Landscapes of the Keweenaw

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The Keweenaw Peninsula is known for its expansive forests, clear waters and abundant wildlife. Many people visit to experience its natural beauty, and recreational opportunities. But what many don't know is that the Keweenaw isn't quite as natural as it first appears. Over a century of industrial mining has left its mark on the landscape. When mines were operating, they needed a transport system that could move copper ore across the landscape, from mine to mill, and eventually to the dockside warehouse. Compare the pictures throughout this presentation, and notice how expensive the rail system was during the height of copper production. Many historic rail lines are now used as utility corridors and recreational trails.Rail Lines were extended and buildings raised as copper production increased,and as mines grew in scale and complexity. Companies use the cheapest and most convenient source of construction material they could find; the white pine forests of the Keweenaw.Just as lumber was needed to build above-ground, it was also need a below-ground. It was used in the tracks for railcars in the mine, as well as for support beams to shore-up mine walls. The supports were put in place to help prevent air blasts that took place in the mine. An air blast occurred when rock broke away from the main wall of the mine, causing a rush of air to push outward, creating a loud rushing or blasting sound. Air blasts were unpredictable, making them difficult to escape and sometimes fatal. Mine managers believed that reinforcing walls with timber would help prevent air blasts, but they happened more frequently as more rock was removed from a mine. When rock was brought to the surface it would be sent to a stamp mill for processing if it contained a worthwhile amount of copper. If it had too little or no copper, it was considered poor rock, and was dumped as close as possible to the mine entrance to reduce the cost of transporting material of little value. Many piles of poor rock can be seen throughout the Keweenaw, and although many poor rock piles have been salvaged for other uses, many construction and for use on winter roads, they still hint at how much rock was removed from a Keweenaw over time. Historically, forests were completely clear-cut, leaving a barren landscape of tree stumps and rocks. Quite often, those lands were turned over to farmers, who could clear the debris and open fields for dairy farming, growing potatoes, and other root crops. Modern practices of timber harvesting are often more selective. Selective harvests allow for the continued growth of the Keweenaw's forests and contribute to the development of private timber production products and processes, such as paper mills and as biomass for electricity. During the Keweenaw's mining era, timber was valued as a resource to be harvested from the landscape and use for construction. Forests are still viewed in economic terms; for recreational purposes, sustainable resource management and as a draw for visitors to enjoy nature. If you have the opportunity to visit the Keweenaw, look for signs of where mining took place and observe what the surrounding area looks like today. Maybe you'll find a poor rock pile, where flowers and trees have started to take root. Maybe you'll take a ride down a former railroad grade, and imagine the sounds of heavily laden ore cars, rumbling their way to a stamp mill. Take the time to think about how something that occurred more than one hundred years ago may still be present today, and present an opportunity to experience the Keweenaw in a new form. How might the Keweenaw look one hundred years from now, based on how its resources are currently used?

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4 minutes, 43 seconds

Join us as we examine the ways that mining has changed the current landscape of the Keweenaw Peninsula.


Produced by: Jenni Burr

Written by: Aerran Riley


Last updated: June 26, 2022

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