The Copper Mines of Lake Superior by T. A. Rickard: a review

Thomas Rickard may have been the best technical writer ever. He was exceptionally good at analyzing what he saw and explaining how the things he saw worked.

This book examined the state of the mining industry on Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula as of 1904. Although there’s quite a bit of local history and some social commentary in the text, the heart of the book is a mine-by-mine and plant-by-plant examination of the technical aspects of mining and processing minerals, as practiced in the copper country at the beginning of the twentieth century. This is an exceptionally lucid book. Although the author often lapses into jargon, it’s a jargon his readers could reasonably be expected to understand; when a concept or piece of equipment was unusual, he went to the trouble of defining it.

Rickard examined the mining practices of most of the major mines on the range, with the significant exceptions of the Calumet and Tamarack mines, where non-employee mining engineers were not welcome. For the mines he did examine, he highlighted what they did best, the roots of their technical preferences, and any glaring weaknesses he identified in their processes. He then did the same for the associated mills (including, interestingly, the C&H mill on Torch Lake). There’s a wealth of technical detail, and enough economic detail that one could estimate the entire cost of production for many of the mines.

Rickard singled out the management of the Atlantic for special praise, whose mine he clearly found delightful (oddly, he failed to mention the new-built Redridge dam, which was part of their operation). It’s quite clear he thought this may have been the world’s most efficient mining operation, and he described how they work in loving detail. This is surprisingly fun reading.

An excellent book, and a key book for any researcher studying Michigan’s copper range. It should be paired with William Gates’ book Michigan Copper and Boston Dollars, which examines the business and financial background for essentially the same mines, though the Gates book was published fifty years later. The third crucial copper range book is Larry Lankton’s Cradle to Grave, which dates from the 1990s and examines the social context and consequences of these same mining operations. These three works, together, are an excellent survey of this community from a variety of perspectives. Would that the Michigan iron ranges had anything comparable.


This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

The Copper Empire, volume 1, by Mike Forgrave: a review

Roughly fifty maps of towns and mining locations on the Keweenaw peninsula, with only a minimal amount of text. These are sort of idealized maps, actually, showing each town/mine’s main features but not tied to specific dates. So (according to the author/mapmaker) some of the maps include structures which not only are no longer there but which never coexisted on the specific site. The result is that each map locates both current (2009) buildings and construction which was dismantled 70 years ago.

That sounds worse than it is. This book is a reconstruction for someone who wishes to know where, for instance, the Mohawk mine’s paint house was, and will use now-existing roads and buildings as routings and landmarks. It’s also useful for folks reading about specific locations and trying to understand the geography of a book’s description.

A good book, although I suspect with a fairly limited potential audience. It’s available here in both paper and ebook formats. The ebook is PDF and is not suitable for e-ink readers but works just fine in my tablet.


This short review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

Black November by Andrew Klekner Kantar: a short review

It’s OK: A barebones retelling of the story of the wreck, with enough context in several dimensions. But I’m clearly not the target audience.


This short review was also posted on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

Pride of the Inland Seas by Bill Beck: a short review

A coffee-table book. And a well-researched and well-written history of the Duluth-Superior port and the activities, both at the port and away, which have made a fine harbor into a major port. Surprisingly good at describing the context of the issues driving the port’s history. And (of course) an array of excellent photographs. But it’s the text which makes this a worthwhile book, for anyone interested in Great Lakes history, whether or not that interest focuses on the Twin Ports.

One slight complaint: A few maps, showing the harbor’s changing usages, would have been helpful.


This short review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

Michigan’s Superior Boundary

Douglass Houghton, on some unintended consequences of including Isle Royale as part of Michigan (instead of Wisconsin–or Minnesota, which hadn’t yet been imagined):

By the act admitting Michigan as a State into the confederacy, and in which her boundaries are defined, it does not appear to have been the intention to include within her limits any portion of territory lying upon the north shore of Lake Superior, but in consequence of the peculiar shape of the coast at that point where the national boundary line "last touches Lake Superior," at the mouth of Pigeon River, a direct line to the mouth of the Montreal River, if followed literally, would throw within the State of Michigan several small rocky islands, together with a few miles of the south cape of Pigeon Bay, situate on the north coast. This boundary leaves in Wisconsin the whole of the Apostles’ group of islands, near to the south coast, while it includes within Michigan, Isle Royale, situate near to the north coast of the lake.

From Houghton’s 1841 Fourth Report to the Michigan Legislature, as excerpted in Alvah Bradish’s Memoir of Douglass Houghton.

This map may help you parse the Houghton paragraph. I find from Google that the "last touches" wording is from the federal law establishing the (prospective) state’s boundary as a result of the Toledo War, and that it is repeated early in the 1850 State Constitution. (I also see that current Michigan AG Mike Cox quoted the phrase [pdf] in a 2004 opinion.) It looks like Houghton didn’t expect a fully literal interpretation of the boundary to stand. He was right in that Michigan evidently doesn’t "own" the last few miles of Minnesota’s North Shore, nor the aforesaid rocky islands–but Isle Royale remains part of Michigan, regardless of its proximity to Minnesota. And Ontario.

Apologies, couldn’t resist that "aforesaid." And Houghton’s use of "confederacy" caught my eye. Nowadays we’d likely say "union." Maybe "federation" if we wanted to insert some variety. I’m guessing confederacy went out of style in this context around 1860, and never recovered.

Revision History:

S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald by Raymond Ramsey: a review

Ramsay, one of the engineers who helped design the Edmund Fitzgerald, examines the evidence and concludes:

  • The ship was under-engineered.
  • The ship was probably poorly constructed.
  • The ship was poorly maintained.
  • The ship had a history of unusually hard use.
  • When she met an unprecedented storm, the poor worn out ship failed.

I have, of course, left out a lot of detail. This all seems plausible, and explains what happened on November 10, 1975, at least as well as the prevailing theories. And you really can’t fault the author’s credentials.

Nonetheless: This is an awful book. At the very least, it needed an editor; a better solution would have been a competent co-author. Much of the argument is poorly-sourced assertion. The author spends far too much time raving about conspiracies and coverups. Moreover, expecting families whose sons and husbands died with the Fitz to join his battle after all these years is almost certainly a lost cause. And hiding your arguments in disorderly, rant-prone, and opaque prose is an unlikely strategy for convincing anyone of your righteousness.

Worth reading if: You’re obsessed with the Fitz, or you really want an engineers’ perspective on the disaster. Otherwise a waste of your time.


This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

The Iron Ores of Lake Superior (1923) by Crowell and Murray: a short review

Absolutely essential if you’re studying iron ore shipping on the great lakes, or iron mining along the shores of Lake Superior. This book contains a surprising, and wonderful, amount of information about individual mines, and about the companies which ran those mines.


This short review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

Captain Ward

Eber Brock Ward was Michigan’s most famous and most innovative Rich Man for much of the 19th century; his best comp is certainly Henry Ford, who flourished about 75 years later. I don’t think anyone’s written a full-blown biography of Ward, but there are pieces of him all over my library.

Bruce Catton’s Michigan says this:

Men who ought to have known better feared that those who planned the new [Sault Ste Marie] canal were much too optimistic. E.B. Ward of Detroit was the lakes’ chief steamboat magnate, just then, and he wrote anxiously to a Michigan Congressman protesting that the locks, planned to measure 350 feet in length by 70 in width, were much too large; 260 feet by 60 feet would be ample, because steamboats too large for such locks would be too big to get up the St. Mary’s River, which had shallow places with hard-rock bottoms…. [page 120]

…Captain Ward, as competent a businessman as the lakes country afforded, had turned out to be a terrible prophet, not because he lacked intelligence, but simply because neither he nor the other men who were industrializing this wilderness had any notion how fast the process was going to go, once it got started. [122]

The CCC’s Michigan Guide tells us:

Early in 1853, Captain Eber B. Ward, a Detroit shipping magnate, purchased the [John] Biddle estate [in Wyandotte] and established the Eureka Iron and Steel Company on the waterfront, the first plant of its kind in the Detroit area. A blast furnace and rolling mill were built, and a settlement was platted. In the next 20 years, Wyandotte pioneered in the steel industry with two important firsts: the first steel analysis laboratory in the United States (1862), and the manufacture of the first Bessemer steel [properly, this was Kelly-patent steel] in America (1864)…. Because of the mill’s position between the ore beds of upper Michigan and the coal fields of Ohio and Indiana, it seemed probably that it would become one of the most successful plants in the Nation; but Ward had overreached himself. When he fell dead in Detroit in 1875, his partners, hit by the panic of 1873, permitted the mill to fall into ruin…. [T]wo years before his death, Captain Ward had drilled an oil and gas well on his property, which, although it proved unproductive, revealed the existence of an immense salt bed of good quality and not too deep to be exploited commercially. [470]

Ward gets quite a bit of attention from Jean McHugh in her biography of Alexander Holley; here’s one paragraph:

Ward’s sole aim was to build the experimental plant and to rush it into operation. He was a strange person. To his credit, he rarely interfered with Durfee’s operation [Wyandotte’s Kelly-patent mill]. He has been described as a man of extremes: self-controlled and passionate, shrewd and credulous, persistent yet changeable. He was not an ironmaster in the true sense of the word and had little real understanding of the details of Durfee’s experiments. In his anxiety to make a financial success of the venture, Ward seemed always ready to listen to any suggestion, no matter how ridiculous. He probably had no intention of creating difficulties for Durfee, but seemed unable to resist trying out a persuasive scheme, especially if it were put forward by those unfriendly to Durfee. [175]

He’s mentioned four times in James C. Mills’ Our Inland Seas; this one is typical:

The large steamer Planet, built by Captain Ward at Newport, in 1855, and which was a leviathan of the time, was added to the [Goodrich] line about 1863. She was of twelve hundred tons, and splendidly furnished, but ran only until 1866, when she was taken off the line and dismantled. [240]

Finally, and most surprisingly, Ward and his sons show up in Peter Morris’s wonderful Baseball Fever:

For five years, Ward tried desperately to make businessmen of his sons, but failed miserably. He put Charley in charge of a business in Toledo, and Charley proceeded to run up thirty-seven thousand dollars in debts. Captain Ward bailed him out, and Charley ran up another two hundred thousand dollars in debts that his father again had to make good. E. B. Ward made similar attempts with Milton, with no more success. Milton ran up large bills in Ludington, Milwaukee, and Ripon, Wisconsin, without making much pretense of following his father’s instructions. Both sons of the state’s “first real captain of industry” became notorious for their “questionable industry,” though it’s unclear whether this should be attributed to insanity, rebellion against their father, or mere laziness. In 1874, the Detroit Evening News announced that “Milt Ward has at last found his strong point. He says that he can sit in a chair, and balance longer on the two hind legs than any man in the West.” [235-36]


I’ve no plan to write Ward’s missing biography, but I’m intrigued enough that I’ll be posting some things about him in this Journal from time to time.

Revision History:

Engineer’s Day

On one day a year, you can get close to the Soo Locks:

Engineers Day

Camera: Nikon D70

In June of every year the Corps of Engineers holds an open house at the Soo Locks, and thousands of fans show up to explore the grounds, view the passing ships from an unusual perspective, and look over the exhibits. Yesterday was that day, and Joan and I were among the crowd. Here we see some of the visitors crossing the massive gate which holds back Lake Superior at the the downriver end of the 105 foot wide Poe Lock.

While Sault Ste. Marie is an ancient city by North American standards–the first white settlers arrived in the 1500s, and there’s been a city at this location since 1638–the event which defines the modern Sault occurred on June 18, 1855, when a ship named the Illinois traversed the then-new Soo Locks and opened traffic between Lake Superior and the rest of the Great Lakes–thus connecting the Lake Superior iron and copper mines to the eastern United States. The locks have been rebuilt and expanded since then, but the traffic’s been constant, and constitute an important part of the American economy.

They’re celebrating the sesquicentennial this summer, and the celebration began yesterday. We missed the opening ceremony, but had a fine time wandering the grounds and watching as St. Clair and Herbert C. Jackson passed through the locks yesterday.

Revision History: