Hunts' Guide to The Upper Peninsula


Region: Porcupine Mountains and Ontonagon

White Pine
To those used to the simple, stark turn-of-the-century look of most U.P. mining towns, the 1950s suburban neighborhoods in White Pine with their curvy drives and ranch houses look surprising.

White Pine was once home to one of the country's largest copper mines. It dates back to 1880 but was reinvented as a company town in 1954. The White Pine Mine was rejuvenated during the Korean War. The federal government, concerned that the country no longer mined enough copper, poured a lot of money to greatly expand White Pine's old mine. Before the White Pine Mine permanently shut down in 1995, it had produced a staggering 4.2 billion pounds of copper, not to mention 47 million ounces of silver. As the mine reopened in 1954, its owner, Copper Range Company, laid out the town of White Pine to resemble American suburbia. In stark contrast to the region's other mining towns, the company built ranch huses for miners along curving boulevards, a startling sight in the middle of wilderness, where bears are the reigning neighborhood nuisance. Today these homes are being bought as second homes from folks living in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois. For $25,000, they can buy a 4 bedroom 1 -bath home as a base from which to enjoy winter skiing and snowmobiling and summer hikes in the Porkies nearby. Retirees also make up a sizable portion of the town, as do employees of Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. The town center is an enclosed town square with supermarket (now closed), post office, diner, barbershop, etc., surrounded by a parking lot.

The noted Michigan architect Alden Dow designed the Konteka motel/restaurant/bowling alley complex across the parking lot with a nod to his mentor Frank Lloyd Wright. Now it's a snowmobile hot spot in winter, with sled rentals on-site.

White Pine Copper Refinery
Visible for many miles around, this black and white smokestack is part of the industrial complex just outside White Pine that refines Canadian copper and generates electricity.

The White Pine mine that made all this possible differed dramatically from all the many other U.P. copper mines. Instead of deep shafts leading to many lateral excavations, the White Pine mine was one enormous cavity, growing to four square miles in size, sloping downward from 800 to 2,800 feet below ground. The mine was closed after the Michigan United Conservation Club led a suit to upgrade the smelter, whose smoke plume contained toxic mercury. The mining operation left considerable environmental problems in its wake. The huge underground cavern has gradually been filling with brine, which eventually would severely pollute Lake Superior if left unchecked. Prodded by Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality, the mine's owner has been filling the mine with Lake Superior water to suppress the brine water.Another severe problem has been the powdery tailings deposited northwest of the mine after copper extraction. Wind blew these tailings into the air, at some times engulfing White Pine itself. To subdue this noxious phenomenon, the Mineral River was diverted to inundate the 6,000 acres of tailings deposits northeast of town. The giant pond is gradually being replaced by planted vegetation.

The mine's 1995 closure was an enormous blow. White Pine was the last major copper mine in a region that was once the world's leading producer of copper. With huge quantities of South American copper closer to the surface and therefore less costly to extract, it's not likely that any U.P. mines will ever open again for commercial copper production, even though enormous deposits remain far underground. White Pine's dwindling school-age population and mounting school expenses caused the high school to close in 2003.
An exotic project has resumed at White Pine Mine. A company called SubTerra is using the deep mine's highly stable 48 F to grow plants in a perfectly controlled year-round rapid growth environment. One contract was to grow a genetically-altered type of tobacco; its seeds may help treat cancer. Using 50 1,000-watt grow lights, they occupy 3,000 square feet at the top of the big cavern. SubTerra's facilities also ensure genetic containment and control against eco-terrorists who attack firms researching genetically modified plants. However, the fact remains that the small staff which runs the underground growing operation are a tiny fraction of the 3,100 union employees working here when the Copper Range Company's operation was at its peak.

One spin-off of the old mine is going strong. The White Pine Copper Refinery purifies copper from the Hudson Bay Mining smelter in Manitoba. It has fired up its old 40-megawatt power plant and updated it. It also created a subsidiary, now separately owned, called, White Pine Electric Power, It sells the electricity produced here to UPPCO, the U.P. power company. However, like Smurfit-Stone in Ontonogan, its survival is dependant on the coal freighters bring into the Ontonagon harbor. If federally funded dredging of the harbor ceases, so will this electric plant.

Return to Porcupine Mountains and Ontonagon

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

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