Many people are surprised to discover that northern Michigan is the home of (a limited amount of) buried treasure. For centuries, gold, silver, copper and diamonds have been found here. Records available at the US Forest Service in Cadillac indicate that gold has been found in over 100 places in Michigan. Gold has been discovered in 27 of 68 counties in the Lower Peninsula and 6 of 15 counties in the UP.
Remember, Michigans Upper Peninsula is an ancient, rugged land. The contorted surface of the western UP stands in mute witness of its ancient fiery birth. This part of the peninsula is made up of the oldest rock in the world, the Canadian Shield, which is as much as four billion years old. Predating the earliest life on earth, this ancient formation is host to an array of valuable minerals. Copper, which is found in its native form in the UPs Copper Country and on Isle Royale, was mined by prehistoric Native Americans thousands of years ago. Stories about massive pieces of the virgin metal which could be dug from the ground were related by early fur traders and missionaries on their return to civilization. A few mining ventures were begun. Once the rich copper deposits of the Keweenaw Peninsula were documented in 1841 by Douglass Houghton, Michigans first state geologist, a copper rush to the Lake Superior country began. Mining began in earnest in 1844 at the Cliff Mine near Eagle River.
That same year, the rich iron deposits of the Marquette Iron Range were discovered near present-day Negaunee. A party of surveyors under William Austin Burt was running a range line when they noticed the compass making dramatic deviations from true north. A search of the surrounding area turned up specimens of high grade iron ore. Within a few years, the towns of Ishpeming and Negaunee were founded and the iron ore mining industry of the Upper Peninsula had begun.
Make no mistake, finding gold was also one of the objectives of the earliest European explorers, but the native Indians knew nothing of the yellow metal. The explorers soon turned their attention to the abundant copper and iron deposits. Small amounts of gold were eventually found as early as 1845, but it was not until the opening of the Ropes Gold Mine in the early 1880's that gold mining jumped into Michigans history. The Ropes mine ran for 14 years and produced $645,792 in gold and silver, but was never able to pay a dividend to its stockholders.
In the years following the establishment of this first mine, more than 75 other gold mines and prospects were begun in the Upper Peninsula. Some, such as the Lake Superior and Michigan mines, produced spectacularly rich specimens of gold-bearing quartz. Other prospects consisted of only a few trenches and pits, producing no more than traces of the precious metal. Most prospecting had ceased by the early 1900s, but the Great Depression and the increase in the price of gold from $20.67 to $35 per ounce brought about another prospecting boom in the 1930's. World War II called a halt to gold mining, with the prospects lying idle until the abandonment of the gold standard in 1971 and the resultant dramatic rise in the price of gold. Improved metallurgical methods and higher gold prices in the 1970's and 1980's attracted a $20 million redevelopment project to the Ropes mine, which again began producing gold in the fall of 1985. The reopened mine produced until 1989, when a combination of low gold prices, poor ore grade and a collapse of rock in the production shaft prompted its shutdown.
Gold was first discovered in Michigan by Douglass Houghton, the first state geologist. Appointed to the post in 1837, Houghton made several visits to the Upper Peninsula, reporting on the copper wealth existing there. In 1844, he convinced Congress to finance a joint geological and linear survey of Michigan. For the 1845 survey in the Upper Peninsula, Houghton worked with William Austin Burt, Deputy Land Surveyor for the federal government. While Burt and his crew located the range and township lines, marking their corners, Houghtons men took detailed geological notes and samples, and measured the lands elevation.
While camped near the present site of Negaunee in 1845, Houghton returned from a solo excursion with rock specimens carrying enough free gold to fill an eagles quill. Fearing that his men would desert to prospect for gold, he kept the find a secret. Houghton only revealed the discovery to his trusted associate Samuel Worth Hill, the veteran mineral explorer whose penchant for spicy language has been immortalized in the euphemism "What the Sam Hill!" Unfortunately, Dr. Houghton drowned later that year when his canoe capsized in a storm near Eagle Harbor, and the exact location of his gold find died with him.
In June the following year, Houghtons younger brother Jacob, found a vein of native copper on the Keweenaw Peninsula which held a small amount of gold. An assay yielded 10.25 ounces of copper, 1.75 ounces of silver and 12 grains of gold from the 28-ounce specimen.
Silas C. Smith, one of the first settlers in Marquette, claimed a few months before his death that he had discovered mineral deposits containing gold and silver within the city limits in 1854 and 1855. Although Smith never developed his finds, later discoveries in the city support his claims.
The next evidence of gold in the area was discovered during the silver mining boom in 1864. During an assay of mineral specimens from the Silver Lake district 12 miles northwest of Ishpeming, assayers found economic quantities of gold in a sample of iron pyrite. Although more than 35 silver and gold mining companies were formed and thousands of acres of land were bought and sold during the boom, only a few mines were actually begun. Some of these shafts and drifts produced small amounts of sliver ore, but none became successful mines or reported any gold production. The last silver mine closed down in 1868.
In 1869, Waterman Palmer sold several parcels of land to the Cascade Iron Company near the town which bears his name. He revealed that a small vein of gold-bearing quartz existed there. The iron company sampled the vein and found up to $900 worth of gold per ton of ore. The vein was too small to be mined profitably and was soon forgotten.
By 1906, gold mining was but a memory to most of Michigan, but the Grummett Gold and Silver Mining Company was still in existence and proposing to renew its explorations on its Michigamme prospect. At the companys 1906 stockholders meeting, a 2.5-cent-per-share assessment was called to finance explorations. Over the summer, George Grummett and his sons returned to the prospect and reopened the three old shafts, which had been flooded for years. Grummett was able to clean out the shafts, each of which was about 16 feet deep, and take samples of the ore in the vein. With specimens of free gold on display, the Grummett company offered the property for sale at a reasonable price, but no buyers came forward, and the prospect was again abandoned. In 1913, the property was sold, and no further work was done.
Forest service officials report that just about every river system in Michigan has had
shows of gold. Prospectors have found gold in the Manistee, Au Sable and other rivers. But
rivers are not the only place that gold has been found in Michigan. People dry pan for
gold in gravel pits. Many prospectors claim that gold can be found in just about any
Michigan gravel pit. In prospecting for gold, the "49ers" of the
California gold rush would wash gravel from stream beds in pans and sluices to extract the
metal deposited there by erosion. As these "placer" deposits played out, the
prospectors followed the rivers upstream, looking for the "mother lode," the
gold-bearing bedrock from which the secondary deposits had been eroded.
Although a number of these finds were authenticated, others were believed to be just
pyrite. It is doubtful that any of them is rich enough to be worked profitably.
Parts of the text on this page come from "Michigan Gold Mining in the Upper Peninsula" by Daniel Fountain. (1992, Lake Superior Port Cities, Inc.)
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