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.