Thursday, July 15, 2010

Travel Tip Thursday: The Keneenaw Peninsula

Travel Tip Thursday is a writing prompt by Pseudonymous High School Teacher. Those participating are encouraged to write about a special place to travel. This is my entry for this week… I found a new favorite place this past Sunday, a place that seems to have it all. Surrounded by water, this land has more lighthouses than my home state of North Carolina (10 to NC’s 6). There’s a rough coastline akin to Northern California and like my home state, there are plenty of shipwrecks. There are plenty of trees and, like some of my favorite areas out West, the place is steeped in mining history. And its right here in Michigan (although to get there from the southern part of the Lower Peninsula will take you all day). I’m speaking of the Keweenaw Peninsula.

This past weekend, as I was in transition from a meeting in Minneapolis to catching up with folks for a Habitat project in the Upper Peninsula, I had Sunday to spend exploring the peninsula. I’d only been to this area once before, back in 2004, and then I only went to Houghton, a town in the southern part of the peninsula, where I caught the ferry to Isle Royale (one of these days I will have to write up the story of my eight days hiking there).

This area is known for lots of snow (wet snow)

The Keweenaw Peninsula is copper country and the metal has been mined here for thousands of years. What makes Keweenaw copper unique is its purity. It’s almost 100% pure copper which makes it easy to work. Native Americans began copper production here long before Columbus and even the Vikings arrival in the new world. In the 1840s the copper production was taken over by the Europeans and the area began a copper boom that lasted for over a hundred years and produced billions of pounds of the metal.

I began my trip with a stop at the Keleva Café, waiting out a thunderstorm. The establishment was originally a saloon that took its name from Kalevak, a Finnish epic poem. After coffee and partly clearing skies, I drove the fifty miles through the heart of the peninsula, taking US 41 to Copper Harbor, enjoying the scenery of the birch forest. I would love to take this drive early in the fall, when the trees are turning. Copper Harbor is the northern-most town in the Upper Peninsula and is perched on a rock ledge that juts far out into Lake Superior. Exposed to winds and with a lake that is so deep that it never freezes, the town is one of the snowiest places on earth. I came back down the peninsula taking MI 26, a road that runs along the shoreline.

I stopped in Eagle Harbor, touring the lighthouse and museums there. In former days, there was also a lifesaving station in Eagle Harbor in which the forerunner of our modern Coast Guard would brave the weather in attempts to save those in peril upon the lake. I also walked around Eagle River, a town that is the county seat with a beautiful courthouse. Both of these towns had harbors that were used for shipping ore and as a base for a fishing industry. Today, many of the harbors are used by pleasure boats.

My next stop was the city of Calamet. There are many beautiful buildings in this city and it also serves as the headquarters for the Keweenaw National Historic Park. Steeples dot the downtown. In their day, there were a large number of churches, divided not only by denomination (many are Catholic), but also language. There were many different ethnic groups here, each speaking their own language. Mining continued in the Calamet area till 1968, when during a strike, the company shut down operations.

The long abandoned train station in Calumet. Notice the spires for one of the Catholic Churches in the background.

The library in Calumet

My final stop was at the Quincy Mine which overlooks the towns of Houghton and Hancock. The Quincy was another jackpot, producing over a billion pounds of copper. The Quincy Mine shaft, which stills stands, was built in 1907-8 and eventually descended 9360 feet below surface. Deep mining was abandoned in 1931, but other parts of the Quincy Mine continue to produce until just after the end of the Second World War. The towns of Houghton (named for Michigan’s first state geologist) and Hancock sit on opposite sides of the Keweenaw Waterway. For thousands of years, Native Americans would portage over the land here, using the large lake in the center to allow them to cross the peninsula without having to travel around it. In 1859, work began on connecting two rivers to this lake, allowing ships to avoid the more treacherous waters around the tip of the peninsula. However, few ships travel the canal these days and the waterway is mostly used by pleasure boats.

One last view of the shoreline.


  1. some wonderful pics. i must say i am a bit envious of your travels. this looks and sounds like great country to explore...

  2. I've often wished I lived along a coast. I live close to a very large lake, Lake Ponchartrain, but it's not the same. I do visit the lakeshore quite often though. Lovely pics.

  3. It is always sad to go some place that has died economically. I expect Butte would have much the same feel about it.
    But in another way the bone-breaking hardship of such a place would have many in those graveyards delighted their descendents were not travelling those cages still.

  4. Very cool! Sounds like a place worth exploring!

  5. For many years now, I have been mentally planning a long vacation just circumnavigating Lake Superior's shore and seeing what there is to see. This makes me want to do is sooner rather than later.

  6. Scenic road, quaint town, and I love the stone library. You visit the most beautiful places! Thanks for sharing. Headed to Carolina Beach this weekend. Looking forward to relaxing, geocaching, and exploring something new!

  7. Pretty part of the world in the summer...

  8. How beautiful! I love these posts that have travel photos and descriptions. I have never been to that part of the country - you make me want to see it.

  9. Brian, it's neat country...

    Charles, having grown up on the sandy beaches, I have to say that I love rocky shorelines

    Vince, Butte is similar and they also have similar histories (especially with labor). Of course, the only water in Butte is from the open pit mine there. There wasn't as much open pit mining on the peninsula as in Butte and because the copper was nearly pure they didn't have the extensive milling operations and corresponding environmental damage. Not they they didn't have some damage, just not as much as around Butte or Ely, Nevada

    Starrlife, it's a neat place! Thanks for stopping by

    Ed, i haven't made the drive on the Canadian side--need to do that!

    Kontan, enjoy Carolina Beach. I grew up seven miles north of the Snow's Cut bridge that you'll cross as you enter CB.

    Buffalo, yep, it is.

  10. Lynn, you posted as I was posting--it's nice country!

  11. What a beautiful land! Everything looks so green and wild! I like your descriptions and all the information you gathered about the past history of the area you've visited. I find the library building particularly beautiful.

  12. Oh man, looks like a perfect day!

    Too bad my friends aren't working there instead of Mackinac!

  13. Looks like a wonderful place to visit! Enjoyed the pics!

  14. Tell me that in the land of the Finnish immigrant that you had a pastie while you were there.

  15. That looks really nice... I may have to visit! I'm trying to take a trip in that direction this summer :) And I'd love to try your family's grape preserves recipe, or something like it!

  16. I cannot understand why my comments keep getting eaten.

    For the third time, over the last couple of days, I must say I need to definitely explore the UP. How are the rivers up there?


  17. Sage: This is truly an amazing new jewel you have uncovered! And to think it is in Michigan! Wonderful!!

  18. nice pictures and great report. Sad when towns die economically.