Monday, July 30, 2012

King Copper -- The Cliff Location

The Pittsburg & Boston Mining Company's operations at Fort Wilkins failed in 1844. Undeterred, they moved lock stock & barrel down the Peninsula to a high rock outcropping deep in the wilderness. It was there that the economic potential of Keweenaw copper was first realized.

The Cliff Location -- Image Courtesy of the Keweenaw Digital Archives

In 1845, James Polk was elected the 11th President of these United States, which grew by one when Florida became the 27th State in the Union. We annexed Texas, which led directly to the Mexican-American War. The American philosopher Henry David Thoreau moved into his shack at Walden Pond and from his contemplation beside those placid waters sprang our ideas of a natural relationship between people and the landscape upon which they live.

The Cliff Location was first explored in 1845. That paved the way for everything that followed on the Keweenaw, as the hard rock greenstone bluff located some three miles from the lake held not merely poor copper oxides but the first pure copper to be found in abundance. The Cliff put the spurs to the Copper Boom when it became what's likely the first mining venture in American history to pay steady dividends to its investors. Financial success drew others and the potential for mineral riches led to the 1855 construction of the locks at Saint Mary's Falls, today known simply as "the Soo". With that, the natural resources of the Superior Basin were thrown open to the world.

The whole notion of mining for mass copper in the wilderness was so new that the folk at Cliff had to make it up as they went, going from manpower to horse power and water wheel to steam over the duration of the venture. The hunks of mass copper found in the Cliff were so large as to defy conventional means of extraction, with the largest of them weighing in at many tons, necessitating removal by pieces.

At its height, the Cliff location employed 850 workers. During its 25 year heyday, miners removed some 34 million tons of copper from shafts sunk up to a depth of 1,500 feet. It's company town was the first built in the Keweenaw. It had stores, sawmills, housing and two cemeteries. It tends to be simple and direct, what we can learn at cemeteries:

From a vintage 35mm chrome, probably of the Cemetery at Eagle Harbor

Though different ventures occasionally picked over the Cliff for some decades afterwards, viable production stopped in 1878, folk moved away and the town soon fell to ruin.


The Cliff Location Today

From the rock pile, looking towards the stamp mill site

Located just off the Keweenaw in Houghton, Michigan Tech offers one of the few Industrial Archaeology Graduate Programs LINK in the world. Truth is, had such a formal discipline existed when I was young (or had I known then that it did), I might've misspent my youth in an entirely different manner.

MTU is conducting ongoing research at the Cliff Location. I learned of that through an informative and entertaining Cliff Mine Archaeology Blog LINK, which I highly recommend.

In response to my inquiry, Project Archaeologist Sean M. Gohman graciously extended an invitation for me to visit the stamp mill excavation site and the couple of hours I spent there turned out to be a highlight of my time on the Keweenaw.

Image Courtesy of Sean M. Gohman

As an amateur I've been involved in work related to Industrial Archaeology for something like 40 years, but my interests have been almost exclusively aesthetic. On the other hand, Sean's worked his way through the discipline in a manner I'd not imagined possible and is now headed towards his PhD, so it's best we allow his expertise to lead our way over this particular Cliff...

Carol Griskavich, Alejandra Alvarez Jimenez, Sean M. Gohman

Why Industrial Archaeology?

Sean: Industrial Archaeology is unique to archaeology in that we are not only concerned with physical remains but also the written record...we must be historians as well as archaeologists. The time period of industrialization (1700's-today) was a time of colonization and exploitation, changes in labor and understanding of time (8 hour day, 5 day work week, etc), changes in gender roles and the shift to a consumer-based culture. This requires an understanding of much more than artifact analysis. You need to understand architecture as well. It's just such a holistic science. Nothing else compares. 

It's called archaeology but really it is trying to understand the modern world through a material culture. What people made, valued and used day to day during a period of time when more changes occurred than in any other period of human history.

Why Cliff?

Sean: The Cliff is significant firstly because it was the first native copper mine to make a profit...This gave hope to Eastern investors that you could make money here and invest in the Copper Country. This was the western frontier and the gold rush competed for investment dollars. The Cliff showed you could make it here. It was also the first to adopt steam technology on a large scale and then also build a community for its workers. It basically provided the template to follow (or learn from their mistakes) for the rest of the mines.

The old stamp mill here at Cliff is buried beneath stamp sands. When did that happen and how is that to our benefit today?

Sean: The mill was most likely buried during the 1890’s when Henry Warren built a smaller mill on top of the previous mill’s remains. It was easier to bury it and build atop than tear it all down and build again. This mill sat idle during the early nineteenth century. The copper contained within the sands (or tailings) acts as a biocide. Therefore organisms and molds can’t grown on the wood. Since the sand is porous is also lets in moisture. Combine these two features together and you have one helluva wood preservative.

-- Which would be why, while I was at the site, Sean and his team were busy uncovering a 150 year-old wooden barrel, complete with lid.


The work being done at the Cliff Location is conducted with the highest scientific rigor. Material removed from over a study area is stored atop plastic sheeting. The area is painstakingly uncovered, everything is inventoried, measured and photographed in place and then at the end of the season reburied -- to preserve the site intact for future generations.

The MTU program offers tours to the public. These folk care about the past in a way unique to our times and should we pay close attention to what they unearth, we might all enjoy a richer future. If you find yourself on the Keweenaw next summer, please consider a visit.

As it turns out, traveling overseas to the sites of ancient Greece isn't necessary, in order to dig up critically important human history...

Image Courtesy of Sean M. Gohman


  1. Hi Frank,
    Thanks for bringing attention to the Cliff.

    Just to be thorough, the archive picture of the Cliff Location is reversed horizontally. If you need the correct one let me know.

  2. Flipped, eh? OK then. Thanks for the heads up. I'll just go ahead and fix it, soon as I've the chance.

    Considering all that's gone on there and especially what's being done at the site these days, the visit to Cliff was a real highlight for me.