Part 2 in our continuing series about the history of Quincy and the other Portage Lake smelters. Today we wrap up our look at the Quincy Smelter. Our next post will look at the oldest smelter on Portage Lake, the Lake Superior Smelting Company.
During this period of rapid growth (1898-1910), the Quincy Smelter handled copper produced in the Quincy Mine as well as the products of several other local mines. Between its construction in 1898 and 1908, no less than 13 mines (Arcadian, Michigan, Franklin tribute, Mass Consolidated, Champion, Adventure Consolidated, Winona, Phoenix Consolidated, Rhode Island, Victoria, Franklin, Centennial, and Allouez) sent their copper to Ripley to be smelted by Quincy.[i] Due to the somewhat variable nature of copper smelting, the Quincy Smelter employed different numbers of men at different times, ranging from 16 men (working on a Sunday, when the works were typically closed) to 80 to 90 men. After the cupola was put out of blast, the cupola workers were no longer needed, returning to work when the furnace was restarted.
After this initial period of prosperity and expansion, the Quincy Smelter experienced the first of many difficult times which reflected the increasingly precarious position of the Keweenaw copper mines in general. In 1913 the labor unrest and general strike emanating from the Calumet and Hecla mines spread to Quincy, which closed its mines for 10 days in August. Although workers slowly returned to the underground and surface plants, the smelter was closed for over two months, reopening with one furnace lit on October 19. Additionally, as World War One broke out in 1914, the demand for copper fell off, leaving the smelter with little work. As the war dragged on, custom orders increased, but high operating costs meant that little more than maintenance work was performed at the smelter. Then, in another flurry of construction in 1919, a new 16 by 32 foot furnace was added. In an effort to reduce costs and increase efficiency, the new furnace was capable of refining 130,000 pounds of copper per charge, more than double the capacity of the older furnaces. The new furnace was charged with a 12 ½ ton overhead crane, and tapped into a 22 foot diameter Walker casting wheel. The casting room was equipped with a 6 ton crane, and cooled castings from the Walker machine were automatically transported via an elevated trolley to the dockside warehouse.[ii]
Despite these improvements, 1920 marked the first time in 50 years that the Quincy Mining Company failed to pay dividends to its stockholders, beginning a long, slow slide towards closure. The smelter closed in 1931, followed by the Quincy Mine in 1932. While the mine reopened for business in 1937, the smelter remained closed but in a state of readiness, maintained on a yearly budget of $6,000. Even while closed, the smelter did generate some small profit for Quincy, as in 1940, when cleanup of the site yielded a small amount of recoverable copper. The Quincy Mine permanently closed on September 1, 1945; however, the smelter would soon see an upswing in activity.[iii]
Although the Quincy Mine closed for good in 1945, the Quincy Smelter actually reopened in 1948. Reactivated to smelt small amounts of Calumet and Hecla mineral on a toll basis, a small furnace was built at the smelter to handle rock reclaimed from Torch Lake, marking the first smelting activity at the site since 1931. To cope with the increased workload, the No.5 furnace was rebuilt and reconfigured to use pulverized coal fuel.[iv] The smelter continued to operate through the 1950s and 1960s, slowly shifting from the treatment of reclaimed stamp sands to scrap copper. Faced with increasing environmental regulations, the smelter closed permanently in 1971.
Interested in learning more about the Quincy Smelter? Several resources are available online. Visit the Quincy Mining Company records of the Historic American Engineering Record, run by the U.S. Department of the Interior to document historic industrial sites. Simply search for “Quincy Mine” to see a complete set of measured drawing, black and white photos, and hundreds of data pages relating to the Quincy mine, smelter, and stamp mills. Another great resource is the Keweenaw Digital Archive, run by the Michigan Tech Archives and Copper Country Historical Collections. The Digital Archive contains thousands of images of the Copper Country, including all of the pictures above. This online collection is just a fraction of the Archives’ collection (so be sure to visit the Archives in person if possible!) but is easily accessible from your computer.
[i] Record Book of the Quincy Smelting Works, 1898-1908.
[ii] QMC Annual Reports, 1910-1920.
[iii] QMC Annual Reports, 1928-1929, 1937, 1939-1940, 1945
[iv] QMC Annual Reports, 1948-1950.