While it had been known for decades that a huge deposit of copper lay beneath Ontonagon County, Michigan, because of its metallurgical and chemical properties it could not be smelted. By 1950, however, the technological barriers were gone, and the Copper Range Company began clearing land for a mine, mill, smelter, and even a townsite. After years of construction and testing, workers began extracting ore in 1953, though full scale mining would wait until 1955. In a time when virtually every other mine on the Upper Peninsula was long abandoned, it must have seemed like a miracle.
The mine extracted 10,000 to 23,000 tons per day, and all the processing was done on site. Unlike every other mine I have explored to date, at White Pine, rubber-wheeled machinery was used extensively and accessed the mine through a long sloping tunnel. At its height, White Pine employed 3,000, though mechanization, atomization, and sinking metal prices brought that to 1,000 by the 1980s. The mine found some reprieve by 1985, but it closed permanently in 1995. It had reached a depth of 2,700 feet and produced 4.2 billion pounds of coppery and 47 million ounces of silver.
After closing, different fates befell the former White Pine buildings. The smelter was sold to a Canadian company that (mostly) idled it while the adjacent power plant kept feeding the grid. Mine shafts were capped and allowed to flood, and the concentrator was razed to its foundations. On the other side of the highway, the town became a sort of ghost town, with most of its houses and businesses left empty.
Since its closing, there has been speculation about the mine reopening. The first rumor stemmed from a 1997 project to soak the copper ore in sulfuric acid where it sat–underground–and recover copper chemically by pumping the acid solution out. This understandably creating extreme tension about potential environmental effects, culminating in a blockade of the acid-hauling trains by Native Americans of the Bad River Band. The project was scrapped shorty afterward, citing the delay as the cause. Recently, another company has purchased and announced forthcoming news regarding the mine, but we will see.