Clambering about Isle Royale, a slender, nearly 50-mile strip of wilderness in Lake Superior, Fred Dustin found himself stumbling upon one ancient copper pit after another.
Far west of McCargo Cove, the archaeologist Clair Brown, a botanist, found a mine shaft known as the Minong Mine. And then another, and another, and still more.
“From this point,” Dustin noted in a report from his 1929-30 survey of the island that today is Isle Royale National Park, “the prehistoric pits gradually increase in number until they become so thick they run into each other a little west of the main working of the Minong. An enumeration would be difficult. Dr. [Carl] Guthe [director of the Museum of Anthropology at the University of Michigan] and I estimated the number for a distance of eighty rods northeast and southwest along the side of the ridge near the principal white man's pit. We thought that about a thousand in that area would be conservative.”
Dustin, Brown, and Guthe were part of a University of Michigan expedition to the island in 1929 and 1930 to survey its flora, fauna, geology, and archaeology. Still, at the time they were just the most recent in roughly 40 centuries years to marvel at the copper veins. For more than 4,000 years, the National Park Service notes, “people risked the lake crossing for copper, the rich fishery, and the spiritual beauty of what the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) came to call Minong, ‘the good place.'”
Dustin and his companions couldn't help but stumble over evidence of those past centuries of copper mining.
“We noted hammerstone which had rolled down into the [Minong Mine] pit from the ledges on the northernly side, and upon climbing up and around to the place from which they had fallen, I found an ancient working on the very edge of later operations by white men,” he wrote. “Southwest of the mine, I saw a fallen pine about thirty inches in diameter near the roots, which had raised a mass of stones and soil. In this were held a dozen used hammers, one weighing sixty to seventy-five pounds and the smallest about a pound, and I also noted a pile of five used hammers covered with moss and lichen. At another place, a symmetrical, smooth stone lay among a group of hammers.”
Two years ago the Minong Mine site was designated a National Historic Landmark for its long history of copper mining.
The NHL boundary covers over 200 acres and encompasses the Minong Mine archaeological site and the McCargoe Cove occupation archaeological site. The Minong Mine site includes the Indigenous copper mining pit concentration and the historical remnants of the Minong Mining Company. The McCargoe Cove site includes both an Indigenous occupation site and the remains of the historic village of Cove.
Archaeological and historical evidence suggests copper mining activity by native groups started no less than 4,500 years ago, a park release said. Mining continued through the 1880s.
The mine site is just one aspect of the cultural resources that can be found on the island, and which the Park Service has developed a plan for managing. The plan covers the park's archaeological resources, cultural landscapes, historic structures, and museum collections. And not just those on land.
“Cultural resources ranging from lithic scatters of chipped stone to lighthouses reveal a rich history of human use spanning from Archaic times (ca. 3000 BC) to the present day and reflect a rich, freshwater maritime history,” notes the plan, which was adopted by the Park Service last week.
Regarding maritime history, the island over the decades has hosted some lighthouses, including Rock Harbor Lighthouse , Isle Royale Lighthouse , Passage Island Lighthouse , and Rock of Ages Lighthouse , the agency notes.
“The island could be both a haven during storms and a deadly obstacle that claimed numerous vessels over the years. Isle Royale is well known for its many shipwrecks; 10 major ships and many smaller vessels have met their demise in Isle Royale waters, and the island is an important destination for experienced divers,” points out the environmental assessment prepared for the Nonwilderness Cultural Resources Management Plan.
You can find the plan on this website.
Elements of the plan include:
- Emphasis on the restoration of historic structures and cultural landscapes.
- Additional visitor opportunities, such as volunteer work and access to cultural landscapes.
- Increased efforts to document and understand the use and importance of Ojibwe fishing and lifeways at Isle Royale.
- Work with tribes to enhance or revive relationships with Isle Royale.
- Adaptive reuse of historic structures and cultural landscapes on Barnum and Washington Islands.
- Restoration of the historic Rock Harbor Guesthouse to function as a hostel or similar overnight lodging facility.
- Establishment of scientific and demonstration fisheries at the Edisen Fishery and Washington Island.
- Support for transfer of ownership of the Isle Royale and Passage Island Lighthouses from the US Coast Guard to the NPS.
- Restoration and rehabilitation of landscapes, exteriors, and interiors of all four lighthouses to allow and encourage visitor access.
- Enhanced interpretation of historic copper mining sites.
- Research information gaps in the Park's archaeological record.
- Development of the Lake Superior Collections Management Center in Calumet, Michigan, as a multi-park museum storage and research facility to include Isle Royale museum collections.