How the U.P. Won the Civil War
In high school I picked Geography. I considered all of my options rather carefully, thinking about future careers, further educational routes and academic prestige, then I threw them out and decided that it would be easier to color in maps.
At age fourteen I really didn’t give two hoots, in fact I may not have parted with a single hoot when considering events or people from the distant past. After all, it had no current bearing on my life, no immediate impact. Of course eventually you gain age, wisdom and the ability to actually think. As I entered my mid-twenties I found my historical curiosity building, not in an academic sense of course, it took the shape of casual brushes with Netflix documentaries and the Discovery Channel.
I mention all this simply to admit to an appalling naivety when it comes to all things historical. I suppose my increased regard for the topic has arisen due to my love of travel, after all, getting to know a place is largely about getting to know it’s roots.
This exact scenario occurred in April and I’ve been meaning to write an article on it ever since. The Upper Peninsula of the state of Michigan had been on our hit list for a while. I have nothing against the rest of Michigan, but from what I’d heard, read and seen the UP was an entirely different beast. The road trip we took was a week long and will be covered more in a future article (State by State: Michigan), but for our current purpose, it’s relevant to mention around half of the trip was spent in the Keweenaw Peninsula, or what we came to realize was ‘Copper Country’.
As the small rental car cruised into the state our minds were already primed, ready to learn. Though it lay less than a day’s drive from our urban Chicago base, we knew this little sliver of Michigan was quite a natural phenomenon. The U.P. is the scene of the Earth’s oldest and largest lava flow known. It’s Porcupine Mountain area is part of the world’s largest mountain range. It has 12,000 miles of rivers and over 100 beautiful waterfalls, and though it accounts for a third of Michigan’s land, it contains just 3% of its population. A sparsely populated outdoor heaven just hours from the city. It’s most useful natural asset however is (or was) it’s crazy amount of copper ore. Indeed, the largest mass of elemental copper was discovered here in 1857 and weighed 420 tonnes. That’s a lot of copper. Copper, incidentally was first discovered and utilized in Cyprus, the origin of the name of the metal, comes from aes сyprium (metal of Cyprus), later corrupted to сuprum, and then copper.
We cruised our way through amazingly rustic towns such as Houghton and eventually Copper Harbor. Slowly we began to sense the history of this place was based largely upon that shiny orange metal. It was upon our return leg down the peninsula that we decided to investigate and found our way into the famous Quincy Mine.
We pulled into the parking lot that overlooked the above ground structures and entered the visitors centre to purchase our tickets. As we exited the building just two minutes later we had totally lost sight of the entire complex as the whole area had suddenly become shrouded in a thick, mysterious fog. As we walked down a long unpaved road into the mist we had only the distant voices of other guests to direct us. We truly had no idea what we were getting into. Equipped with hard helmets and thick jackets we boarded the cog-rail tram car and made our way precariously downhill, seven levels into the dark, damp mine.
Quincy mine is an amazing feat of engineering, but more so an amazing testament to the power of human determination. The men who worked in this mine were extraordinarily tough and no doubt desperate. With many of the miners families living in small cottages on site, their survival was dictated entirely by the mining company.
The mine, which opened in 1846 and remained operational until 1945 was owned by the Quincy Mining Company, who over the course of the 99 year operation ran the place with an iron fist (no metal pun intended). Workers were even charged for candles they required and the wear on their tools. Skilled miners were often brought over from Cornwall in England and were contracted to work exceptionally long days in conditions unimaginable today. They would work twelve hour shifts in almost total darkness, often operating the dreaded ‘one man drill’. Dubbed the “widow maker,” the one-man drill became a central piece of technology ultimately lowering costs for companies by decreasing the amount of human labor needed to burrow through the ore. The widow maker meant men would be handling a huge, heavy piece of dangerous kit, all day long, by themselves with no one near by to assist if something were to go awry.
Whilst on the tour, our extremely engaging and knowledgable guide shut down all the lighting, leaving only a single candle light for us to view our damp, cold surroundings. Then out of nowhere he blew this out. We were instantly enveloped by a powerful darkness, oddly, the lack of light felt very different from that of a night camping or the darkness of an evening in bed; it was a definitive darkness, the moment was poignant as we tasted the tiniest insight into mine life.
At one point the second Quincy Mine shaft was the deepest in the world at 9,260ft or 2.82 km, it was a long way down into the darkness. Cornish workers were drafted due to their famous mining skills and expertise (which is the reason for the areas Cornish influence, including the delicious Pasties). Despite this, deaths in the mines were commonplace; machine injuries, rock falls and actual falls left many families without a husband and father. Eventually even the hardy Cornish men and fellow apprentices couldn’t handle the horrific conditions which lead to famous strikes in the mines later years.
In 1863 the mine was producing more copper than any other in North America. This coincided nicely with the outbreak of the Civil War, which ran from 1861-65. There are of course a wide variety of culminating reasons for the North winning the war. Sherman’s march for one, the rail system utilized by the North and a number of bad decisions by the Southern Generals, but there is an important part to this story, which is rarely mentioned.
Canon’s are needed to win battles, as are guns. The metal of choice in their production was bronze, an alloy of copper and tin. For cannon making purposes, the two metals were combined at around 90 to 100 parts copper and around 10 parts tin. This meant that in order to make weapons, you needed a lot of copper.
Mines in Copper Country, like the Quincy Mine were pushing out unheralded amounts of copper to make these weapons for the war effort. So prolific were the workers that in 1869 the U.P. produced more than 95% of the country’s copper. Without these mines in the North, it would have been relatively impossible to outfit the troops as needed for the five awful years of battle. As it was, the Union troops were well fitted with shiny new weapons, and cannon production was far greater thanks to these efficiently mined resources.
In Washington DC, there is the well known Washington monument, but what is less known is that at it’s base is a commemorative plaque from Michigan containing a stone. The “Michigan” stone is solid copper with a sterling coat of arms and lettering that costs around $1,000 in 1852, that’s around $30,000 in todays money.
As we left the Quincy mine, and eventually drove out of the copper region we reflected on how so many men had died in those tunnels, some more than a kilometer below ground in the endless pursuit of metal extraction. They no doubt simply wanted to feed their families and survive the harsh Michigan winters, but the sweat and blood fueled a much bigger pursuit, that of uniting a country and ultimately ending slavery. It seems we all owe a lot to Michigan’s miners. I could easily have gotten lost on the drive back to Chicago with my mind drifting along these various trails of thought, but don’t worry, I never get lost, I took geography in school.