Hunts' Guide to The Upper Peninsula



Region: Keweenaw Peninsula

Calumet minimap
Click to enlarge

Muted echoes of a booming past live on in Calumet, the commercial center of the northern Keweenaw Copper Range, and its more residential sister city of Laurium. The streets, the personal shops with their regional personalities, the magnificent churches and saloons, and the beautiful opera house are things visitors aren't likely to forget.
The small villages of Calumet and Laurium were islands of private property in an area where most land and neighborhoods were owned by the Calumet & Hecla Mining Company. The Keweenaw Peninsula had the world's richest concentration of virtually pure copper, and C&H was the richest and biggest mining company of them all.

C&H opted against having a company store, preferring to have businesses and private property in the separate districts that became Calumet and Laurium. Nor did C&H try to control workers' lives to the extent of prohibiting saloons. It still had plenty of other ways of control, including owning much of the housing to rent to workers, using it to reward good workers, and evicting troublesome workers. The company encouraged churches by donating land for them, built the library and community center, and supported a band.

Calumet 1881 birds-eye
Calumet in 1881 with C&H mining complex in foreground.

Keweenaw's mining heyday was roughly between 1890 and 1910. In 1910 Calumet had movie theaters, a grand opera house, electric lights, frequent trolleys, and impressive four-story buildings of brick and sandstone. Evenings were as bright and busy as daytime, because miners worked round-the-clock shifts. Calumet was awash in money. Downtown's main business streets, Fifth and Sixth, looked like those in a big city more than in a remote mining town.

Calumet aerial
It only has 800 residents, but Calumet's central city is one of the U.P.'s most vibrant.

C&H's multiethnic workers came from much of Europe. In 1910 many languages could be heard on Calumet's streets: Finnish, Italian, Croatian, Slovenian, French, Polish, Yiddish, German, Swedish, Norwegian, Greek, Arabic, English (spoken in Cornish, Irish, and Scottish accents), Gaelic, and Welsh. Each major ethnic group had its saloons, over 70 in all. Outsiders dared not venture into them as the evening wore on. Virtually every nationality had its church, often magnificent, built on land donated by the Boston-based Calumet and Hecla mining company.

C&H's industrial core area - what remains of it - is along U.S. 41/Calumet Avenue and just northwest of it toward Calumet. Here along Mine Street, parallel to U.S. 41 but one street north, you can see the distinctive gray mine rock facades of C&H's surviving warehouses and industrial shops, and its locomotive roundhouse. To keep mines running profitably all the time, companies had on-site shops to repair and make equipment. The Keweenaw National Historic Park has prepared a free self-guided walking tour of the C&H industrial core. It's expected to be out by July 2005.

Free guided summer walking tours will go through the industrial core and then through downtown Calumet to the Calumet Theatre. Tours take two hours, involve a two-mile walk, and leave from the front entrance of the national park headquarters, 25970 Red Jacket Road at U.S. 41.

Keweenaw National Historical Park
The extraordinarily beautiful headquarters of the far-flung Keweenaw National Historical Park on Red Jacket Road just off US-41 in Calumet.

On Red Jacket Road set back from U.S. 41, the large, steep-gabled building faced with red and gray rock was the C&H community library, meeting hall, and bathhouse for employees and their families. The statue outside is of C&H's longtime president, Alexander Agassiz. He mainly managed the company - ruled his domain, that is - from Boston. When he was in Calumet, perhaps two months a year, he stayed in the green frame house across the street on Red Jacket Road. (The paint scheme is authentic for 1910.)

5th & Elm Coffeehouse
Boone Fiala at his splendidly restored 5th & Elm Coffeehouse downtown. Good coffee, good things to eat, and wi-fi.

At the very corner, the longer, lower two-story building was the C&H office, now the Keweenaw National Historic Park headquarters. The spacious houses on Calumet Avenue/U.S. 41 were also company-owned housing for its doctors, white-collar managers, and other professional staff. Between the C&H office and the Calumet School, the simple frame house at 57035 Calumet Avenue once housed the mine superintendent. When a larger superintendent's house was built, that one became the Miscowaubik Club, founded as a private club for the area's mining gentry and still in use as a private club with restaurant and a very cool billiard room.

What you can't see in Calumet today are the headframes that once towered over the mine shafts, housing the cables and pulleys that lowered miners in man cars, three men abreast and six deep, down into the mines. In Calumet headframes punctuated the landscape, the way the remaining Quincy No. 2 shafthouse is the preeminent landmark of Houghton and Hancock. One C&H shafthouse was off Mine Street behind the parking lot of today's Mine Street Station shopping center. Another was on vacant land across U.S. 41 from the large brick school building. When the mine finally closed, headframes were typically taken down and sold for scrap. Only the preservation-minded Quincy management let some of their headframes stand.

Another important building no longer standing is the Queen Anne Victorian mansion of autocratic C&H superintendent James MacNaughton, on Mine Street across from the mine. It became a white elephant and was demolished, but the carriage house can still be seen. One distinctive aspect of mine management, compared with industrial factories, is that managers, doctors, and others, no matter how rich, had to live right by the mines with their smoke and noise, to be on-site in case of accidents and other emergencies, including possible walkouts.

Starting in the 1870s, the copper mines around Calumet (then known as Red Jacket) proved the most profitable the world had known. Copper's price appreciated as the metal became an increasingly vital component used in the booming electrical and plumbing industries of a rapidly modernizing world. By the early 1900s, the population of the Calumet area approached 100,000. Calumet Township - the unincorporated area around the C&H industrial core and various nearby locations like Swedetown, Florida, Tamarack, Centennial, and Albion - was over 32,000, contrasted with today's 7,900.

The region reached its economic peak before the landmark strike of 1913. The one-man drill that partly prompted the strike was a company attempt to save and offset the increasing costs of going farther and farther underground to mine copper. A 1968 miners' strike was the final nail in the coffin, closing the last of the long-declining mines here. A Wall Street Journal front-page article profiled Calumet as a town kept alive by its loyal old people, those who returned after retirement and those who never left.

In the 1970s, a local inventor founded Calumet Electronics, a manufacturer of electronic circuit boards, to create jobs in the wake of the final mine closings. The company, in a refurbished C&H rock building on Depot Street, became an economic bright spot. The company can compete in this remote location because modems let its customers instantly send design specifications for its custom-made baseboards (components are added to the boards elsewhere), and the lightweight boards can be shipped cheaply by UPS. The circuit boards end up in all sorts of products, from personal computers to automobiles.

In 1992 the federal government, recognizing the Keweenaw's historic importance and responding to local lobbying, established the Keweenaw National Historic Park, modeled in part after the urban industrial park organized around the textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts. The KNHP has used some of its budget to leverage strategic improvements to help preserve this historic town and strengthen its economy by attracting visitors. Developments will occur slowly, according to carefully made plans, over the next ten years.

The national park's influence is now being felt in many ways, large and small. Its landscape architect and historic preservation architect are available to assist local people on design matters. Signage has been improved in places. Calumet High School was convinced to restore its study hall and main assembly room to its appearance around 1910, to much applause. Students seem to enjoy the direct link with their forbears' lives in school The Calumet village clerk and Calumet Township supervisor work with parks people on many projects and sit on the important park advisory board with the national park manager, former Michigan historic preservation officer Kathryn Eckert, and others.

The Park Service has bought the C&H administrative office building on Red Jacket Road just off U.S. 41 for use as the Keweenaw National Historic Park headquarters. Its exterior has been restored to exacting national park standards, through paint analysis, examination of old photographs and documents, and more. Original materials have been reused whenever possible. The distinctive raised mortar between the facing stones has been duplicated. C&H built and added onto the office between 1890 and 1910. One of the most interesting features is the wood addition towards the school. It has been restored to the time when it was the C&H pay office, and miners came there in person to collect their wages. In the works is a historic preservation builders' training program offered by the national park in conjunction with Gogebic Community College to train people in the building trades to restore or to renovate historic buildings with materials appropriate to their original style.

In 2003 the national park helped the village of Calumet in its successful quest for downtown Calumet to become a Michigan Main Street Community by providing some matching funds and working on the application process. The enthusiasm of the Main Street program's volunteers has been a shot in the arm for existing business owners and rehabbers. Main Street is an established and effective program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation to revitalize downtowns through historic preservation and promotion.

After decades of decline, the area population is increasing, not in the villages of Calumet and Laurium but outside them. One reason is that more retirees and Houghton-Hancock residents choose to live in rural areas and on the water. The Calumet consolidated school district is the Keweenaw Peninsula's biggest, thanks in good part to the area's many Apostolic Lutheran families, among whom it's not rare to have ten or more children. Students raised in these families that frown on drinking and dancing can find a widening social divide between them and their schoolmates as they grow older.

Calumet now has its fast-food restaurant and a strip mall, unfortunately sited within the core of the Keweenaw National Historic Park so its signs obstruct what had been one of Michigan's truly magical vistas - that of Calumet's many historic church steeples silhouetted against the evening sky. The developer managed to have the park commission vote on his Mine Street Station project in the absence of the park commissioner most adamantly against it. Current national park manager Frank Fiala is willing to ruffle feathers and persist in finding mutually acceptable solutions to important landscape design decisions. (For instance, he is responsible for the Quincy Hill water tower being black, the historically accurate color, and not the school colors of the Hancock Bulldogs.)

Summer visitors drawn by the brand name of a national park have already helped make downtown Calumet a more vital place. It can be hard to find on-street parking on Fifth Street in summer. (There's plenty on side streets and along Fourth Street lots.) Owners are rehabbing storefronts. Upper-story apartments downtown are being re-occupied by business owners and for vacation rentals.

In exploring Calumet and Laurium it helps to have a good local map (the Keweenaw Visitors' Bureau in Calumet sells a good one) because the towns spread out into adjoining smaller outlying neighborhoods, known as mining "locations." These consist of miners' houses clustered around mine shafts now abandoned and filled in: Tamarack, Centennial, Osceola, Red Jacket, Swedetown, and more. Miners in outlying areas kept milk cows and chickens and big gardens out back to help feed their large families and make ends meet. The mining companies built these standard, six-room houses; today they may sell for $25,000 and less.

Anyone seeking to understand the realities of Keweenaw copper mining and workers' lives can turn to several excellent books. Michigan Tech history professor Larry Lankton's Cradle to Grave: Life, Work, and Death at the Lake Superior Copper Mines is surprisingly riveting in a detailed way as it follows company correspondence, technological changes, and labor recruitment strategies that came to a head with the 1913 Strike. In Beyond the Boundaries: Life and Landscape at the Lake Superior Copper Mines 1840-1875 Lankton deals with more social history in an earlier era, not so much in Calumet but farther up the Peninsula.

The ultimate pre-trip reading for Calumet would be a copy of Arthur Thurner's Calumet Copper and People, now unfortunately out of print and hard to get. The DePaul University history professor grew up in Calumet, and this book has the intimacy of a trained historian's own memory. His overall Copper Country history, the 314-page Strangers and Sojourners: A History of Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula, has a good deal of social, religious, and community history, often from immigrants' points of view.

Gerry Mantel, a descendant of Finnish and Slovenian miners in Copper Country, has been drawn back to its labor history. He co-authored the local bestseller Copper Country Metropolis, consisting of cogently ordered newspaper excerpts and photos about Calumet from 1900 to 1913. Midwest Book Review called it "a superbly presented microcosm that could well serve as a template for other American histories." If you buy a book locally, consider trying Coppertown Museum's gift shop first. Your money will go to a most worthy cause.

Return to Keweenaw Peninsula

eatsleepcamp Eat Sleep Camp
Our Most Frequently Shared Pages:
Our new interactive map to U.P. motels that offer exceptionally low rates. See also our useful detailed maps to U.P. TOWNS. These custom-made maps locate landmarks and attractions.
Michigan's Upper Peninsula - Hunts' Guide to the U.P.

Michigan's Upper Peninsula - Hunts' Guide to the U.P.
Maps to the best of the U.P.