Spring 2010 Michigan Tech Magazine

The Chronicler

By John Gagnon

If you seek the legacy of copper mining in the Keweenaw Peninsula, look about you. The signs are everywhere: poor rock piles, masses of slag, solitary chimneys, old smelters, shaft houses, company houses, stamp sands, and office buildings.

That legacy is a mother lode for Larry Lankton, a Michigan Tech professor of history. It has inspired his four books about the copper range, most recently Hollowed Ground: Copper Mining and Community Building on Lake Superior, 1840s to 1990s. Published by Wayne State University Press, it provides an historical overview of the entire Lake Superior copper district, with an emphasis on the three biggest mining companies: Quincy, Calumet & Hecla, and Copper Range, including the White Pine Mine.

The search for copper peopled the Keweenaw—a mineral rush that was among the nation's first, if not the first, preceding the California gold rush by several years. Beginning in the early 1840s, the opening up of the copper range was part of America's westward movement. Lankton calls the Keweenaw "a little node of settlement, isolated, and well beyond any frontier line."

"It was way up here," he says. "On the edge. This environment was particularly hard because of the climate for one, the work for another, and the setting—water, woods, and winter. It was unforgiving."

Growing up in Lower Michigan and Illinois, Lankton toyed with being an engineer and with writing fiction. Then he married the two and found his niche: writing about technology and material culture, "what society makes to support life, provide food, and do work." Along the way, he earned a bachelor's in history and English from DePauw University and both a master's and PhD in American Civilization from the University of Pennsylvania before joining the Michigan Tech faculty in 1981.

Lankton is fascinated with this aspect of human endeavor. "I'm interested in stuff," he says. "That's one of my favorite words. How stuff comes about, how it was designed, what are its effects on society."

"Now, it's not true," he adds, "that only things count, because, obviously, there are values and ideas and intangible things in life. But, to a certain extent, you are what you own, and technology gives you what you own. So it's very important to everyone, and it changes over time, so life changes over time, and so does work."

One recurrent theme in his own work: how life and work became mechanized. He cites one particularly important development in the copper mines: the one-man drill, which came at a time, in the early 1900s, when companies and workers were knocking heads. The one-man drill replaced the two-man drill and meant the companies could get by on a half the number of miners. The new technology exacerbated ill feelings that had been stewing for years, and it triggered the storied strike of 1913–14, marked by vandalism, violence, and the infamous Italian Hall tragedy, in which seventy-three men, women, and children were crushed to death in a stairwell when someone falsely yelled "fire" during a crowded Christmas party.

Lankton avoids the temptation to sugarcoat or take sides in his writing.

"Were the companies good guys or bad guys?" Lankton asks himself, and then answers: "They are good guys sometimes and bad guys sometimes. I call it as I see it. The pressure is to be fair."

Editor Kathryn Wildfong of Wayne State University Press writes of Lankton, "He's known for the clarity and depth of his scholarship and for writing that is engaging and precise." He strives to uphold that reputation and crafts his prose to appeal to scholars as well as the general public.

"I don't use jargon," he says. "I don't use too many fancy words. I want to tell a story in language that people understand. I write for smart mechanics."

That simplicity affects his teaching, too. "There are two kinds of professors," he says. "One takes something simple and makes it very complex. The other one takes something complex and makes it simple. I'm the latter. I try to take big ideas and reduce them to basic ideas, in simple language, so people can understand them."

For nearly thirty years at Tech, Lankton has taught the history of the Copper Country. He likes to engage his students and readers with a different world—"learn about stuff they've never seen before and think about stuff they never thought of before. Open up people's eyes a little bit."

"This was a pretty hazardous place in the mid-nineteenth century," Lankton says. "If you went back to one of these mining communities, with your modern sensibilities, you'd feel like you were really at risk."

His inquiry into those mining communities is facilitated by what he calls a "treasure trove" of records, particularly from the Quincy Mining Company, which had, for instance, invoice books that listed everything that the company bought over the years. "You can see when they started buying dynamite, rock drills, and medicine."

Much of this written record is housed in the Michigan Tech Archives, where Lankton mines the past. He says of archival work, "You read dead people's mail. I say that in a humorous vein, but that's exactly what you're doing."

Dead men only tell partial tales, however. Unearthing truths from records, crumbling foundations, and old smokestacks requires a detective's sensibilities, says Lankton. And no matter how skilled the detective, sometimes the trail runs cold as ruins in winter. "A lot of times you ask a really good question, but the answer doesn't survive anywhere. The past doesn't leave us everything," he says. "It only leaves us parts of things."

With those fragments, he pieces together lyrical narratives on topics as wide ranging as company stores, communal pastures, labor relations, and the rise and fall of the copper economy. And though his subjects are unlikely to rise up from the grave in protest, Lankton allows himself no literary license. "I'm answerable to myself; you can't make up history," he says. "I'm honor bound to do justice to the people I write about."