Bricks, crumbling under the combined weight of a photographer, camera and rusted catwalk fell in a thousand bits from their resting spots on the aging surface of the circa 1898 blast furnace to the smelter floor far below.
“Hope that isn’t an omen,” I thought, following promising yellow glint of sunlight infiltrating the higher reaches of Quincy Smelting Works up another flight of narrow conspicuous steps.
On the banks of Portage Lake beside the plant, a ship horn blew, causing a rain of rust and dust from the metal ceiling suspended precariously over my head. The falling shards forced my eyes downward and, through the grated catwalk, I could make out three stories where the morning light was slowly causing the scene to fluoresce like a superheated metal.
“How appropriate,” I thought out loud through an asbestos-rated face mask before moving cautiously upward.
Tracking my ascent, the groaning, whispering ruins observed my footfalls in the undisturbed deposits of industrial particles in what I suppose must be a tired, sleepy way; like an old man who doesn’t check his mail anymore. Nobody visits this factory anymore, even though it’s the last of its kind—the last 19th century copper smelter of this design in the world.
Before Quincy Smelting Works was built, most ore from Upper Michigan was shipped to private contractors, either to Detroit, Michigan at “Lake Superior Copper Company” or “Lake Superior Smelting Company” of Houghton, Michigan. The goal: melt, purify and mold the raw copper into something salable. Using a third party processor was an expensive but necessary proposition because no single mining company on the Keweenaw Peninsula mined enough copper to justify the cost of building a large smelter to process their Lake Superior ore—an especially unpredictable operation.
So, when Quincy Mining Company, signed a contract in 1897 to build its own works the following year, it was seen as a regional evolution. Not only could the company’s ore be mined, stamped (pounded into small pieces with giant presses) and smelted all in one small area, but the factory could smelt ore from other mining companies as well. Clearly, this would give Quincy Mining Company, founded in 1846, an upper hand over its competitors, not that the company required assistance to dominate the region. History tells us that over the 150 years Quincy operated it produced 1.5 billion pounds of copper from its mines. The most profitable shaft delved over 6,000 feet into the earth before it shut down with the title, “Deepest Mine in the United States.”
After ore was wrenched from the guts of subterranean ore pockets, it was hauled to the surface and loaded into trains bound for the company Stamp Mill on Torch Lake whose purpose was to pound loose stone from the ore into sand, which were then ejected to the lake bottom.
Stamp Mill product was about 70% copper; if the percentage was any lower a 5-cent surcharge would be assigned to the load—if it wasn’t Quincy ore, of course. The sand-ore mix would reach the north side of the plant in view of its 4 reverberatory furnaces and iconic 75 foot-tall chimney. If the ore came after circa 1904 improvements, it would find itself among several new warehouses and even a new furnace, although its first step would be rolling 100 feet down the approach trestle and into the Mineral House.
Once the ore was sorted my job, taking into account company, purity, priority and so on, so as not to mix Quincy ore with the 13 other mines’ material that the smelter was contracted to process, it would be added into one of the furnaces—a step that was often easier said than done.
A Good Kind of Meltdown
Because ore forms organically and stamp milling was very inconsistent, the size of ore ranged greatly, from the size of one’s fist to that of a couch. Little bits of ore could be added to the furnace manually, while larger pieces sometimes had to be dropped into the inferno with electric cranes. If the lump was too big to enter the opening of the furnace, it would be set aside temporarily until a furnace had to be repaired. Then, with the furnace apart, the ore would be placed inside the dismantled firebox while the machine was rebuilt around the troublesome piece: problem solving at its best, in my opinion.
Each furnace processed about 36,000 pounds of ore daily with an output of 26,000 pounds of 99% pure copper which workers would occasionally have to skim, ladling-out dollops of impurities—precipitated by a limestone additive—to waiting heavy-duty carts and the metal into molds. Ignots weighed about 20 pounds, ingot bars 60lbs, wire bars: 500 pounds and cakes sometimes ranged into the thousands of pounds. A staff of between 16 to 100 men, depending on the season’s demand, completed all the work throughout the plant. As all things mine related, though, production is at the mercy of the market, and a 1931 caused copper prices to fall and forced Quincy Smelter to close, although by 1940 it was again humming to the rhythm of a national war effort.
After the war ended, however, Quincy Mine itself, 600 feet above its dedicated smelter, closed because of faltering demand and market prices—the mine wouldn’t produce again.
However, Quincy Smelting Works didpower-up again in 1948 to smelt stamp mill sand, a by-product of the stamping process that was ejected into local lakes. Both Quincy and Calumet-Helca, another major local copper producer, custom-built and operated vacuum-equipped dredges to suck the discarded waste into shoreline “Reclamation Plants” to extract the remaining 20% copper content. That copper ore kept the Portage Lake factory running until 1967, when Quincy Mining Company officially dissolved and a new operator used to the obsolete reverberatory furnaces to melt scrap metal until 1971. That was the last time smoke pillared from Quincy Smelting Works’ stacks.
About a decade after the smelter’s doors were permanently closed it was registered on the Environmental Protection Agency’s “National Priority List” as a major environmental concern, leading the government to fund removal of toxic waste through 2004 and 2005 before returning in 2008 to begin an extensive asbestos removal project. Apparently, now one can even take a guided tour as volunteers try to turn the increasingly unstable ruins into an industrial showcase.
I don’t know if the smelter’s preservation will include the cramped tunnels underneath the Power House’s steam engines or if they take groups for a jaunt up the rather dicey furnace catwalks where I took in the sunrise. But as Quincy, the last smelter like itself in the world, is reconditioned and people see and learn more about it, the history of the copper industry and its contributions to the nation and world will once again become a part of our cultural history.