Circling Lake Superior, Part 7: Ghost mines, the South Shore, and home

KEWEENAW PENINSULA, Mich. — This was a good day to visit ghost towns. The wind started in the night, and by morning had pushed in more clouds and blew constantly. We spent the night in Calumet — off the lake, but picked for the labor history my family is interested in. The land there is pocked with abandoned copper mines, and around every bend in the road stand half-crumbled stone buildings and pieces of mining equipment.

Some of it is a little monstrous and sad — the river dredge slowly deteriorating in a marsh looks like a dying animal. The Keweenaw National Historical Park, consisting of two former mines miles apart, provides a good snapshot of copper mining and the terrible crash that wrecked the region when the mining companies pulled out. It is a story instantly recognizable to anyone from Northeastern Minnesota, and so we are sympathetic learning about it; like so many sights on this trip, it is different enough that it is new and special, and what we learn complements what we already know.

The towns themselves are further along from the crash than towns in Minnesota might be — and there is little copper mining coming back — and have rebuilt or are rebuilding themselves. Those who are left are in it for the long haul. Houghton has Michigan Tech University as well. One spot that needs a little sprucing up is a memorial for the 73 people, 59 of them children, who died in a stampede at the Italian Hall in Calumet. During a Christmas party held by striking workers in 1913, someone yelled “fire” up the stairs; when people rushed down them, they found the door locked and they panicked. While there were several investigations, it has never been discovered who was responsible, although it was widely believed that the anti-union Citizens Alliance or company goons were responsible.

Two skips at the Quincy Mine Hoist
MinnPost photo by Catherine Conlan
Two skips at the Quincy Mine Hoist: The left skip brought water out of the shafts. Miners sat on the seats on the right skip and plunged into the shaft just behind the bottom of the fence. The shaft was almost 2 miles long and more than a mile deep.

Ashland: signal of trip’s end
It was hard to leave the peninsula, even to turn back to Lake Superior. This was our last day, and once we were done picking out books to buy and eating a late lunch, we knew we had to hit the road home. The South Shore of Wisconsin is familiar to us, so once we hit Ashland we felt as though our trip really was over.

Driving around the lake, I found places that appealed to me more, and in different ways, than Minnesota’s North Shore, which I had not expected. I would go back to Agawa Bay in a second, and Matt, who doesn’t like to backtrack, said he would like to explore the Keweenaw more. A circle tour around Lake Superior is a trip in itself, but every day could have been its own week-long trip, and I hope to take some of those someday. 

Circle tour redux
Thanks for following along with our trip! As I reread it, I see that it’s not always clear where we stayed on different days. I tried to write more about the lake itself than make this a simple travelogue, so here is a quick rundown of where we were.

MONDAY: Two Harbors to Rainbow Falls Provincial Park, Ontario. This was a long haul.  We spent more time than we had expected to at the Grand Portage park, lost an hour at the time change just before Thunder Bay, and were pretty discouraged by the time we pulled in at 10:30 p.m. to the campground. When planning the trip, we had considered spending a night on the Sleeping Giant Provincial Park; if you have kids or are starting your trip from the Twin Cities, this might be a better option.

TUESDAY: Rainbow Falls to White Lake Provincial Park.  This was a much better drive and really was the beginning of the interesting things on the Trans-Canadian Highway, including the inuksuit found along the roadway. Take a few minutes to stop at Aguasabon Falls, a few miles west of Terrace Bay, for a breathtaking view. White Lake has a great swimming beach and good fishing.

WEDNESDAY: White Lake Campground to Agawa Bay in Lake Superior Provincial Park. This day, for us, was very foggy. We went through Wawa and I somehow neglected to take a picture of the giant goose there. This was a good place to restock the cooler and take a break. Magpie Falls, just outside of town, caused us navigational difficulty for some reason, but it was worth the trouble. I’ve already raved about Agawa Bay; Lake Superior Provincial Park would be an outstanding weeklong trip on its own.

THURSDAY and FRIDAY: Agawa Bay to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Our return to civilization. We came back to humanity full of bug bites and dirty clothes, and felt a little overwhelmed by Sault Ste. Marie, which seemed junky after Agawa Bay. These were our first meals that didn’t come from a cooler in three days. Engineers Day is held at the Soo Locks every year during the third week of June and is a fun way to get a new view of lakers and salties. We ate at Antlers, which was recommended to us by the woman who checked our papers at the border; the walls are covered with hunting trophies, and there are several local brews on tap. It’s an easy drive down to Mackinac Bridge if you want to see it.

SATURDAY:  Sault Ste. Marie to Whitefish Bay and the Keweenaw Peninsula. I found this part of the drive to be tiring. We were away from the lake in scrubby forest with few towns. It is possible that I was just annoyed that I hadn’t seen a moose the whole trip.

The Keweenaw Peninsula: If you’re interested in history — labor, Finnish, mining, immigrants, or any combination of the above — I would strongly recommend taking two days around here. The beaches are beautiful as well, and there are plenty of hotels and pubs in the area.

Have you done the Circle Tour? Did you go clockwise our counterclockwise? What spots are your favorites?

Part 1: Exploring new, yet familiar, terrain
Part 2: Grand Portage has jewel of an exhibit on fur trade
Part 3: Bluffs and falls show lake’s wild side
Part 4: On a lake, but not the big one
Part 5: A perfect campsite, and pictographs at Agawa Rock
Part 6: A disorienting switch to industrial shores and locks

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by David Thompson on 07/01/2009 - 02:08 pm.

    What a wonderful series! It brought back many fond memories. My family’s last trip around the lake was 20 years ago, in the early fall. At that time, the provincial parks closed at the end of August but you could still camp in them. I remember spending the night at Sleeping Giant Provincial Park just outside of Thunder Bay. The park was deserted except for a fox and raccoon, who waited impatiently for us to settle ourselves so they could raid our supplies. I’m sure the tent trailer’s metal sides were a great source of frustration for them. We had a great time the next day, digging for amethysts at the nearby amethyst mine. My favorite stop was at Old Woman Bay. It was a hot, sunny day so we decided to go for a swim at the lovely sandy beach. One toe in the water and out I went! I could not believe how cold the water was. The kids had a great time playing in the water for 20 minutes or so. I also remember the brilliant red maple trees on the road into Sioux St. Marie. The leaves turn early in the fall, north of tbe border.

  2. Submitted by Catherine Conlan on 07/01/2009 - 03:30 pm.

    Oh, I bet fall is a great time to take that trip.

    My husband and son went to the amethyst mine a couple years ago and brought me back a 30-pound rock for my birthday. We thought about going again, but decided to stick with things none of us had seen before. I have also found tiny (pinkie-fingernail-sized) rough amethysts on my favorite agate beaches — it’s amazing to think they’ve come so far.

    The only wildlife we saw was a bear beside the road near Marathon, but we saw plenty of wildflowers, which were in full bloom last week. Maybe next time we’ll do it in the fall.

  3. Submitted by Richard Rowan on 07/01/2009 - 08:46 pm.

    I’ve really enjoyed following your trip. Last year my wife and I followed our noses along the south shore, and then cut across the UP to Mackinac and stayed on the shore of Lake Huron (the Moran Bay Motel in St. Ignace has a million dollar view for fifty bucks a night). Your series has inspired us to head up that way again.

  4. Submitted by Catherine Conlan on 07/02/2009 - 10:51 pm.

    Thanks for reading, Richard! Both St. Ignace and Mackinac seemed extremely reasonable, as far as I could tell, it wasn’t overrun with travelers when we were there. I like the places where two great lakes come together, and that area was beautiful. Enjoy your trip!

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