This is one of my favorite stories and although brief I think one of my best. It blends a camping trip I took on "42BL"for Harley-Davidson's Enthusiast magazine to the Keweenaw Peninsula in Upper Michigan with stories from the region's legend-haunted past. During that trip I learned a couple things about new Harleys. One was that fuel injection, a radio, and a thermometer on a motorcycle are fine things. Second was that the modern Electra Glide is too big and heavy for wild camping. I had to be VERY careful where I took that baby because if I got stuck or nosed-in somewhere even slightly downhill there ain't no reverse and it was too heavy to pull backwards out of rough ground alone. Still, it was a fantastic machine on the highway with the personality of a fighter bomber and a good reliable companion too. I was told before hand that the bike had been used hard by Billie Davidson and some things on it didn't work and it leaked oil too. When I returned it there were new scratches that had been well-earned. I put the engine over the hurdles too but it never missed a beat. When I took it back I hid a written note on the machine telling where it had been and what it had done. I loved that bike. -- HW .
Mining Myths Still Live
in Michigan's Copper Country
Originally published in Enthusiast magazine Summer/1997.
(On the Road, Sat. 2 P.M. 55'F.)
"Day overcast and cool. Rain ahead. Leathers necessary and I'm grateful for them. Fine feeling adrift on the road with this Classic--'42BL.' Will camp at the old Norwich Mine tonight and soak up some vibes."
My first recollection of Keweenaw Point--Michigan's Copper Country--was of all places my Harley dealer. As a young rider Pater told me: "Why not ride up the Copper Country? A beautiful place and you might find an old bike. The miners considered silver nuggets a fringe benefit. They smuggled the silver out to buy Harleys."
Norwich Bluff Dead Ahead..
(Norwich Mine Camp, fine mist, dusk, 49'F.)
"Never thought a radio or thermometer necessary on a motorcycle, but weather band promises sun and hearing Mahler, Swan Lake, and the Flying Dutchman sets a fine mood while booming along under a stormy sky. Boots damp. Imposing bluffs all around. Three matches to start fire. Supper my camp usual: canned stew, grapes, chocolate milk, and cheese popcorn. A fine day."
The Keweenaw Peninsula was created a billion years ago in a shattering cataclysm. The earth broke in by continents and the whole was transformed by fire. Over 200 lava flows gushed forth. When rifting stopped mineral-rich solutions formed deposits of native copper. Nuggets and masses of pure red metal found nowhere else in such profusion as on this rocky spine in Lake Superior.
(Old Victoria, Sun. 11 A.M. cloudy/warmer.)
"The road from Rockland is a roller coaster ride that thunders down the Ontonagon valley then roars up the other side. Old Victoria is a mining village of log cabins furnished with antiques: oil lamps, a baby cradle, pointy Wicked Witch of the West shoes. Trees outside loaded with sweet red apples. I filled my pockets. The caretaker (Chris Dolton) claims a ghost in one cabin and that a woman felt a presence and ran out. Says a bike club rallies here. That when they come up the hill this place 'just rumbles.' The presence that woman felt?"
For 300 years tales of Keweenaw copper tantalized outsiders. After the American Revolution Ben Franklin redrew the map to include copper haunted Isle Royale. When Ben gloated an English lord remarked: "I don't give a damn if that island is solid copper. If the treaty conference had lasted another week you Yankees would have insisted on running your infernal boundary line around Ireland." The Keweenaw saw America's first mining rush. In the 1840s they came on foot, in canoe, and by steamboat. Prospectors, scientists, and speculators combed the hills for copper. The Ontonagon Boulder--a 3700 lb nugget considered a natural wonder--was carried off to Washington. A few lucky ones discovered rich lodes and founded a billion dollar industry.
(Painesdale/Champion Mine, Mon. Noon, overcast, 65'F.)
"The run from Mass City is fast and smooth with dips and curves. This Classic feels like a fighter bomber headed for a mission. Explored Champion Mine shafthouse: rust streaked iron, dangling wires: its skeletal framework exposed. Surrounded by rock piles it looks like a western mine ruin set down in a northern landscape."
Between the Civil War and WWI the Keweenaw boomed. Red metal was its lifeblood. Modern cities replaced log cabins. Milwaukee industry supplied the most advanced steam-driven technology ever built. Dividends flowed to Boston stockholders and formed the basis of several modern investment firms. Quincy Mine--"Old Reliable"--paid regular dividends for 54 years. The great Calumet & Hecla Mine produced 43% of the district's 11 billion lbs total output. But as the mines went deeper--some 9,000 feet below Lake Superior--costs rose and copper values fell. Population peaked in 1910, after which a long decline set in. The last mine closed in 1969, leaving a unique ethnic landscape of isolated communities more akin to the 19th century than the 20th.
(Keweenaw Gem & Gift, Houghton, 2 P.M.)
"Stopped for postcards. Talked to a young woman (Candy Wolff) about the copper. She said people with metal detectors brought in 86,000 lbs of copper last year from old mine rock piles. Silver specimens most prized. One with 70% silver sold for $7,000! Her boss took 20,000 lbs of copper to the Tucson mineral show and people fought over the best pieces. She says foreigners are crazy for it. I wonder why? Natural beauty? New Age magic?"
The prospectors of the 1840s soon discovered others had preceded them. Along the Keweenaw lie 5,000 ancient mining pits. Clearing these produced stone hammers, wooden pails, and copper tools. Some held copper masses elevated on wooden cribbing that crumbled when exposed to air. Col. Whittlesey of Cleveland estimated 10,000 men working 1,000 years had accomplished this work. Curiously no habitations or burial grounds were found. Yet some race of antiquity had carried away millions of pounds of native copper. This puzzle is one of the great prehistoric mysteries of North America.
(Owl Creek Camp, Tues. sunset, 75'F.)
"A sunny day ending with a camp beneath friendly red pines. Bathed in creek. Getting that well-worn road slouch feel. In A.M. crossed over to Hancock and took pix at Ripley smelter. Rode up Quincy hill, explored there, then cruised to Laurium for a Cornish pasty: a vegetable and meat pie wrapped in a pastry crust. Very tasty! Strolled around downtown Calumet. Place loaded with Victorian-era architecture now part of Keweenaw National Historical Park. A retired fire chief (Tom Ceno) showed me the 1898 fire house museum. Like stepping back a hundred years and no fooling."
Every Keweenawan has a theory who the ancient miners were: Aztecs, Vikings, Phoenicians, Atlanteans, Moon Worshippers, visitors from the Water Planet--you name it. Science dates the ancient mining at 3000 BC to 1000 BC and credits Indians of the Old Copper Culture for the work--all for home consumption. Others point to the European Bronze Age and suggest a trans-Atlantic trade in native copper until iron smelting tanked the market. Finds of hieroglyphs, astro sites, and altars to BAAL are claimed on the Keweenaw. The rational mind smiles, but such tales conjure up a fine mystique when cruising the brooding evergreen cloaked crags. Plus all the copper implements found in Indian mounds added up don't amount to diddly squat when compared to the total copper mined in ancient times. Where did the rest go?
(Wayside on Lake Superior, Wed. 4 P.M. sun, 78'F.)
"The road along the lake is delightful. It winds and dips around sand dunes, cedar swamps, and rock outcrops, playing hide and seek with that clean-breathing freshwater sea. Offshore two oreboats were bound for the lakehead. Then a fast run up Brockway Mountain. From the water's edge to the top of the world in a few minutes. Then a loop back through ghosttowns at Central, Delaware, and Mandan. Up and down hills that plunge for miles through an archway of maples. Hard to believe it's just one day's ride from Milwaukee."
When the French arrived in the 1660s they found the Indian world view rich with copper lore. Washed bright and assuming fantastic shapes native copper was an object of veneration. One Jesuit wrote, "They esteem it as divinities." In 1830 Keatanang told that his copper had been his father's and grandfather's, and through its "magical assistance" he had taken beavers and bears, overcome enemies, and lived to a ripe old age. Alive to gishay-manitou, "the great mystery of existence," the Indian perceived spirits in natural objects: waterfalls, precipices, caves--and copper.
(Railroad Grade Camp. Fri. morning, 60'F.)
"Heard a noise last night. Ghost train coming? Went outside to check on '42BL.' It sat mud-spattered yet pretty in the starlight. This machine breathes memories of my old 1950 FL. It's the same bike really--only more. It has all the Panhead's thundering personality with the refinement of a 90s bike. Got to thinking about copper and wondered if the first Harley-Davidson ran wire of Keweenaw copper and what that might mean? But such notions are best left to poets so I crawled back into my tent. Sure do appreciate that bike's color: like dark green polished malachite."
Legends tell of the copper's guardian spirits. One was mizibizi the "coppertail bear." Another was mishegenabig the "great horned water serpent." Obtaining a piece of the serpent's magical horn was a dangerous undertaking. A sacrifice was offered and the water king would emerge from the lake. If bold enough the conjurer would approach and sever a piece of the serpent's gleaming copper horns. Some claim the mishegenabig sank the Edmund Fitzgerald. Others say a UFO carried off the crew. Copper mining visitors from the Water Planet? Is that why people from around the world fight over Keweenaw copper at gem shows? Do they--like the Indians--know something the rest of us have forgotten?
(Copper Harbor, Sat. 3:30 P.M. sunny, 75'F.)
"Highway 41 ends at Fort Wilkins. This 1840s military post was built to protect miners from Indians but probably worked the other way around. Almost got kicked out by a park ranger (Bob Hill) for taking '42BL' on the parade ground for pictures, but he calmed down after hearing of my mission. Also chatted with a crusty old timer (Jim Wescoat) who knows the lore. He envisions Highway 41 extended to the tip of Keweenaw Point along the coast then back to Bete Grise: the Keweenawan Ecotopian Apex Highway. But when I said that sounded like a biker's nirvana he shot back: 'You can't be the last one in paradise.'"
That's the real wealth of the Keweenaw. A mingling of water, rock, forest, and legend that gets inside you and won't let go. The feeling that if you're not actually in paradise you're close to it. A treasure beyond mere minerals in the ground. A richness that can never be dug up or carted away. That rarest element of all: pure enchantment.
For a unique taste of the Copper Country and for travel info go to Pasty Central or call the Keweenaw Tourism Council: (800) 338-7982
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