The Discovery of the Cliff Vein

John Hays, first agent to the Pittsburgh & Boston Mining Co., and possible discoverer of the Cliff Mine. (Image courtesy MTU Archives)

This is the fifth in a series of posts providing an historical context for the Cliff Mine beginning with the creation of the State of Michigan and ending with the discovery of the Cliff vein.

A complete and accurate story of the Cliff Mine’s discovery will always be unclear, as fact and fiction have intertwined over the years to create many differing versions. What is known is that Jim Raymond first leased the property in May of 1843 and told Hays that it had “pure copper sticking right out of the greenstone.” John Hays stated he first found the vein after an exploration of the Lease in the fall of 1844. His earlier discussions with Jim Raymond concerning the location and his responsibilities as agent for the company lend credence to this account, but its more likely Hays’ simply realized the potential for the location, and didn’t find the actual vein that later generated so much wealth. Others have also been suggested as discoverers, but when focusing on hard facts, the claimant to the discovery of the Cliff must fall a group of men exploring the location in the summer of 1845.

Probably under Hays’ orders, a group of German miners under the direction of a “Mr. Cheny” began searching for veins along the shore of Lease 5. They quickly found one and sunk a shaft only to abandon it after it took on water. Cheny and his men followed the vein inland for approximately 3 miles, until they reached the bluff, and found that the vein partially exposed and, “a few inches wide, and contained native copper and specks of silver beautifully incrusted with capillary red oxide, with a gangue of Prehnite.” About a foot in thickness at the summit, the vein grew to 5 feet halfway down the cliff face. At the base of the cliff however, the vein completely disappeared. Work commenced immediately, the men sinking a shaft just below the summit and drifting (digging horizontally) a level into the greenstone cliff face to meet it. The vein contained “a small percentage of metallic copper finely disseminated through it,” but neither the shaft nor level produced a noteworthy amount.

The Cliff vein exposed in the greenstone bluff. (Photo by S. Gohman)

On the advice of geologists J.D. Whitney and Charles T. Jackson, work moved to the foot of the cliff. Earlier in the summer, the men lost the vein amid the fallen rock and talus littering the cliff base. While clearing the area, the miners uncovered a small mass of copper, and nearby another vein nearly 8 feet wide located in the granular trap rock. Here, they drove another level into the bluff and at 70 feet, uncovered a huge mass of native copper that took days of blasting to break apart. Fearing the mass an anomaly, the miners continued further into the bluff, and discovered the native copper continued until the trap ran up against the overlying greenstone layer. It appeared as though the P&BMC finally struck it rich. The miners soon realized the vein at the summit did not run out as it moved downward, but instead shifted 12 feet to the west, its location determined by the lateral movement of the entire greenstone formation some time in the remote past. This slide became the natural boundary for native copper within the Cliff Vein, and dictated the operations of the P&BMC for the next 25 years.


A concise run-down of the various “discovery stories” can be found in Donald Chaput’s, The Cliff: America’s First Great Copper Mine (Kalamazoo: Sequoia Press, 1971).

A more fanciful version of events can be found here, in Angus Murdoch’s, Boom Copper: The Story of the First Mining Boom (Hancock: The Quincy Mine Hoist Association, 2001).

Foster, J.W. and Whitney, J.D., Report on the Geology and Topography of a Portion of the Lake Superior Land District. (Washington: House of Representatives, Executive Doc. 69. 31st Congress. 1st Session., 1850).

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About Sean Gohman

Currently a PhD Degree seeking student in the Michigan Tech University's Industrial Heritage and Archaeology program.

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