June 15th, Continued: Can We Find the Earliest Cliff Stamp Mill?

The original Cliff stamp mill, circa 1849. Note the short brick stack and small steam engine sited in the front of the simple framed structure. The stamps are located to the right of the stack, and a man can be seen tramming ore to the stamps. In the foreground are men loading barrels of stamped "mineral" onto a wagon bound for Eagle River.

Our excavations had so far uncovered the partial remains of two distinct stamp mills, the large 36-stamp mill built by the Cliff in the early 1850’s and the turn of the century, Warren’s Mill, that only housed 8 stamps and succumbed to fire in the 1920’s. But what of the earliest mill at the Cliff site? Where was this mill located? We thought we’d try to figure that out with some test excavations.

From studying the only images we have of the original mill, two engravings from the late 1840’s/early 1850’s, it appears that the mill was located just in front of the later, larger mill we are currently focused on.* The mill was small, housing between 8-12 working stamps at any given time. It was likely a simple timber-framed structure that only operated seasonally, powered by a small horizontal steam engine and topped with a tiered, brick/or small stone stack. It only lasted a few years, and soon burnt to the ground (possibly arson) after the larger mill was constructed.

Another view of the original mill, showing the very brief period when two mills were standing at the same time. The larger stone stack dominates the buildings, making the original mill's smaller stack (at center) look tiny by comparison.

We began our testing by placing several test pit locations in an area about 10 meters to the south of the current standing stone remains hidden in the trees to the west of our excavations. We used a stone building corner as a guide and dug 6 test pits, placed about 3 meters apart in two rows, we dug by Nick and Eric. The idea with test pits is to dig a small circular hole as deep as you can without obstruction. If you hit stones or a floor, you stop. Artifacts are collected but the idea is speed, and that by digging several of these pits in a given area one can extrapolate a stratigraphic understanding of the area (how many layers of soil, anything anomalous at a given depth, at what depth are the artifacts found to be most prevalent, etc).

The test trench (108.T9). Stones from a wall can be seen as well as brick and a burned "stain" on the surface under those bricks..

Digging the pits were useful in determining site stratigraphy but making positive ID’s on what we were uncovering was difficult. Within the first 20 cm a layer of wood fragments was found that likely coincided with the ruins still standing. Each of those stone foundations had a two-story wood structure built on top of it so that wood had to go somewhere. Below the wood was a thick layer of grey stamp sand (20-30 cm), followed by an organic layer (likely the original top soil). Below this (about a meter deep) was a sterile layer of orange sediment and small, rounded stones. This was as deep as we wanted to go (approx. 70 cm total depth) since this is the layer before mining activity occurred. In one test pit, many nails were found at the 65 cm depth, which was pretty deep and gave us hope that we were on to something. We would have to expand the testing to find out, and put in a 5 meter x 75 cm long trench bisecting the area of interest.

Due to time we only excavated this trench about 20 cm before calling it a day. But we were able to find both the remains of a stone wall (that lined up with the corner we used as a guide to our testing), some brick, and a curious burned area in the soil. Tomorrow we would have the opportunity to explore these finds further.

*Of course these are merely artist’s renderings and should be viewed with suspicion as to their accuracy. However, it’s all we have to work with so we do what we can with what we have.


About Sean Gohman

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

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