Near Sunday Lake Mine
…is where the roads meet, connecting the Keweenaw Peninsula’s copper mines with its southern, iron-minded brethren To the West are the ore docks of Ashland and Superior, Wisconsin; to the East, Ironwood and Ishpeming—mining Meccas in their own right.
Though Wakefield’s mines aren’t crowned with headframes anymore, like other ‘range cities,’ there are traces of the past peeking through cracks in the earth behind some nondescript buildings off a back road.
It’s a history that can be smelled before its seen–a cool earthy smell of wet clay and fresh water. A flooded mine.
Reflecting Beside Sunday Lake
Not far in the distance glistens Sunday Lake as it did when George Fay explored the mineral possibilities around it in 1881. By November 1885 the ore docks at Ashland (like the Soo, also seen on this site) had their first shipment from the newly-sunk shafts beside the lake.
The next year Sunday Lake mine would ship 13,000 tons of iron ore.
Sunday Lake’s two shafts were operated by the same company as Brotherton Mine (Brotherton Mining Company), a moderately sized operation to the west. By 1909 the Sunday Lake and Brotherton mines were even connected underground at different levels.
Shaft A was 150 feet deep and B slightly deeper only one year into operation, a modest fraction of what would be its final depth.
The engine house had a drum for each shaft, coiling and uncoiling steel line to raise and lower workers and machinery in and out of the ground. Each drum—think of a giant pulley connected to a steam engine—was 4 feet in diameter, relatively small compared to similar mines I’ve seen in Minnesota and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Work went on like it did in other mines as the town of Wakefield grew around the shafts with the miners’ growing families and business to cater them. Hotels, post offices, and bars also popped-up, fueled by the Sunday Lake and Brotherton mines’ prosperity. There was a short interruption in July 1894 when the workers went on strike, as they had not been paid in two months, but the bosses solved that issue after a few days.
The mine usually employed between 150 and 200 men, though this number varied constantly. What is not debatable is the work done; with 135 men in 1909, the main shaft was expanded and 91,000 tons of ore were extracted. That means more than 36,000 singular hauls of ore from the underground levels to the surface in just that year.
Iron Ore Industry Cave-In
If I had walked around the area that used to be Sunday Lake Mine five years ago, before the other mines I’ve seen around Michigan, I would not have known what I was looking at. What was Shaft A is a square of dirt and rock adjacent to a truck trailer parking lot. Shaft B has a little concrete outcropping that betrays where the 3000-foot shaft was—three times its 1909 depth.
Modern remnants of all that used to hum, buzz and dig at Sunday Lake constitutes a single building with a garage, dry house (where miners would change clothes before and after shifts), and office.
Inside, a truck and some pipe fittings slowly rust where they lay under a collapsing roof.
Outside, not too far from the garage doors the ground is splitting and caving into the tunnels that connected the now-demolished engine and hoist house basements. From a few leftover bricks stuck in the rebar and mud a lamp juts sideways, its bulb inexplicably intact. Soon, I’m sure, officials will notice and bring a bulldozer to finish the job of sanitizing the landscape of the rest of its history. Then perhaps they will be free to return to the office and contemplate how the area will move on from its underground roots.
There is no more money underground for Wakefield; the most profitable iron ore has long been extracted, and with it, the town has dried-up accordingly. As with all mining towns of Michigan—and there are many—Wakefield has tried to stay afloat with tourism generated by the highways that connect the dots of the range towns.
Sunday Lake mine closed in 1961 after raising 17 million tons of ore from the darkness. Remnants of its work, though barely noticeable next to its namesake, can be seen in the steel that helped America achieve the success and status in the first half of the 20th century.