As copper mining slowly died in Michigan's far north, civic leaders desperate to salvage the local economy proposed a national park to preserve the industry's historical and cultural legacy — and draw tourists.
Skeptics scoffed. King Copper's reign had lasted more than a century and brought prosperity to the isolated Keweenaw Peninsula. But its decline had left decaying buildings, rusting equipment, mounds of waste rock. Once-bustling villages were practically ghost towns. A national park? Here?
Congress went along, establishing the Keweenaw National Historical Park in 1992. It has developed slowly since then, hampered by thin budgets and limited authority. But for history buffs who don't mind trekking to the outer reaches of the Upper Peninsula, the place that still proclaims itself Copper Country is a largely undiscovered treasure trove.
"There's a lot more here than what might appear on the surface," says Kathleen Harter, the park's chief of interpretation and education. She's right, in more ways than one. The area is dotted with underground mine shafts, a few open for public tours.
Jutting more than 70 miles into Lake Superior, the Keweenaw Peninsula formed over eons from lava flows that produced rich copper deposits. American Indians used the mineral for tools, beads and ornaments thousands of years ago.
Not long after statehood, word spread that the Keweenaw region was awash in copper, touching off a mineral rush that predated by several years the more famed one in California. During the post-Civil War industrial boom, the Keweenaw was producing more than 75 percent of the nation's copper.
Companies such as Quincy Mining Co. and Calumet & Hecla drew immigrant laborers from more than three dozen countries. Villages and neighborhoods sprang up, with company-built houses, schools and libraries. Churches represented an array of faiths.
The industry's heyday lasted until around 1910, when the area population topped 100,000. But a violent 1913 strike over pay and working conditions began a gradual decline, worsened by competition from Western mines and rising costs of extracting copper from ever-deeper deposits.
Another strike in 1967 was the death blow for operations on the peninsula, although a nearby Copper Range Co. mine lingered 30 more years. By the time the national park was up and running, Keweenaw copper production was over.
The story is absorbing and multi-layered. If you've got four or five days, dig in for an extended tour of the Keweenaw region — which could include not only copper history but dazzling natural scenery and outdoor sports such as boating, fishing and mountain biking.
Unlike the typical national park, Keweenaw's boundaries are a bit confusing. The National Park Service owns little property, including the headquarters building in the village of Calumet that once housed mining offices. The park is mostly a partnership of privately owned "heritage sites" such as museums, memorials and abandoned mines.
Start your visit at the park service's information desk at the Quincy Mine and Hoist, where you can get maps and plan your itinerary.
Perhaps you'll want to head southwest along the Lake Superior shoreline to the Porcupine Mountains for a wilderness hike and camping near former mining sites. On the southern end of the peninsula are the Copper Range Historical Museum in South Range and the well-preserved company village of Painesdale.
But if your time is limited, don't miss the heart of the Keweenaw park: the Calumet and Quincy units, a few miles apart midway up the peninsula.
The Park Service provides walking tours of downtown Calumet, once a bustling industrial center. Nowadays it's a relatively quiet place with an aura of yesteryear in its brick-and-sandstone storefronts, churches and office buildings.
Coppertown Mining Museum on Red Jacket Road offers a wealth of artifacts and information. Another can't-miss stop is the Calumet Theatre, built in 1899 and still a popular venue for plays and concerts. In the early days it was a symbol of the area's wealth, as company barons were entertained by the likes of John Philip Sousa's band and silent-movie swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks.
A more poignant icon stands in an otherwise empty lot a couple of blocks away. The brick-and-stone arch is all that remains of Italian Hall, where 73 people died on Christmas Eve, 1913, when a false fire alarm set off a stampede during a party for children of striking workers. One of the plaques affixed to the arch reads simply, "Sleep in Heavenly Peace."
For a more hands-on experience, head back to the Quincy unit. Exhibits include the gigantic, steam-powered hoist that raised copper ore to the surface and hauled carts packed with miners up and down a shaft that eventually reached nearly 2 miles into the earth. Propped in another corner is a 17-ton copper slab retrieved from the Lake Superior bottom.
After your surface tour, put on a jacket — it's chilly down there, whatever the season — and head underground. A cog-rail tram eases you down a steep hill to the opening of a dank, dimly illuminated chamber.
You explore tools of the mining trade and gaze into passages seemingly without end. When your guide switches off the light, showing what it was like when a miner's lamp went out, the complete blackness offers a clue of how terrifying the job could be.
Outside once more, dine on Lake Superior whitefish or walleye at a locally owned restaurant. Or, if you've really caught the spirit, try a Cornish pasty — the meat, onion and potato turnover that was a lunchtime staple for generations of miners. Nowadays it's a cultural icon, filling but cheap. A nice way to save a few pennies (preferably made of copper, naturally).