First Descent

The mine on your screen is the Quincy, the mine I think of when I think of mine. I suppose that makes this mine mine, or makes me its, I’m not sure which. It’s in Hancock, Michigan, just up on the tall hill north of the Portage canal that cuts the northern tip of the Upper Peninsula off from the rest, abutting the ski hill that I used to think was huge until I moved west.

Though the mine is the Quincy, its lode is the Pewabic. The mine had other names: the Pewabic, the Mesnard, the Pontiac, the Franklin.

The Quincy Mine is here in Hancock, though the place has had other names. When the first Europeans showed up, Claude Allouez (1667) reported that it was Chippewa (now Ojibwe) but, though it surely had one, did not give its name. They didn’t mine, though they still found copper from time to time, and directed missionaries to the sites that those coming later would exploit. Those who came before the Chippewa mined: archaeologists found “shallow mine pits where Indians used huge rock hammers to beat copper nuggets from rock matrix...pounded into flat sheets, folded, heated and cooled to toughen them, pounded, refolded, and hammered again to produce useful objects” (Charles Cleland, Rites of Conquest, U Michigan Press, 1992) dating as far back as 5000 BCE.

Second Descent

Right now the Quincy is a tourist mine. An attraction. Come, they say, and see the wreck. Here is evidence of how this land was once great and is no longer. The story goes that a hundred fifty years ago a state law was nearly enacted to make Calumet, fifteen miles away, the capitol of Michigan. It lost by one vote. In 2013 the population of Calumet was 710. Tourism is its only industry if you don’t include ad hoc production of methamphetamines or an Upper Michigan variant, methcathenone (cat), the commonly-known slogan for which, when I was in high school, was “nine day high and then you die.” Though I have never personally tried cat, I did later realize my friendship with G. was over when he was complaining how someone had spiked his crack with cat and ruined his weekend. He did not die after nine days, but I would not be surprised to hear that he is no longer alive.

Here on the hill in Hancock, though, you can ride the tram down the hill to the 7th level and walk into the mine about a half a mile, plenty far enough to lose any trace of natural light and bewilder yourself entirely. It’s rare to experience a dark as dark as this one is. I’ve never seen it outside of a mine. What we think of as dark—midnight without a moon with the curtains drawn—has no relation to it. It’s a disorienting, terrifying dark, and worth coming just for this. Or come for the other tourist reasons: see why others once used to come to live and work and die here! Historical tourism is built around sites of pain, conflict, death, or decay. It says: here’s how we suffered, mattered; come and see our tragedy. How we matter now is as the site of story.

Dial back the clock to 1945, which was when the Quincy ceased to be a working mine and became a wreck instead, on account of copper prices bottoming out, and the mine wouldn’t have been as different as you’d think. All mines are wrecks, of course. They are built to last only as long as profit does, and then what they are is emptiness after. They wreck the earth. There’s no way around the fact of it. The only question is what the tradeoff is for jobs and industry and growth and what it does to the history and the future of a place. Just look at the map. We drilled holes nearly two miles in the ground and excavated millions of tons of rock, refined some, and dumped what was left in the lake or in mounds bordering the lake or in the country everywhere around us. Those mounds are not hard to find. You can see them from the road. Some of those mounds—the tailings—poisoned the lakes. Other mounds have been bulldozed by the water and covered up with a few inches of topsoil and are now marquee lakefront property. By the time these consequences were known the mines had closed and the companies gone defunct. There was no one left to sue. What’s left for you is warning, we were told: Don’t eat the fish in Torch Lake.

Dig a hole—or several—in the earth and in time it will fill. You’ve made yourself a reservoir.

Dig a hole and you’ve made yourself a metaphor.

Third Descent

The map is from the US Geological Survey’s 1929 Professional Paper 144, by B. S. Butler and W. S. Burbank, titled The Copper Deposits of Michigan. I love the plates in this document, though until I tracked the whole document down online, this one plate, this diagram of my mine, was the only one I’d seen. And now to find so many others, similarly designed and executed! Consider the care evident in its precision, the way it’s inked: the perfect 45 degree angles on the hash marks, the hand-lettering, human trace everywhere evident in its composition. This is only one way in which it matters.

The image here is my scan. My stepmother or my father bought it at an antique store in Calumet and had it framed and sent to me. It’s not the last cross-section (the mine would operate for another sixteen years past this, eventually hitting level 97, and had at one point the longest shaft in the world), but it’s the best cross-section I’ve seen of the most productive mine in the area called the Copper Country.

There are other Copper Countries, of course. Tucson, Arizona, where I now live, isn’t far from copper mining country. As such, until it closed in 2016, “Copper Country” was the name of a well-known antique store on Speedway Boulevard, a road that Life called “the ugliest street in America” in 1970. If you would have driven by the store you’d have seen the forty-foot plaster buffalo and giraffe they’d paint gold and silver and whatever other colors to catch your eye and make you wonder what other treasures might be inside.

I drive a bit to visit Bisbee, a mining town built around the Copper Queen, a smaller mine of the same era as the Quincy, and encounter the familiar: it has nearly the same architecture as my hometown, and is similarly built into the crevice between two hills, though the city’s smaller, and there’s no canal running through the bottom to poison.

Here’s the Carnegie library with the beautiful inlaid tile and the old oak card catalogs, the big buildings with the high ceilings and hammered copper or tin ceilings. Here’s the bar that hasn’t updated its look since the 1880s. Visiting Bisbee I fold it over Hancock and see where each map aligns and what gets paired. I could blast a shaft down through their superimposition and connect them: the Bisbee Grand and the Douglas Houghton House, for instance. The Franklin Square Inn and the Copper Queen Hotel. The Copper Queen Hotel is haunted, as is the Bisbee Grand, and not just by comparison to other former mining towns. I’ve stayed in both hotels and report no paranormal activity except once, in the middle of the night in my room in the Elizabethan Suite in the Bisbee Grand the ceiling fan just stopped working for no apparent reason: I could tell because I woke, no longer being cooled. I flipped the switch to no effect and scanned the room for ghosts. No luck. In the morning it worked fine again, but the doubling feeling stayed.

I’m unused to looking at vertical maps, largely because these days my life is conducted horizontally. Maybe I’d feel differently, live differently, if I lived in a major city, bastion of the vertical. In Tucson you can’t deny the horizontal is king; everything is flat, flattened out and widened, sunbaked, ranch-styled, strip malled, and concreted. We don’t have basements or second stories in our homes (except occasionally the Mormons, whom I’m told are required in some way by scripture to have a lower level). We live in the wide basin between the mountain ranges, not on the sides of them, and not on top unless we are nuts or very rich. We live where the water collects, or used to until the water table began to drop.

The drive to Bisbee changes things, however: I’m back in Michigan, it feels like, coming here, the world is made of or in pursuit of copper, and now in pursuit of the story of that same pursuit. Here I am in search of what’s underneath the world, flipping through a card catalog, contemplating darkness and obsolescence. Here I am tucked in a valley and every street seems to wind its way up into a hill. Here it snows sometimes, and the sun shines less than you’d expect because so much of the sky is taken up by mountains on each side. And water, well, the water here is pretty rough. Though the government has decreed it’s safe it’s hard not to think of Flint.

Fourth Descent

Four shafts (one, three, four, and five) are unnumbered on this map, which means they’re no longer operating. The only early shaft still in use when the map was made here is number two. I see how it ends at the 85th level and nothing’s been found that far down, or maybe the excavation’s barely started. How far down do you have to go before the lode bottoms out, or does it just become not cost-effective to mine it any more?

I think of where an essay begins—a memory, maybe just a flash of one. I’ve been writing about mines for as long as I remember writing. But I don’t know the Quincy mine, not really. I’ve been in approximately 1% of it. I trace its shafts with a fingertip but nothing is familiar. Is a mine a landscape or its removal?

I’m trying to understand what accounts for the way this map has remained with me—how it feels like it maps something real personal but not yet knowable.

I read a student’s MFA thesis and find myself writing toward it. It’s about a dam but does not yet understand the metaphor. I want to ask her what’s the thing behind the dam you haven’t opened yet? What’s all this really about? It’s hard to know how hard one should probe in moments like this, how big or hot or unnamable is the thing behind the dam (or the lode you imagine is just below you in the mine). Maybe what’s behind the dam is only knowable from this side, by hands on its steel and concrete skin, by implication and echolocation. But who I am to say? It’s her dam and what’s behind is hers by birth or experience or refusal or choice. It’s not even my metaphor.

Fifth Descent

Remove mine from remained and you get read, which is what I mean to do. I mean to read the remainder of the mine, or what I take away from home: my reminder of where I’m from.

But how to read a map like this? I guess I assumed at first the darkened areas were the lode, but it seems more likely that they indicate excavations (which probably follow or pursue the lode). The mine flattens dimension necessarily, since shaft 2, the longest one, actually runs at about a 45 degree angle, in this case toward the viewer. Another one, shaft 7, runs—unusually—along a catenary curve, following the lode.

The eye tracks to the diagonals, helpfully labeled “Fissure.” The little one in the center isn’t labeled so it might be a shaft they sunk instead, but I would bet we’re looking at a fissure here too.

As all maps do, this map flattens history: most of these shafts weren’t originally of this mine at all, but were purchased later from other mining companies since they all seemed to work the same lode. This map takes no account of those who died down here, for instance, or later from complications from mine-related work, or of the labor struggles, or the 1913 Italian Hall Disaster, in which seventy-three (fifty-nine children) were crushed to death when someone falsely shouted “fire” in a crowded theatre hosting a Christmas party for the striking mine workers and their families.

Sixth Descent

I don’t know what story I’m really looking at when I am looking at this map. This is a story paid for by the government. What’s left, I wonder, except for hole, evidence of what was removed? I’ve explored many other mines by breaking in or dreaming. If you spent any time outside in this region, you’ve stumbled on a mine shaft or two. There are hundreds sunk under everywhere. Maybe thousands. This is history, you know, but it’s also mystery, and you’re drawn to it, the known unknown. Anything could be inside. Mostly the entrances are all blocked off or filled in now. Some have been fenced off with chicken wire so that bats can use them for homes. Some of these bat-home mines are also homes to raccoon crowds. In an unintended consequence, the fence used to keep kids out allows the raccoons to roost and swat at bats as they stream out of the mine at dusk.

It’s a cipher for me, a feature of geography, but what the mine represents is something else: the big hurt of the place, its most important myth. To grow up in a land like this is to know that its best days are far behind. Everywhere there’s evidence: the train tracks slowly getting overgrown, the mysterious ruins of buildings jutting up through trees seen from the highways through the snow. The whole upper peninsula of Michigan is like this now: once it was and is no longer, a song by Woody Guthrie or Gordon Lightfoot. Now they come to see the wrecks, to tour the wrecks, to dive the wrecks of boats out in the big lake. I don’t suppose that it’s ever possible to feel that the best days of the place in which you live are now.

Or maybe these are the Copper Country’s best days. After all, mine jobs were dangerous. Very many died from the work (cave-in, explosion, fire, or suffocation, not to even get into many health problems miners brought home from their time in darkness). The tourist jobs don’t force you to buy your own candles to keep the dark and chill away. You don’t have to deal with unexpected air blasts from shifting rocks loosed from an explosion somewhere above you made for some reason you’re not privy to, a couple columns that management averaged out and realized it the yield just might be worth the risk.

Now the jobs that pay are those shadowing these ghosts of jobs, tracking their trails and the lives they made, the lives that left, where all the copper and the iron ore went when it was taken from this place. Another map might track the movement of those who worked the mine as they came to work, what they did at work, where their homes—company-owned, typically—were in relation to the holes, how long they spent in each space. I wish I had that map. I doubt that map exists. Having this one to gaze at just makes me want more maps, makes me want to go down deeper and mine all this information. There are other maps, of course. But it costs to make these maps. Now there’s no money in the mine there’s no need for maps. An industry begets an industry to map it.

The map is a map of history. We drill down. Excavate the horizontal until it becomes clear we’ve reached the structural limits or the end of lode. Drill down again. Haul out rock and ore. Dump it in the lake. Repeat.

Seventh Descent

What’s the story with Shaft 9? The map communicates one idea: though it seems to connect to the 8 shaft, maybe it terminates in the fissure instead; the angle is unclear. I don’t know what a fissure does or what exactly it disrupts. There’s a value in not knowing everything. Here’s what has to tell me: “Very little is known of the Pontiac Mining Company. It was organized in 1859 to explore and mine the Pewabic and Franklin Lodes between the Albany and Boston and Mesnard Mine properties where ancient pits were discovered. It was reported that good barrel copper and masses were found in the shaft, but the overall results were not promising. The company was bought by Quincy in 1897 and work was started on a new shaft in 1908 which was to become the Quincy No. 9 shaft; however, the great strike of 1913 forced Quincy to abandon sinking this shaft. A very small rock pile exists from this shaft sinking in 1908. Some copper can be found.”

The strike led to the Italian Hall Disaster, also known as the Massacre of 1913, about which Woody Guthrie wrote a song some thirty years later. It attributes all fault to mining management: “The gun thugs they laughed at their murderous joke / And the children were smothered on the stairs by the door.” Even now, the story’s not as clear as that, but what is sure is that the strike ended less than four months later.

Behind every song there is a tragedy. The last shaft, the Quincy 9, leads nowhere now. Who knows how far down it might have gone?

Eighth Descent

The Calumet near-capitol story is apocryphal: a myth, recently debunked. It serves as a kind of index to the place. It attests to our desire to assert ourselves in history. There was a vote to move the capitol, but Calumet was not a city when that vote occurred. And as an article points out, no road existed in Calumet county then, so it’s preposterous to imagine the legislature arguing for it as a possible capitol. The heart of the story is true, though, in that the city’s seen more prosperous days: its population peaked at 32,845 in 1910. At that point the population of Lansing, the present state capitol, was 31,229.

I believed it when I first read it a few years ago. It had the ring of truth, and those who care about the facts are few. Caring about the facts takes digging, which takes time and money. The story was debunked easily enough—in a journal called Upper Country devoted to Upper Michigan Studies—that it embarrasses me to have ever believed at all. Here was a wall I thought I knew, but it seems to have been paper-thin, and what’s beyond it I’m not sure. The more I look at the map the more it seems like a map of my own ignorance, vast and dark and bottomless. A map makes a pinprick in infinity, and illuminates nothing beyond its borders.

Another study, this one at Michigan Tech University a few years ago, debunked the other big mining myth up here, the phenomenon of the Paulding Light, a deeply freaky set of lights, which, according to the lore, are spectral lights—the ghosts of miners on the horizon trudging to their deaths. I didn’t believe that story either, but I liked the thought that it might be something unknowable.

I start to figure out how little I know of my own place’s history. I have a memory of belief: that my great-grandfather worked these mines, that he migrated here from Finland to work them. No idea if that’s true or just another fiction I use to prop up the passage in my excavations.

There’s so much about this place that most of us don’t know. For instance, I only recently discovered that until 2004, Upper Michigan and Northern Wisconsin hosted Project ELF (also known as Project Sanguine and Project Austere ELF), massive hardened extremely low frequency (ELF) radio transmitters for broadcasting messages to submerged nuclear submarines all across the globe. That too is not a story that the government was eager to broadcast too loudly to citizens. Now the transmitters themselves are gone but the trails they cut into the pines remain. We still don’t know the effects of massive ELF transmissions on ecosystems or on ourselves.

Ninth Descent

I find myself wandering silently around my darkened house at night when everyone is asleep except the cats. My pleasure in doing this is not insubstantial. I know everything in sight: this is the landscape I know best. This is my place, my home, my family’s things, my stacks of CDs and books and empty frames, my thirty-four LED lights flickering on and off signaling devices that transmit and receive data all throughout the house. These are our accumulations. I don’t know what effect they have on me.

Sometimes though I fear being surprised by an anomaly in my habitat: blindsided by an intruder, toppled by stepping on an unexpected Lego, tripped into a window by a silent, passing pet. I remember a Kenneth Rexroth line: “The greater the mass of things, / The greater the insecurity.” I carry the baby monitor in one hand and let it dangle from my index finger. It casts a little light, enough to illuminate just what’s in front of me. When I turn the corner and see the light rocking in the mirror down the hall, for a second I can’t tell what it is. In that second I think of the Paulding Light, a miner’s lantern rocking in the distance.

For more information about this piece, see this issue's legend.

Ander Monson is the author of six books and a website, among other paraphernalia. He's the editor of DIAGRAM, the New Michigan Press, and Essay Daily. He directs the creative writing program at the University of Arizona.

648 Crescent NE
Grand Rapids, MI 49503

In Michigan many basements are called Michigan basements, meaning that it's a partly unfinished basement, a basement not initially meant as a basement, often, typically found with walls sloping down to the floor, usually with a lower ceiling, not meant as living space. However, they function great for storage and laundry. When I lived in Michigan, we had a Michigan basement and could store seemingly limitless things there, which allowed you to keep a lot of your old life underneath your present life. When I moved to Arizona, though, no one has basements, so I had to get rid of a lot of the evidence of my old life, which is probably for the best. Now I mostly haul around memories of things I used to have but do no longer in a still-there-but-not-entirely-habitable space: the Michigan basement of the mind.