Winter 2010-2011 Michigan Tech Magazine

Tech Archaeologists Tackle the Cliff

By John Gagnon

Sean Gohman spent last summer unearthing the past, pinpointing industrial ruins near the crossroads town of Phoenix, a half-hour north of Houghton and a century-and-a-half removed from the highway traffic zipping by just a hundred yards away.

Starting in May, Gohman filled his days scaling poor rock and slogging through swamp water at the storied Cliff Mine. "It was always an ordeal," Gohman says, for both him and the students in an archaeology field school that helped to map the site. In August, he was immersed in paperwork, putting the finishing touches on his master's thesis and setting off in pursuit of a doctorate in Tech's industrial heritage and archaeology program. "It's hard to get used to sitting inside," he said. "It's a weird transition."

For this native of St. Cloud, Minnesota, Michigan's past constitutes an irresistible tug. "I want to understand where I'm at," he says. "I like anybody's local history. I like spending time in the woods. I like historic preservation. So this is the perfect place to be. It's not what I thought I'd be doing, but I'm glad I'm here. I lucked out."

The cliffs near Phoenix are part of a rocky, copper-bearing spine that runs the length of the Keweenaw Peninsula. The Cliff Mine was situated on the top and the bottom of an escarpment that rises two hundred feet above the tableland. The undertaking included a company town, a mining operation, and two cemeteries: a place to live, work, and die.

The Cliff operated from 1845 to 1870. At its peak, it employed 850 workers. Over twenty-five years, the miners wrested 34 million pounds of copper from its adits, shafts, drifts, and stopes.

It has been called "the mighty Cliff" and "America's first great copper mine." It was one of the early mines in the Lake Superior copper district; it had the first company town on the Keweenaw Peninsula; and it was the first profitable mine in region. Horace Greeley visited the Keweenaw in 1847 and wrote in the New York Tribune, "To-day the Cliff Mine has no rival in this region nor in the world."

Nineteenth-century pictures of the Cliff Mine show the base of the bluff bare of vegetation. Now evergreens and white birch have reclaimed the landscape and conceal the remnants of adits (there were seven), shaft houses, chimneys, walls, and buildings. "Stuff—material culture—is our bread and butter," Gohman says of it all. He and his workers located one wall that has stood the test of time: twenty feet high and fifteen feet long, made of mine rock, with not a speck of mortar, as sturdy as ever.

Gohman is especially interested in how landscape fashions technology, and he likes to piece together what this mining operation was like. "That big cliff decided what they could or could not do," he says. Huge pieces of pure copper, weighing tons, were unique to the Cliff Mine, and they dictated the technology. Thus, the copper had to be chiseled apart and hoisted, by hand, whim, or engine.

Associate Professor Tim Scarlett and Assistant Professor Sam Sweitz oversaw the field school. Scarlett describes the Cliff as "one of the most important mines in nineteenth-century America, historically, socially, technologically, and economically."

Ghost towns and mining ruins are Scarlett's passion. "What they represent has fallen from the public consciousness," he says. "People are almost entirely divorced from the work needed to produce the materials we consume." Turn the lights on? You need copper wire. "It's not magic," he notes. "It's based on an extraction and production process that meets a demand. It teaches us. It reminds us. We look to the past to think about the future."

The long-range goal at the site is historic preservation, but "before you do that," Gohman says, "you have to know what's there." His initial hope: interpretative signage, so visitors can tell what they are looking at. His broader dream: excavation. "I'd like to get deeper"—he's talking literally and figuratively—"and see what more there is." For his PhD, he wants to conduct further study on the early mining technologies of the Copper Country.

As the class wound up, the students and faculty hosted tours of the mining site. Word spread, and people, including alumni, came from as far away as Indiana and Illinois. "There's a sense or excitement in the community broadly," a gratified Scarlett says. The industrial leftovers impressed one June visitor: "It takes your breath away."

The tours marked the end of the field methods course, where students endured a down-anddirty apprenticeship in tools of the archaeological trade: surveying, measuring, and mapping in meddlesome terrain. One of Gohman's helpers was third-year anthropology student Steve Moray, who wrote about his experience:

Here we are at the end of field school, and I'm scratched, bruised, bug-bit, and sunburned. I've been hot, cold, soaking wet, tired, and sore. I've met some fantastic people and learned so much more than I ever could have in just a classroom. I paid tuition to work for ten hours a day, but it was worth it. I absolutely love it, and I wouldn't trade a minute. 

The Cliff Mine site is owned by the Keweenaw County Road Commission. The mapping project was funded by the Keweenaw National Historical Park Advisory Council and the LSGI Technology Venture Fund LP.

More on the Cliff Mine and Michigan Tech’s industrial archaeology people and program is available at these websites: