Thursday, July 5, 2012

King Copper -- La Roche Verte

Located at the eastern tip of Copper Harbor, the Voyageurs called it La Roche Verte -- the green rock. For hundreds of years or more the size and distinction of this rock served as navigational aide first to Native canoeists and later to Voyageurs alike.

Then came Douglas Houghton, Michigan's 1st State Geologist and his 1840 expedition to see what was what along the shore. Accompanying Dr. Houghton was the 28 year old Charles Penny, a onetime merchant from Detroit and one of two folk along for the ride who kept a detailed personal journal of perhaps the most significant expedition in the history of the Superior Basin.

From this rock, all things that followed flowed.


On Friday July 3rd, 1840, Charles Penny wrote:

...proceeded early in the day to Copperas Harbor, distant four miles. This is probably the only place on Lake Superior that will ever be of value for its minerals. (No soothsayer he, eh?) The Doctor...wishes to open the vein a little below the surface of the water...The vein at the water's edge is about twelve feet wide and rises to a height of four or five feet.

Over the next few days, Douglas Houghton and his crew blasted away at La Roche Verte, moving some tons of rock, which is why today this fabled spot looks like this:

Look closely to see the copper

On Wednesday July 8th, 1840, the expedition departed for points farther west and Copperas Harbor fell silent. For a time. Through illness, Douglas Houghton struggled to complete his report on the expedition, which brief was issued in 1841. In his journals, Houghton sent out both a clarion call and issued a warning:

(In the Keweenaw)...the copper ores are not only of superior quality but also that their associations are such as to render them easily reduced. Then, in a foreshadowing of what was to follow, Houghton warned the speculators:  ...look closely before the step is taken, which will most certainly end in disappointment and ruin.

With the State of Michigan in great financial difficulty, Houghton's report languished. Determined, in 1845 he organized an additional survey, this time funded by the Feds. It was during this expedition that on October 13th a small boat carrying Houghton & two companions overturned in the Lake during a storm near Eagle River. The three men drowned, with Houghton's body not recovered until spring of '46, when his remains were taken to Detroit and he was afforded a hero's burial.

Houghton Monument in Eagle River


The first great mineral rush in America's history began in 1843/44 on the Keweenaw Peninsula, not 1848 at Sutter's Mill, where the discovery of gold led to the California Gold Rush so celebrated in story & song. Besides, it was only gold discovered in the tailrace of Sutter's Mill -- mere wealth with which to buy stuff. On the Keweenaw was found copper. From that industry sprang, electricity was delivered and wars were won.

Such wealth is far greater than any amount 'o gold in them thar hills.

Following hot on the heels of the 1842 Treaty of LaPointe in which the native Ojibwa conveniently ceded most rights over the Upper Peninsula to the U.S. Government, the Feds opened a mineral land office agency in Copper Harbor. In quick succession Fort Wilkins was built to protect commercial interests and those interests followed when the Pittsburg & Boston Copper Harbor Mining Company set up shop in Copper Harbor and began to dig.

They sunk two shafts into the ground adjacent to the Fort and removed a quantity of copper oxides but by 1845, with $25,000 invested and only $2,968 returned, the effort was abandoned.

As was the Fort, which has since been restored.

Turns out, both Charles Penny and Douglas Houghton were right, as far as it goes. Copper deposits near the tip of the Keweenaw are black oxides of copper, the same sort then being mined in other parts of the world, notably Cornwall. The spare returns on the mineral and the remoteness of the region combined to make extraction economically unsound. The Copper Boom might have died right then & there, save for that the interest of larger companies with bigger investors had been piqued.

By 1845 they'd penetrated the wilderness and moved down the spine of the Peninsula in search of wealth. There they discovered the richest region of pure copper in the world. For the next 80 years or so, the rush was on. At one point, the Keweenaw supplied as much as 95% of America's copper -- right through the electrification of the nation.

King Copper born. The Keweenaw was transformed.

And with that, so were we.


  1. Enjoyed this post and the photos! I grew up in the Sierras of California, so naturally I was biased in thinking that Gold Rush of '49 was massive. Turns out that it wasn't as large, but it does color a nation's romantic notions. I enjoy learning about other regions in regards to minerals and history.

    1. Thank-you, for your kind words. The thing that interested me most during the fieldwork was tracing just how complex/contradictory our cultural narrative is. The Copper Boom was the first great mineral rush in the U.S., but the 49er's got the glory. Maybe that was because they struck gold not copper, but the raft of popular songs contemporaneous to the Gold Rush sure didn't hurt...