Day 15: Fort Wilkins State Park, Copper Harbor, Michigan
A cold rain continues to spatter against the pop-up roof this morning. Though snug and dry inside the Westfalia, we are beset by a growing sense of gloom today, only partly caused by the gray and wet skies. A hot breakfast helps a little, and we soon hit the road with coffee mugs in hand for a day of windshield touring. He cruise down the spectacular rocky coast along Hwy 26, the surf pounding Agate and Grand Marais Harbors, and motor into the small town of Eagle Harbor.
In the spring of 1846 a body washed up on this section of Lake Superior shoreline. The man’s boots bore the initials, “D.H.”, and word spread like wildfire throughout the Keweenaw that the famed Douglass Houghton had finally been found.
Before his life was cut short at the age of thirty-six, the good Dr. Houghton had already achieved a lifetime of accomplishments. Earning his medical degree at age nineteen (and a Bachelors degree in geology in only six months), he was instrumental in saving many lives during the cholera epidemics, and accompanied Henry Rowe Schoolcraft in the 1832 expedition to find the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River. Upon returning to his home in Detroit, no sooner had he cleaned the mud from his fateful boots than he was informed that in his absence he had been elected mayor; evidently his associates, knowing his popularity, had placed him on the ticket, and he’d won quite handily. He would serve two terms.
In 1837 Houghton was named Michigan’s first state geologist and three years later joined his old exploring buddy, Henry Schoolcraft, to survey the Keweenaw Peninsula. Dr. Houghton’s glowing reports of copper deposits ignited the rush to this area that would become the first and largest copper boom in the nation. Intensive surveys and mineral assessments were necessary to begin issuing land claims to prospectors and miners, and Houghton and his staff fanned out over the peninsula to conduct the work.
They labored long hours, and late into the season. On October 13, 1845, Houghton finished his work near here and, accompanied by an assistant, three French voyageurs, and his dog, Meme, set out for the mouth of the Eagle River to meet the rest of his survey crew. Superior’s mood soon turned foul with one of her notorious nor’easters, and she threw high winds and waves at the little party in their canoe. The voyageurs, who had been chosen for their famous skills on this inland sea, wondered aloud whether they should put ashore, but Houghton insisted they continue. The waves grew taller and steeper, threatening to swamp the men, and again the professional paddlers suggested they get out of the thick of things.
“Press on boys, press on,” Houghton replied. One of the doubtful Frenchies tossed him a life jacket (which he declined to wear), and moments later a tall wave struck broadside, broaching the canoe and tossing everyone into the icy water. One of the voyageurs was able to clamber atop the overturned canoe and pull Houghton out of the water, but a second large wave struck them again and scattered the party. Everyone made it safely to shore but the doctor and Meme …
One hundred sixty years later, almost to the day, Superior seems to be reveling in her deadly powers again. A howling wind makes the water look like a dark, jagged mountain range rolling ashore, and she throws green and icy waves up on the rocks and the foundation of Eagle Harbor lighthouse. There is a lingering sense of foreboding here, so we hurry back to the comfort of the Westy and motor up and over the stony spine of the Keweenaw, through autumn forests lush with color in the morning rain.
Due to the orientation of the uptilted geologic plates that form the Keweenaw Peninsula, all the best copper mining was to be found on its southeast flank. Here, as Houghton explained before his unfortunate demise, the edge of the Lake Superior basin was exposed at an angle of about twenty degrees, allowing access to the rich copper deposits to be found underground, so all the major mine sites of the Keweenaw were strung along this fault line. For a glimpse into the dark, subterranean underworld which drew so many here to seek their fortunes, we go to the Delaware Copper Mine and park the Westy on the tailings pile. Wearing ill-fitting yellow hard-hats (possibly made by Fisher-Price) we make our descent into the belly of the beast, down Shaft #1 a hundred feet to the first level of the mine.
Opened in 1847, the Delaware mine produced eight million pounds of copper over its three-decade life, and vast caverns have been excavated in the steeply slanted layers of stone here. When a vein of copper ore was found, the miners, working in two-man teams, spent five days a week hammering holes into the surrounding stone; one man held and turned the drill tool while the other hit it with a six-pound sledge hammer, driving an inch-and-half-diameter hole three feet deep. Saturday was “blasting day”, when the holes were carefully packed with black powder and ignited to blast loose the living rock; Sunday was a day of rest while the resultant dust settled in the mine shafts. On Monday morning, the rubble was sent up to the surface for sorting the waste rock from the richer ore, and the miners began drilling another inch-and-half-diameter hole.
Needless to say, it was difficult and dirty work, cold and wet and deep underground. Even with the low wages of less than twenty cents an hour, each man had to pay for his own supplies used in the mining process: candles, powder, fuse, even the drill steel. It wasn’t until about 1880 that pneumatic drills were finally brought in, but the Delaware mine closed within a few more years, its ore played out.
As we navigate the dimly-lit catacombs of the mine on our self-guided tour, skirting around shallow puddles and occasionally stooping so as not to conk our heads, we hear quiet rustlings and inhuman whispers from overhead. A bit unsettled, we prudently hurry on, and arrive in a large open cavern which can only be described as … well, cavernous. The high vaulted ceiling and sound-swallowing space, ominously lighted, invites cliched comparison to a grand European cathedral, but it really isn’t that large. More like a small Southern Baptist chapel, somewhere in rural Alabama. Underground.
We stand agog, admiring the creative architectural potential of blasting powder, until we hear the voices again, and this time they are louder and more ill-tempered. Disembodied voices are one thing, but angry disembodied voices are quite another. The beastly scoldings and chatterings soon grow even louder and more aggressive. We have no flashlight with us so must rely upon our overactive imaginations to determine their source, and the frightful possibilities are unsettling. Large hairy subterranean spiders? Oversized and eyeless albino cave rats? Grouchy gargoyles?
As we quickly make toward the exit of the chamber something whooshes past our heads, and in the dim glow of the tunnel lights we see the leathery whirring wings of several small brown bats. They squeak and screech and send us fleeing up the tunnel like a couple of skittish schoolgirls. We gratefully make our way back up the drippy stairs to the surface, where we turn in our toy helmets and collect our wits.
For every boom there is a bust. At one time the town that sprang up around the Delaware mine was over a thousand strong, but by 1893 all but twenty-five diehards remained here. Such was the fate of most of the mine towns of the Keweenaw: Cliff, Phoenix, Gay, Central, and others. A few miles north of Delaware a forlorn gray signpost, easily missed even at diesel Westy speeds, marks the turnoff to Mandan, another once-thriving mining town now lost to the mists of time.
A short drive into the woods brings us to Main Street, now a rutted and rough double-track through the wet forest. Mandan had its ups and downs over the years. Though fairly pure copper deposits were found here, deep underground layers of sand complicated the mining of it. The mine was closed sometime in the 1860s, but a new shaft was sunk around the turn of the century, and as the copper came up the town resurged. The Keweenaw Central Railroad ended at the depot here, a new school and general store opened, and the town numbered over three hundred. But when the copper proved less plentiful than hoped, operations were ceased for good, local commerce dwindled, and people drifted away to seek their livelihoods elsewhere. By 1929, with most of the large Keweenaw copper mines closed and the nation in the final days before the Great Depression, eighty-five percent of Keweenaw County residents went on general relief. As more mines closed over the years, the decline continued; as recently as 1910 the population of Keweenaw County was over 7,000; by 1990 it had dwindled to 1,701.
Where the homes and businesses of a town of 300 once lined this path, now stand only two or three lonely houses, still quietly proud alongside the collapsed remains of their less fortunate neighbors. We are spattered by another gentle wave of rain, shaken from the overgrown apple trees by a stray gust of Superior wind, or perhaps the wistful sighs of the ghosts of those who once lived here …
We return eastward along U.S. 41, the dreary skies and low-hanging forest closing in on all sides to form a veritable tunnel through which we putter further forward in time, like the old miners in their underground burrows. Our questions about the fates of the people who made their lives here, so long ago, are partly answered when we skirt around the east end of Brockway Mountain and discover the Copper Harbor Cemetery.
This hillside graveyard, hushed and tranquil, but within earshot of the booming surf which assaults the nearby Superior shoreline, is scattered with small limestone monuments to those who rest here. Some survived only to the age of one or two before succumbing to a deadly outbreak of diphtheria or influenza, while others lived into their eighties. With names and dates ranging back a century and a half, this place serves as silent testament to those hearty souls who made their lives in a place which can sometimes be cold and harsh, yet is always strikingly beautiful.
Paradoxically, this modest resting place for the Copper Country’s dead is a faithful reflection of life here on the shores of Superior. Like many of the Keweenaw’s residents past and present, this tidy graveyard is modest and simple, without such niceties as polished marble or delicate lawns, and it bears the signs of constant abuse by the harsh elements.
Yet it is proudly stoic, reserved, peaceful. Quietly persisting like the hardy northern wildflowers that fringe the graves here; stunted, and with leaves like leather, but also bearing delicate and vibrant petals of red and gold. In the midst of this often harsh and austere world, the people of this land have managed to make for themselves a quiet and restful place of comfort, even a final resting place.
We solemnly return to the Vanagon and quietly depart. Tonight Lorie and I will spend a final evening sleeping among the ghosts of the soldiers at Fort Wilkins, and tomorrow our wheels will turn southward toward home. We have nearly completed our thousand-mile circle tour of Superior, just as we have witnessed the rise, fall, and continuing cycle of life here on the shores of this greatest of lakes.
- Total Trip Mileage: 1640 Miles
- Total Fuel Used: 65 Gallons
- Overall Trip Average: 25 MPG
- Oil Consumption: 1 Qt.
- Other Westfalias seen: 3 Vanagons, 1 EuroVan