Copper History

Ontonagon County’s rich copper history dates back to 1765 when English fur trader Alexander Henry came to the area and discovered copper in great quantity. He visited again the following year and was shown by the native people a mass of native copper. In 1771 Henry returned to search for copper himself and he established the first mining operation in the county. Although Henry’s mining venture failed, the copper boom in Ontonagon County was just getting started.

Old Victoria was one of the earliest copper mines and a village quickly formed around the mine. It was here, in the Ontonagon River, that the “Ontonagon Boulder” was discovered. This 3,708 pound copper boulder was removed from the site in 1843 and it now resides at the National Museum of Natural Science at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. (See it here and here.) A similar boulder (shown below) is housed at the chamber of commerce office in Ontonagon.

The success of the Victoria Mine in the early 1900s was largely due to the invention of the Taylor Hydraulic Air Compressor, which used the power of the Ontonagon River to run pneumatic power to the mine. The compressor remains there near the Victoria dam, submerged in the water. At present, a few of the log cabins and boarding houses still stand, restored to reflect the time period when they housed the miners that worked the Victoria mine.

Not too far from the site of Old Victoria lays the remains of the Minesota Mine. In 1847, a six-ton mass of native copper was discovered at the site and organized mining began in 1848. In the span of just seven years, from 1855 to 1862, the Minesota mine was the most productive copper mine in the country. However, by 1870, the massive copper had been worked out and the price of copper dropped so dramatically that mining operations were abandoned and the mine was opened up to tributers. By the end of 1870, the tributers had removed 270 tons of copper from the Minesota and it continued to produce copper until 1888. Overall, from 1847 to 1888, the mine yielded 17,352 tons of copper.

In 1955, the Copper Range Company opened the White Pine mine, which would grow to become the major copper producer in Michigan. Near the site of the old Nonesuch mine, the White Pine mine began mining the copper-bearing shale deposits that previous mining attempts had failed to profit from. The ore was predominantly chalcocite (copper sulfide), however, native copper was principally found in the lower part of the beds. From 1952 to 1995, when the mine shut down for the last time, the White Pine mine produced more than 4 billion pounds of copper. Highland Copper Company, Inc., a Canadian mining company has recently acquired the White Pine mine from the Copper Range Company has conducted an initial exploration program to estimate the amount of mineralization that remains.

What makes this area unique, is that while most copper mining districts produce ore made up of copper oxides or copper sulfides, most of the copper found here is pure copper metal, otherwise known as native copper. These are just a handful of the many copper mines in the county; the mining history of Ontonagon County surely earns it the name of “Copper Country.”

(Main Photo Credit: Bob Bussiere)