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Michigan's Copper Country: Keweenaw National Historical Park 8-07

By JOHN FLESHER
CALUMET, Mich. (AP) - As copper mining slowly died in Michigan's far
north, civic leaders desperate to salvage the local economy proposed
a national park to preserve the industry's historical and cultural
legacy - and draw tourists.

Skeptics scoffed. King Copper's reign had lasted more than a century
and brought prosperity to the isolated Keweenaw Peninsula. But its
decline had left decaying buildings, rusting equipment, mounds of
waste rock. Once-bustling villages were practically ghost towns. A
national park? Here?

Congress went along, establishing the Keweenaw National Historical
Park in 1992. It has developed slowly since then, hampered by thin
budgets and limited authority. But for history buffs who don't mind
trekking to the outer reaches of the Upper Peninsula, the place that
still proclaims itself Copper Country is a largely undiscovered
treasure trove.

“There's a lot more here than what might appear on the surface,”
says Kathleen Harter, the park's chief of interpretation and
education. She's right, in more ways than one. The area is dotted
with underground mine shafts, a few open for public tours.

Jutting more than 70 miles into Lake Superior, the Keweenaw Peninsula
formed over eons from lava flows that produced rich copper deposits.
American Indians used the mineral for tools, beads and ornaments
thousands of years ago.

Not long after statehood, word spread that the Keweenaw region was
awash in copper, touching off a mineral rush that predated by several
years the more famed one in California. During the post-Civil War
industrial boom, the Keweenaw was producing more than 75 percent of
the nation's copper.

Companies such as Quincy Mining Co. and Calumet & Hecla drew
immigrant laborers from more than three dozen countries. Villages and
neighborhoods sprang up, with company-built houses, schools and
libraries. Churches represented an array of faiths.

The industry's heyday lasted until around 1910, when the area
population topped 100,000. But a violent 1913 strike over pay and
working conditions began a gradual decline, worsened by competition
from Western mines and rising costs of extracting copper from
ever-deeper deposits.

Another strike in 1967 was the death blow for operations on the
peninsula, although a nearby Copper Range Co. mine lingered 30 more
years. By the time the national park was up and running, Keweenaw
copper production was over.

The story is absorbing and multilayered. If you've got four or five
days, dig in for an extended tour of the Keweenaw region - which
could include not only copper history but dazzling natural scenery
and outdoor sports such as boating, fishing and mountain biking.

Unlike the typical national park, Keweenaw's boundaries are a bit
confusing. The National Park Service owns little property, including
the headquarters building in the village of Calumet that once housed
mining offices. The park is mostly a partnership of privately owned
“heritage sites” such as museums, memorials and abandoned mines.

Start your visit at the park service's information desk at the Quincy
Mine and Hoist, where you can get maps and plan your itinerary.

Perhaps you'll want to head southwest along the Lake Superior
shoreline to the Porcupine Mountains for a wilderness hike and
camping near former mining sites. On the southern end of the
peninsula are the Copper Range Historical Museum in South Range and
the well-preserved company village of Painesdale.

But if your time is limited, don't miss the heart of the Keweenaw
park: the Calumet and Quincy units, a few miles apart midway up the
peninsula.

The Park Service provides walking tours of downtown Calumet, once a
bustling industrial center. Nowadays it's a relatively quiet place
with an aura of yesteryear in its brick-and-sandstone storefronts,
churches and office buildings.

Coppertown Mining Museum on Red Jacket Road offers a wealth of
artifacts and information. Another can't-miss stop is the Calumet
Theatre, built in 1899 and still a popular venue for plays and
concerts. In the early days it was a symbol of the area's wealth, as
company barons were entertained by the likes of John Philip Sousa's
band and silent-movie swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks.

A more poignant icon stands in an otherwise empty lot a couple of
blocks away. The brick-and-stone arch is all that remains of Italian
Hall, where 73 people died on Christmas Eve, 1913, when a false fire
alarm set off a stampede during a party for children of striking
workers. One of the plaques affixed to the arch reads simply, “Sleep
in Heavenly Peace.”

For a more hands-on experience, head back to the Quincy unit.
Exhibits include the gigantic, steam-powered hoist that raised copper
ore to the surface and hauled carts packed with miners up and down a
shaft that eventually reached nearly 2 miles into the earth. Propped
in another corner is a 17-ton copper slab retrieved from the Lake
Superior bottom.

After your surface tour, put on a jacket - it's chilly down there,
whatever the season - and head underground. A cog-rail tram eases you
down a steep hill to the opening of a dank, dimly illuminated chamber.

You explore tools of the mining trade and gaze into passages
seemingly without end. When your guide switches off the light,
showing what it was like when a miner's lamp went out, the complete
blackness offers a clue of how terrifying the job could be.

Outside once more, dine on Lake Superior whitefish or walleye at a
locally owned restaurant. Or, if you've really caught the spirit, try
a Cornish pasty - the meat, onion and potato turnover that was a
lunchtime staple for generations of miners. Nowadays it's a cultural
icon, filling but cheap. A nice way to save a few pennies (preferably
made of copper, naturally).

If You Go...

KEWEENAW NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK: Information desk at Quincy Mine
Hoist gift shop on U.S. 41 just north of Hancock. Headquarters at 200
Fifth St., Calumet; http://www.nps.gov/kewe or 906-337-3168. Web site
provides links to affiliated heritage sites, each with its own
admission fees and operating hours.

GETTING THERE: Northwest Airlink offers daily service to the
Keweenaw's local airport, Houghton County Memorial. A larger airport
is in Marquette County, a couple of hours east. Otherwise, be
prepared to spend lots of time in the car; the Keweenaw is a long way
from just about everywhere (550 miles northwest of Detroit). But it's
abeautiful drive; two-lane highways wind through national forests and
provide stunning Great Lakes vistas.

DINING AND ACCOMMODATIONS: Towns such as Houghton, Hancock, Calumet
and Copper Harbor offer a wealth of bed-and-breakfast inns, chain
motels and restaurants. The Web site http://www.pasty.com lists many
of them, along with info on other things to see and do. Another good
source is the Keweenaw Convention and Visitors Bureau:
http://www.keweenaw.info/ or 906-337-4579.
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