Hunts' Guide to The Upper Peninsula


Region 1:

Keweenaw Peninsula

keweenaw peninsula

THE KEWEENAW PENINSULA, that long finger of land poking into Lake Superior, is one of the most remarkable, remote, and distinctive regions in the Middle West. Enveloped by Lake Superior, its sharp, forested hills offer wonderful views. Its economic zenith, visually reflected in mammoth structures of crumbling concrete and metal dotting the landscape, once had a national importance far greater than its faded appearance today would suggest.
Houghton-Hancock aerial
Photography Plus
An ancient waterway separates Houghton (bottom) from Hancock (top) and Northern Keweenaw Peninsula. An unusual lift bridge allows even large freighters through the peninsula. It provides the only auto access north.

The Keweenaw is also called "Copper Country" for its glory days when it was the world chief supplier of that important metal. The many mines here drew tens of thousands of European immigrants, especially from Finland, Italy and the Balkans. Their cultures have added exotic foreign touches to a place already full of striking features.

Portage and Torch Lakes
The ancient crack across the Keweenaw that created the Portage Waterway also spawned two lakes: Portage Lake to the south and Torch Lake at the north, the waterfront for both Hubbell and Lake Linden. Essentially a giant inlet of Lake Superior with a canal added to the northern end to enable freighters to cut across the peninsula, the waterway is called many things, including Keweenaw Canal, Keweenaw Waterway, Portage Waterway, and even Portage River.

Telling the copper mining story is the mission of the Keweenaw National Historical Park. It's an industrial national park, centered on two locations: the Quincy Mine above Hancock (an outstanding mine tour, underground and on the surface) and Calumet (home of Calumet & Hecla Mining, the area's largest mine). Twenty-five years ago, Calumet looked as bad as the most abandoned parts of Detroit; now it's a center of specialty shops and art, though still with its share of derelic buildings. In addition, Calumet has fabulous restored architecture circa 1900: the Calumet Theater, several churches, many homes and storefronts, and two stunning restored historic saloons, Shute's and the Michigan House Cafe and Brewpub. (Houghton has two more dazzling saloons, the Ambassador and Douglass House.) Houghton is also year-round headquarters for Isle Royale National Park across Lake Superior near Thunder Bay, Ontario, reached by boat from Houghton and Copper Harbor, Michigan and Grand Portage, Minnesota.

The mines employed tens of thousands of European immigrants, mining specialists from Cornwall and Ireland, later unskilled labor from Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, and Finland. Go to "An Interior Ellis Island" to find the "Michigan Tech/Copper Country Archives' fascinating web site about area ethnic history with reference to twelve ethnic groups. In 1870, it points out, the percentage of foreign-born Houghton County residents — 70% — was third-highest in the entire U.S.)

Keweenaw Waterway
Photography Plus
The northern entrance of the Keweenaw Waterway, which snakes clear across the entire peninsula, allowing even large freighters to take this shortcut, although few do any more. This segment was dug in the 1860s, extending the water route to the peninsula's western shore. The shipping lane is about 25 feet deep.

Keweenaw is Ojibwa for "place of the crossing," referring to a shortcut, a natural waterway that sliced almost entirely through the peninsula, passing between today's Hancock and Houghton. It allowed Indians in canoes to avoid the peninsula's tip, shielded from Lake Superior's ferocious storms. Traveling west from Keweenaw Bay, Ojibwa canoes went across this Keweenaw Waterway, then made a short portage to Lake Superior south of present-day McLain State Park.

In 1873, when massive amounts of copper were being shipped from the region, the PORTAGE CANAL was cut through the remaining two miles of land. The canal made an island of the peninsula's northernmost part—"Copper Island," a name occasionally used. Today the upper Keweenaw is linked to the rest of the U.P. only by the impressive Portage Lake Lift Bridge between Houghton and Hancock. Most, but not all, of the old copper mines and the area's most scenic attractions are north of the bridge.

Copper strip 5
From Tauno Kilpela's "The Native Copper Mining Era of the Keweenaw Copper Country."
Although hundreds of shafts were dug across the Keweenaw, over 94% of the mined copper came from this little 3x26 mile strip from the modern copper mining era's beginning in 1846 until its end in 1968.

This and other Great Lakes mining regions are worlds quite different from the Midwest's typical surface landforms. The Keweenaw Peninsula has the advantage of having a great deal of shoreline — and five lighthouses. And it has a distinctive institution of higher education, Michigan Technological University, founded in 1885 as the Michigan Mining School. (Of course, Marquette has a stunning in-town waterfront and a larger university, Northern Michigan University, with roots as a teachers' college.) Tech is committed to creating a well-rounded cultural environment for its 6,000 students, over half of whom are engineers. It has been able to import performing talent in music and drama. Local talent, especially in music, is considerable, too. The early summer Pine Mountain Music Festival brings a month of good classical and other music, culminating in one or two operas, to the Copper Country from mid June through mid July.

Over a thousand million years ago, repeated volcanic eruptions deposited numerous lava flows in the area of the Keweenaw Peninsula, forming a dark, volcanic rock known as basalt. During dormant periods between the eruptions, erosion resulted in the deposition of sand and cobbles that eventually hardened into beds of the sedimentary rock known as conglomerate. Together, these two rock types form the bulk of the rocky spine along the Keweenaw's central axis. Today forests soften the jutting spine of hard rock, but occasional dramatic rocky outcrops are visible to motorists along M-26 and U.S. 41 from Mass City (in Ontonagon County to the south) to Copper Harbor at the Keweenaw's northern tip.

The ultimate place to take in the breath-taking sweep of this uplift is at the top of Brockway Mountain Drive near Copper Harbor. There you can see the rocky spine extend for many miles and tilt down into Lake Superior. On a clear day, Isle Royale, out in Superior at the other rim of the volcanic basin, can be seen almost 50 miles away.

Those ancient eruptions brought copper to the surface — the world's largest masses of pure copper. For hundreds of years Native American miners mined these surface deposits and worked the copper into prized ornaments and tools. These prehistoric products of Keweenaw copper have been found as far away as the Gulf of Mexico.

Early French, British, and American expeditions learned about the copper locations from the Ojibwa they met. In the 1840s and 1850s, American investors from the East Coast and Lower Michigan started mining the metal, the demand for which began to soar as indoor plumbing and electricity grew in importance. At that time the remote region was well beyond any other American settlements. To supply the mines, export the copper, and feed the miners required lengthy and often treacherous Great Lakes boat shipments.

Rocks for sale
Don Hunt
Next to the scenic turn-out on US-41 heading north out of Hancock scavergers sell fragments of copper they've found around abandoned mine sites. Most are only a few dollars. The wonderful old pure copper ingots the mining companies shipped far and wide now sell for several hundred dollars.

This remote region was well beyond any other settlements, and the federal government invested in two major projects to promote shipping. It created the Soo Locks, completed in 1855, and soon started building lighthouses at critical locations for maritime safety. The Keweenaw Peninsula has two lighthouse museums (in Eagle Harbor and Copper Harbor), two lighthouse bed and breakfasts (Sand Hills south of Eagle River and Jacobsville), and two pier lights (at McLain State Park and Jacobsville), in addition to a private lighthouse at Bete Grise. The Keweenaw Star offers all-day Keweenaw lighthouse cruises, including hard-to-visit island lighthouses, in late July and late September (fall color time).

Demand for copper soared, first with armaments for the Civil War (1861-1865), and then for copper indoor plumbing pipes and eventually for copper wire to carry electricity. By the 1870s this wild, snowy region was settled and busy mining, smelting, and shipping pure copper in ingots. Mining companies had created a string of mining towns along the two-to-four-mile-wide fault from Central and Phoenix to Houghton. It was becoming clear that the greatest production and profits lay in processing huge amounts to low-grade amygdaloid and conglomerate ore, not mass copper.

But the demand was so great that by the 1870s this wild, snowy region was settled and shipping billions of pounds of pure copper in hefty ingots. Mining companies had created a string of mining towns along the two-to-eight-mile-wide fault from Copper Harbor to Houghton. It was dangerous and unpleasant work for those who toiled long shifts down dark shafts, some of which extended almost two miles deep. That depth spelled the eventually doom of Keweenaw mining. Huge deposits of copper remain here, but for decades it has been much cheaper to strip mine the ore, first in Montana and Arizona, now in places like Chile, Australia, and Peru.

Snow thermometer
Don Hunt
Keweenaw's iconic snow thermometer, a way of almost bragging about the humungous amount of snow that blows off Lake Superior, approaching 400 inches some years.

Eastern owners of the most successful Keweenaw mines had to recruit workers from Europe to work in their mines. The Cornish were seasoned miners from the depleted tin mines of Cornwall in southwestern England and often rose to management ranks.

Other ethnic groups disliked working underground and got out of mining when they could get better jobs, working above-ground in stamping mills or smelters, or getting a small business or farm. The mining companies' corporate paternalism, apparently generous and high-minded, came to be seen by workers as arrogant and manipulative, with good reason. Thus mining companies had to find fresh generations of underground workers from new waves of poor immigrants without prospects. After the Cornish came the Irish, Germans, and Scots, then various Scandinavians including the earlier wave of Finns, followed by Italians, Slovenea, Hungarians, Croatians, and more Finns after 1900.

The countryside throughout the western U.P., where it isn't forested, has many 80-acre Finnish farms with their typical array of small, specialized outbuildings. Today Finns give the western U.P. much of its distinctive character, from the Finnish contribution to the regional accent to the area's many backyard saunas. The meaning of Finnish rag rugs (utilitarian, often handsome, sometimes quite artistic) includes a distaste for waste. Sisu, that Finnish character trait combining guts, endurance, and bravery — not whining about the weather or much else — has rubbed off on many transplants from completely different backgrounds.

Hancock is home to the only American college with Finnish roots, formerly Suomi College, founded by Lutherans in 1896. Now it's FINLANDIA UNIVERSITY. Hancock can lay claim to being the premiere Finnish-American cultural center of the U.S. It even has a Finnish sister city, Porvoo.

Forests dominate Keweenaw's landscape, but small patches of hayfields and pastureland remain. Houghton County was actually once the state’s leading potato producer. Many dairy farms operated as late as the 1980s until Copper Country Dairy folded (3 dairy farms remain). Having a farm was the dream of many of the Europeans who immigrated to work in the copper mines. They established farmsteads as soon as they could buy land. But the rocky soil and short growing season have caused a steady decline in farming over the past half century. Today hayfields predominate the meager agriculatural scene up here. With one cutting a year in the Keweenaw versus two or three on farms farther south, it's tough even to make hay.

Finns became the largest immigrant group and today give the western U.P. much of its distinctive character, from the still-common Finnish accent to the many backyard saunas in the region. Copper Country is the Finnish-American heartland for hundreds of thousands of far-flung Finns scattered from Massachusetts to Montana and Arizona. Hancock is home to the only American college with Finnish roots, formerly Suomi College, now Finlandia University.

After reaching its peak around the beginning of the 20th century, copper mining died slowly here. The last mines closed in 1968. But competition from Western U.S. mines meant that Keweenaw copper was already declining by the time of the bitter 1913 strike. It was brought about by workers' resentment of mining companies' efficiency measures to maintain profits in the face of rising costs. As mining declined, Copper Country became more and more a depressed backwater. Many went off to earn their fortunes elsewhere.

Big money was made in Keweenaw copper, especially between 1890 and 1905, creating fortunes for the fortunate shareholders of the few mines that proved highly profitable. Some copper money stayed in the Keweenaw, in ornate buildings like the Calumet Theatre, downtown business blocks, and large Victorian homes owned by well-to-do mine managers and business people. But most of the money went east to Boston. While the money made here helped build the coffers of wealthy institutions like Harvard University and the Boston Symphony, relatively few Keweenaw families became part of America's growing upper middle class.

After reaching its peak around the beginning of the 20th century, copper mining died slowly here. The Quincy Mine reopened during World War Two but closed at war's end. Calumet & Hecla's last mines closed in 1968. But competition from Western U.S. mines, where copper was closer to the surface, meant that Keweenaw copper was already declining by the time of the bitter 1913 strike, the area's defining event. The strike itself was brought about by workers' resentment of mining companies' efficiency measures (especially the one-man drill) to maintain profits in the face of rising costs.

Sturgeon R. roadside park
Don Hunt
One of the most delightful state rest stops is on the south side of US-41 10 miles west of Michigame and 7 miles east of the US-141 junction. In addition to toilets and picnic tables, a short path winds down to the briskly moving still-small Sturgeon River which eventually empties into Keweenaw Bay all the way up near Chassell.

The first economic refugees from the Copper Country traveled south to take Henry Ford's first $5/day jobs in 1914, the year after the 1913 strike dampened their faith in copper's future. Successive waves of young people here went off to earn their fortunes elsewhere, typically in the Detroit area. Burroughs Adding Machine Company, for example, loved U.P. applicants because of their strong work ethic. In the post-World War II auto boom, the Finnish neighborhood around Davison and Livernois had a pasty shop and a U.P. cruising scene. Young people who hailed from ten miles of each other back home met and married in Detroit. As the Copper Country, like most of the U.P., became more and more a depressed backwater in the 1950s, it reshaped itself in Detroit—and came back whenever possible, to vacation or retire.

However, the area began to revive as Tech expanded and diversified in the 1970s. Long depressed, Calumet now bustles, an effect of the Keweenaw National Historical Park and a vibrant downtown. The Copper Country has become an attractive place to live, not only for people who fish and hunt and snowmobile but for artists and musicians and technical writers and botanists.

In the Copper Country the housing can be just about free ($20,000-$30,000) to anyone willing to live in a less convenient location (Calumet, Mohawk, perhaps Painesdale) in a company house that needs some work. (Many company houses can be quite comfortable.) And $60,000 to $70,000 can buy quite a nice house — except that it may be on a very steep street, or have front yard midwinter snow banks four feet high and up. Houghton County had Michigan's highest percentage of housing built before 1940 in the 2000 census. New housing is being built, in the hills and woods near Houghton (for example, "Shopko Heights," an expensive neighborhood behind the big box retailer Shopko) and along shorelines.

Mt. Ripley's ski slopes above remains of Quincy Smelter Works

In a country and age without roots, the Copper Country has a way of drawing people back. Many people born here and their children and grandchildren return, in one way or another: a vacation home, a retirement home, holding on to the simple family home, going to Tech, just making an annual camping trip to the same beloved campground.

A surprising percentage of graduating Tech students would like to live here, a survey showed, if only they could get jobs. Lately, there's more and more entrepreneurial activity on campus and off, as reflected by members of the Keweenaw Economic Development Alliance. One former automotive engineer, for instance, is using mechanical engineering undergraduates to design aircraft parts — keeping these jobs in the U.S. and giving students valuable experience to put on their resumes. A chemical engineer, concerned about antibiotics in lake water and drinking water, started "Vesitech innovative analysis and technologies for drinking water."

Then there are the transplants of all kinds who move here without any prior connection, because they love nature and outdoor sports, or they've had it down below—too much traffic, or too fast a pace, or too much materialism, or too much pretense, or too high a cost to live in a safe neighborhood with pretty good schools.

A Standard and Poor's study of "outperforming school districts", defined as schools whose students perform better on tests than their income suggests, shows schools in the Western U.P. way overrepresented.

Logging truck
A common sight in the western half of the U.P. Experts say the forests continue to grow larger, but you wouldn't know it from the volume of logs being hauled to paper and saw mills.

Just south of the Keweenaw is a different world, one more thinly populated and much less developed than the Keweenaw. lIn Baraga County one can drive or snowmobile and see nothing but forests for miles. It includes the Huron Mountains (Michigan's highest land), the Sturgeon River Gorge (Michigan's deepest valley) and also lots of old Finnish farming country around the villages of Covington, Pelkie, Aura, and even the high ground of Herman, often Michigan's cold spot.

Baraga County claims the oldest (1854) and largest (54,000 acres) Indian reservation in Michigan, a complicated patchwork of ownership and jurisdiction centered around the tribal headquarters. There former tribal leader Fred Dakota started a fateful bingo game in his garage that led to the legalization of Indian gambling in Michigan. Today the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, with over 3,000 members, has become a driving force in the local economy - along with the Baraga supermax prison, built in 1993 outside Baraga. The tens of millions of dollars the Ojibwa Casino in Baraga has raked in since the 1990s has quickly created a big economic splash. The tribe now owns two radio stations, a tire company, a construction company, and agas station/convenience store.

The south shore of Lake Superior had been a natural north-south route for the Ojibwa people in the centuries before European settlement. Attracted by the good fishing and protected Keweenaw and L'Anse Bays, some Ojibwa from the Sugar Island band at Sault Ste. Marie had moved into the area by 1660.

Dreamland Bar
Along an isolated stretch of Jacobsville Rd, this folkloric bar was once a popular destination for passenger boats.

Many Finns have intermarried with Ojibwa members of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, creating new generations of so-called "Finndians" who may have blond hair or blue eyes. It's not such an improbable combination, considering how in these parts both groups share a closeness to the land and love of fishing, hunting, and the woods. Baraga and L'Anse schools may be unique in providing enrichment classes in both Ojibwa and Finnish. Residents with French blood are almost as common as the Finns. About a third of county residents claim some Native American ancestry, not always Ojibwa. French, Ojibwa, and other Catholics are numerous, too, and the impressive granite Sacred Heart Church on the Sixth Street hill going into L'Anse is the area's most striking historic building.
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