Old Water Levels and Waterways During the Ancient Copper Mining Era (about 3000 BC to 1000 BC)

Old Water Levels and Waterways During the Ancient Copper Mining Era (about 3000 BC to 1000 BC)

Old Stone Face atop Mummy Mountain being queried by C. Fred Rydholm of Marquette, Michigan, about its ancient secrets. From modern surveying techniques and from ancient beach lines where waves once lapped just downhill from this face, many interesting answers are beginning to come forth.


James P. Scherz Prof. Emeritus

Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering (Surveying and Mapping Section)

University of Wisconsin

Madison , Wisconsin July , 1999

When  Ben  Franklin  sketched  the  proposed  border  between   the  English  land  in  Canada and the new land for  the  United  States after the  Revolutionary  War,  it  is said  that  he  conveniently put a jog in the border to include the 40  mile  long  island  known  as  Isle  Royal  (Royal  or  Kings Island) as part of the new United States and  not  Canada,  where  it  more  logically  would  have belonged. (See Figure 1). Although historical fur traders were well aware of copper nuggets on this island and on the Keweenaw Peninsula across Lake  Superior  to  the  southeast  they  never exploited  the  wealth  of  copper  in  this  region.  Instead,  for  more  than  two  centuries,  they  focused on the lighter, and more profitable furs from the reg io n, far more easy to  move  over  the  many portages  (along  with  their  birch  hark  canoes)  than  the  heavy  copper  nuggets.  It  was  not  until  the l 840’s. long after Franklin  was  dead,  that  the  wealth  of  copper  in  this  region  was  fully  exploited by miners and businessmen from the  growing  new  United  States.  So  many  copper  nuggets, were found in this region that the land became known as the Copper  Country  of  North  America  and produced the majority of copper for  the  nation  until  the  mid  1900s  when  more  economical methods  were  devised  to  mine  copper  ore  (not  copper  nuggets)  in  large  open  pit  mines  with huge

power  shovels  and dump  trucks,  which became  popular  by the middle of  the  20th  century. The numerous underground historic copper mines on Isle Royal and on the Keweenaw were gradually abandoned until in the 1990s, the last one closed. The abandoned mines and the abandoned large industrial buildings and little villages that supported the once lucrative industry now stand in disrepair, many decaying to ruins–like somber witnesses to the active and lucrative  era  from about 1850 to 1950 when this region provided the majority of the nation’s copper.

Copper from mines in the Copper Country is unique in the world. It consists of native copper nuggets already processed by nature to the raw metal, nearly pure except for flakes of silver. This is the only region in the world where such native copper nuggets can be mined on a commercial   level.    The  other  copper  mines,  such  as  the  open  pit  mines  that  replaced the underground mines in  the  Copper  Country,  provide  copper  ore  that  must  be  processed  and smelted   to  create  the  desired   metal.    The  same  is  true  for  the  other  copper  mines  of the world. Both modern mines and the mines that produced copper for  the Old  World  Bronze  Age which lasted from about 3000 BC to l 000 BC. an age that ended abruptly when a superior metal (iron) began to be produced from local ores.

It is extremely interesting that there was an earlier phase of copper mining in the Copper Country which also had left thousands of  abandoned  works  which  the  Yankee  miners  found when they came in the 1840s. These were the abandoned mines of the prehistoric copper mining culture, a culture which mined copper nuggets from  thousands  of  ancient  pits from  about  3000 BC to 1000 BC. Essentially every historic  mine opened  and  exploited  during the  centu1y  from the  1840s to  the  mid  1900s  was an extension  of a  prehistoric  mine.   The ancient  pits  contained thousands of round  hammer stones, and other objects, including  what  have been called wooden shovels. buckets for bailing water, and a walrus-hide bag. These objects were found near Rockland, Michigan, at the bottom of a prehistoric mine about 40 feet deep. Also in this same mine was a 60 ton copper nugget raised from the floor of the pit about 6 feet high on log cribbing, as if the ancient miners had every intention of exploiting the huge nugget and moving it somewhere. But it appears that the most extensive mining operations were suddenly abandoned for some  reason,  a  conclusion  that  also  comes  from  sites  other  than  Rockland.  The date of abandonment was about 1000 BC.