The Copper Country has its icons: Lake Superior, the Quincy No. 2 shaft-rockhouse, the Portage Lake Lift Bridge, to name a few. Those with a passion for industrial heritage or a penchant for exploring might also point to a landmark on Torch Lake. On the shoreline of the mill town of Mason along M-26, a rusted and decaying hulk looms out of the water. This industrial dinosaur, out of commission for decades and now known simply as “the dredge,” once cut an impressive figure as it and others like it trawled the lake in search of red metal.
Early in the heavy industrial period of the Copper Country, Torch Lake developed as a central location
for company stamp mills. Copper, of course, does not come out of the ground already processed and molded into shining ingots; it is largely piecemeal, lodged in larger chunks of poor rock from which it must be removed. With steam-powered machines fueled by the abundant waters of Torch Lake, stamp mills crushed that rock into small pieces and sorted the usable copper from it. The sizable pieces of poor rock could be preserved for use in construction of roads or buildings. In the years before about 1910, however, the smallest fragments (tailings) offered little value to companies like Quincy and Calumet & Hecla. For the sake of convenience and cost, they dumped this waste material virtually wholesale into the adjacent lake.
The mining companies, however, kept an eye on and indeed played an important role in the development of innovative technologies that could improve their efficiency and maximize their profits. In the dawn of the twentieth century, however, new processes and devices offered the Copper Country’s bigger players a chance to turn their trash into cash. In March 1913, C&H chief metallurgist C. Harry Benedict received a patent for a procedure that would use ammonia solutions to “leach,” or drain, native copper from the rock containing it. We’ll skip the technical details for now, but interested readers might enjoy a description published in the professional Mining Journal in 1915. The sophisticated and yet logical system suddenly opened up possibilities for what historian Larry Lankton estimated as 152 acres of C&H tailings dumped in Torch Lake. Rather than waste, they were brimming with copper ready to be reclaimed.
Before the copper could be leached from the rock with Benedict’s ammonia process, it had to come out of the lake. Here’s where the dredge sailed into the picture. Other mining districts, including parts of California, had just begun to adopt these large, multi-story vessels to scoop up river rock in search of gold, and C&H quickly got on board. A report in the Mining and Scientific Press described the proposed operations of the company’s new dredge:
“This old tailing, after passing through the usual pipe-line supported on pontoons, will discharge at a point on the shore of the lake near the regrinding plant, where a second set of suction pumps will pick it up and raise it to a set of classifying and dewatering tanks… the main dredge has a capacity much greater than the rest of the plant… and a portion of the sand pumped will be diverted to fill the excavation [of the lake] made during the winter.”
The dredge that arrived to begin the reclamation process in about 1915 was the handiwork of South Milwaukee’s Bucyrus-Erie Company, and, according to one Daily Mining Gazette article, weighed some 1150 tons. A second dredge, also with a hull and machine by Bucyrus, arrived in 1924; the company appears to have owned a third only briefly. Until the 1950s, the dredges did exactly what C&H had hoped, scooping up over 50 million tons of Torch Lake tailings that produced 423 million pounds of copper. Men from the mill towns of Hubbell, Lake Linden, and other settlements in particular found employment in the C&H reclamation division, which pioneer Benedict–in a remark that may seem somewhat self-aggrandizing–credited as preventing the complete collapse of the Copper Country when prices for the mineral fell in the wake of World War I.
The Quincy Mining Company also got into the reclamation game, but their dredge purchases came much later. Buck Construction in Superior built the house of their first dredge; Bucyrus provided the hull and machinery. Quincy Dredge #1 began its work in about 1943 and sank unceremoniously into the lake on January 15, 1956. It remains there, hidden under the gently lapping waters, to this day. This sinking, however, did not put Quincy out of the reclamation business. Shortly before, C&H had sold its original dredge to the competition. According to the Gazette, Quincy operated this grand old vessel until 1967, when its work was over, and it collapsed, exhausted, on the stamp sand beach.
Thus ended the era of copper reclamation on Torch Lake, and so began the slow decay of an icon. Today, it bears the rust and rot marks of time and the scars left by visitors. In spite of its infirmities, the dredge offers a fascinating testament to the ingenuity and scientific advance of the copper mines and the industrial heyday of the Keweenaw Peninsula.