Little hooks projected from a lonely board…
…on the plywood hallway wall that connected locker rooms to the plugged mine shaft: the hooks were divided in two groups, with one side stenciled “IN MINE” and “OUT OF MINE” on the other to keep track of which miners were safe, and who was yet underground and in danger. Below the hooks were the names of miners who left this mine to rust long ago; none of them were underground—except by natural means—and all of them remember this place that others have forgotten… Centennial Mine.
Thriving Under Pressure
In a trivial way I felt connected to the miners, not only because I was visiting a part of their world, but because of the way I explore. I balance risk and reward, sometimes putting my safety on the line, before pushing the plunger (driving a day with hard-earned photo gear) to reap my reward.
Copper and history, however different their properties, are intermingled at this abandoned mine, at the end a gravel road in Upper Michigan.
At the other end of the gravel street, a now-spineless railroad bed points to a wooden hunchback, leaning and leering at passersby, jealous of its younger brothers who found more purpose in life.
Shaft #3 is what the sign on it would read, if it had a sign, but no titles adorn the steel perimeter. The small shaft was built in the 1950s to explore the rock formations below, but never produced a pound of copper for the 3,000 feet of earth it penetrated. A ramshackle hoist house across an abused rocky road is still cabled to the test mine; they’ve kept each other company since people stopped coming around. This dynamic pair shows the common layout of copper mines in this region.
Anatomy of this Mine
The anatomy of mines like Centennial is easily understood when divided into three functioning parts: The Head Frame, Dry House and Hoist House. Head Frames look like a tower with double railroad tracks running from its top and into the Dry House; the tracks are what ore and workers ride underground on this path. It shoots from a hundred feet into the air to thousands of feet underground in a straight line carrying rock and man cars between the surface and active underground areas. ‘Rock cars’ carry rock and ore and ‘man cars’ carry the miners themselves into the mine, and the two often run in opposite directions (one up, one down) in a counter-weighted system to reduce stress on the hoist.
To Number Six
The hoist has its own building, usually an equal distance from the Head Frame and Dry House, but on the exact other side. This setup allows the Hoist House’s engines to pull up or draw down different cars and machinery from the mine with steel cables on large pulleys. Depending on their design, some mine cars will dump raw ore into a silo in the middle of the Head Frame, while others might dump into a Dry House (sometimes called a Shaft House), which is the building at the point where the mine shaft enters the ground. At Centennial, a silo system was used, so the Dry House was a point where men and machinery would be lowered down and where workers would pass by that “IN MINE” board before risking their lives underground. On their way out, they’d move their nametag into the danger zone next to Shaft #6.
Centennial’s newer mine, Shaft #6, began in 1867 when 40 miners of the Schoolcroft Mining Company sunk the shaft 2,800 feet that summer without finding production-grade ore. The company didn’t give up though, and by winter 10 ore power drills were busy exploring the 13 levels projecting from the main shaft. Calumet and Helca, the region’s dominate mining conglomerate, came to absorb the Centennial Mining Company, and by the turn of the 20th century about a million pounds of copper ore was hauled-up annually.
Mining continued here under various other owners almost continually until 1968 when, like in dozens of other shafts in Upper Michigan, copper mining was no longer profitable. Labor strikes also played a large role in the closing of mines in Michigan. However, #6’s story was not quite closed, as another company, Homestake Mining, drained and attempted to work the mine in 1974. Homestake went so far as to build a $4,500,000 ore concentrator near Shaft #3.
And a Concentrator, Too
The concentrator is not a full-sized factory, but a pilot plant built to process ore mined from Centennial—something that never happened. Ball and rod mills were still hanging adjacent to the catwalks, ready to crush the raw ore before chemical processes deeper in the plant would do their part to enrich the subterranean takings. Ironically, the only copper to see the inside of this miniature factory has long been stolen from the electrical boxes and motor housings after it, and the mine that inspired its construction, were abandoned in 1977. Centennial, Shaft #6, was the last mine to operate in the region.
That summer afternoon, leaning over the top railing on the #6 frame, it felt like I could turn on a switch and the lights would flicker on and miners would line up in the Dry House. It was hard to believe the mine below was more than a century old. Yet as I made my slow way down through the workings where mine cars dumped, pulleys spun and anxious blue-collar men would squirt oil into whirring machinery. I remembered that this industrial spirit has been moved out of Upper Michigan—outsourced—for decades now.
Post-industrial cynicism, I must profess, is an unavoidable side-effect of exploring lost industrial history… and it’s another thing that I think former miners and current historians have in common.