, human ingenuity is brought full to bear.

During the 1880’s the Nonesuch Syndicate engaged in a radical process to recover the copper by dissolving the host rock in harsh chemicals, to cull the metal from the waste. Though the process later went on to great success, this first attempt failed.

Evidence remains of the chemical leaching process tried at Nonesuch

In the ‘Copper Handbook of 1902', Horace Stevens wrote of Nonesuch:

“Discovered in 1865, the mine was first opened in 1867, since which time it has swallowed several large fortunes, and has yielded the insignificant amount of 180 tons 1,072 pounds of refined copper from one of the richest beds of copper-bearing rock ever opened.

“The copper is there -- millions and millions of pounds of it, not worth a penny a ton in the mine. Someday the problem will be solved and a new crop of millionaires made from Nonesuch.”

And that, as they say, was that. I suppose those millions and millions of pounds of copper are still there. For certain, no new crop of millionaires has been made from it.

Today Nonesuch is protected by the Michigan DNR and the Keweenaw National Historic Park, which combined efforts help protect the last vestiges of regional cultural heritage before those are swallowed by time made harsher through abandonment and neglect. There’s never been a complete archeological survey taken at Nonesuch. Consider please, that the removal of artifacts at this or any historical site is the destruction of knowledge.  Not merely a crime by law, it’s a crime against our living cultural heritage.

So when you visit Nonesuch, be content to stand in awe of what the industry of our forebears left in their stead and of how the wilderness reclaims it now, right before your eyes. Sit quietly beside those sentinel walls amidst towering trees. Try to imagine what the place was like at its height -- the stench of caustic chemicals in the air, the sounds of axmen making constant fuel from dwindling timber, the persistent pounding of the stamp mill shaking the hill upon which it’s still perched and everywhere the sweat of labor and lives spent to little or no profitable end.

But most of all, listen for the voices of children. Life at Nonesuch wasn’t unrelieved, especially for them. 125 years ago, children ran this hill between these stone walls and down by the river the air rang with laughter.

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