28
Mar
10

The Portage Lake Smelter Tour- The Lake Superior Smelting Company, Pt.1

Continuing our tour of the Portage Lake smelters, we move on to the oldest complex, which is actually right next door to the Quincy Smelter. The Lake Superior Smelter is still around, but you probably drive right by on the road between Hancock and Dollar Bay without noticing it! Many of it’s buildings survive today as part of the Houghton County Road Commission.

The oldest of the Portage Lake smelters had one of the longest and most complex operational and business histories of any mining-related enterprise on the Keweenaw Peninsula. As small mines sprang up after the initial copper rush of the late 1840s, mining companies routinely shipped their mineral to smelters in Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and other developed urban centers for treatment. However, the limited shipping season and the high cost of transportation quickly revealed the need for a local smelter.

As such, the first smelter in the Keweenaw, the Portage Lake Smelting Works, was constructed in Hancock in 1860. The smelter featured four reverberatory furnaces, and was virtually identical in design to a smelter in Detroit.[i] As the only smelter in the region, the Portage Lake Smelting Works treated copper for virtually all of the local mines. In 1865/66, for example, the smelter held contracts with the Quincy, Pewabic, Franklin, Isle Royale, Huron, Grand Portage, Hancock, Arcadian, Concord, South Pewabic, and Hecla mines.[ii]In 1867, the Portage Lake Smelting Works merged with the Waterbury and Detroit Copper Company to form the Detroit and Lake Superior Copper Company.

For the next 20 years, most mines sent their copper to Hancock to be refined, and as such the smelter complex in Hancock grew exponentially.[iii] According to Sanborn fire insurance maps drawn in 1888 and 1893, the smelter featured 13 reverberatory furnaces in three buildings, as well as a cupola building with four furnaces. The surrounding support structures included a combined machine and blacksmith shop, a cooper shop, an icehouse, at least two smaller office buildings, a sand house, and several small charcoal storage sheds. On the Portage Lake shoreline, a large lime and charcoal storage yard surrounded a mineral warehouse and dock. On land, meanwhile, the smelter was served by the narrow gauge Hancock and Calumet Railroad. Several slag storage sheds lined the H&C tracks, suggesting that slag was shipped out by rail for disposal elsewhere. The entire complex was connected throughout with small hand-powered rail lines, primarily for moving cast products to the dock warehouse and slag to the storage sheds. Despite this expansive complex, by 1900 the Hancock works were in decline. Only six reverberatories remained, with one furnace building converted into the Palace Ice Rink.[iv]

Ironically, this dramatic decline was linked to business transactions which were a direct result of the smelter’s longstanding monopoly on copper smelting in the Keweenaw.By the late 1880s several companies began investing in small-scale smelting operations of their own. In Dollar Bay, a small smelter was added to the Tamarack and Osceola Copper Manufacturing Company wire and rolling mills to handle those companies’ mineral in 1889. Tamarack and Osceola consolidated their smelting operations with the Detroit and Lake Superior Company in 1891, forming the Lake Superior Smelting Company. [v] Initially capitalized for $1.2 million, shares in the LSSC sold for $25 each, and the company was controlled by and smelted for the Tamarack, Osceola, Isle Royale, and Ahmeek mines.

Throughout the 1890s the LSSC continued operating smelters in both Hancock and Dollar Bay, but the Dollar Bay works were continually improved and enlarged. By 1903 the Hancock plant remained operational, but was used only to meet auxiliary production needs. The Hancock smelter was ultimately abandoned and dismantled by 1908.

The Lake Superior Smelting Works, just to the right of the old swing bridge.
The Lake Superior Smelting Works, just to the right of the old swing bridge.
 

Today the Lake Superior Smelter in Hancock is still around, but largely changed from its original appearance. You’ve probably noticed the long, low poor rock buildings with an arched roof. These were some of the original furnace buildings, which are now used to store snowplows and other equipment.


[i] Gates, William B. Michigan Copper and Boston Dollars: An Economic History of the Michigan Copper Mining Industry. Pg. 28, 42-43.

[ii] Letterbook of the Portage Lake Smelting Works. Letter of May 10, 1865, and “Engrossement of Mineral and Slag smelted with the production of Fine Copper at the Portage Lake Smelting Works in the year 1866.”

[iii] Gates, William B. Michigan Copper and Boston Dollars: An Economic History of the Michigan Copper Mining Industry. Pg. 73.

[iv] Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps. Hancock, Michigan. June 1888, No.5; August 1893, No.5; June 1900, No.3.

[v] Gates, William B. Michigan Copper and Boston Dollars: An Economic History of the Michigan Copper Mining Industry. 

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