History of the Cliff Mine

Sketch of the Cliff Mine, 1849. (image courtesy of Michigan Tech Archives)

The Cliff Mine, owned and operated by the Pittsburgh & Boston Mining Company, was the first successful copper mine in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Discovered in 1845, the “Cliff Vein” produced over 38 million pounds of refined copper over a 40 year period, and paid dividends to its investors totaling $2.5 million.

In 1843, the United States government officially opened the Upper Peninsula to mining operations. This lead to a flood of adventurers, prospectors, and speculators to the area, each hoping to strike it rich. One group of investors, half from Pittsburgh, half from Boston, managed to acquire three leases in the Keweenaw, the northernmost part of the Upper Peninsula. This Pittsburgh & Boston Copper Harbor Mining Company would be the first miners to sink a shaft in the region, located at Hay’s Point in Copper Harbor. By the end of 1845, the company had sunk over $28,000 into their Copper Harbor lease, only managing to extract $8,000 in refined copper. Their copper mining adventure looked to be a failure.

At the same time at their as of yet neglected second lease, a narrow vein of copper bearing quartz was discovered at the top of a 200 foot basalt cliff. It didn’t look very promising at this point, but as the vein was traced to the base of the cliff, a discovery would be made that would astound the world. After digging into the bluff a distance of 70 feet, a group of German miners would uncover a massive boulder of pure copper, and the Cliff Mine was born.

The Cliff, and the majority of early mines in the area, focused on fissure lodes, where large masses of pure metal, often weighing many tons, could be found running vertically downward into the earth. These masses, too large to be raised from the mine whole, had to be chiseled apart over the course months, until they were of a manageable size to be lifted out of the mine by the use of a horse-powered whim. The Cliff’s early success occurred when nearly all of the mining work performed on the peninsula was powered by horse and water-wheel. Steam power existed, but the expense was too great for most mining ventures and their investors. the discovery of the “Cliff Vein” provided assurance to other mining companies in the Upper Peninsula that there was money to be made, and that investment in infrastructure and steam power could be justified.

From 1846-1858, no other copper mine in the region could match the production of the Cliff Mine. Even as mining activity transitioned from fissure lodes to the longer lived conglomerate and amygdaloid lodes made famous by the Calumet & Hecla and Quincy Mining Companies, the “Old Cliff” remained profitable. After the Civil War however, the depth of the mine (1000 feet!) and the course of the vein northward under the bluff meant that maintaining a self-sustaining operation was becoming more difficult. By 1870, the company decided the mine, though still producing, was not worth further investment, and sold the mine for $100,000.

Activity at the Cliff continued for the next 60+ years under various management, but it never managed to regain its earlier success. In the 1920’s and 30’s, the new owners of the Cliff, the Calumet & Hecla Mining Company, were still hoping a new vein would be uncovered, and drilled dozens of holes throughout the property. Unfortunately, nothing of promise was found, and by the 1950’s, all interest in the Cliff as a producing mine ended.


36 responses to “History of the Cliff Mine”

  1. Mary Schwoppe says :

    My great grandfather, William Coulson Watson, first arrived at the Cliff in May 1862 as a new immigrant from England. He stayed there for 3 years as a carpenter then transferred to the National for two years, then back to the Cliff in 1867 where he remained as surface boss until 1877 when he transferred to Osceola Mine as Assistant Superintendent until he retired in 1906.

    I am thrilled to follow your research and look forward to visiting the mine area this summer if possible.

    Thank you so much for your dedication and hard work!
    Mary Schwoppe

    • Sean Gohman says :

      Thank you so much for sharing your connection to the Cliff with myself and the followers of the blog. While doing archival research last year I was able to identify where the mine’s carpentry shop was located. Alas, it is now half under waste rock piles and half under the river channel.

      I’ll post a photo of the site with the carpentry shop identified so you can get an idea of where your great grandfather worked.

      I know Watson is a common name but there were other Watsons working at the Cliff around that same period. Do you know if he was related to anyone else working there? Often immigrants come to specific mines because of family connections. James Watson was the Superintendent of the mine in 1862, and was very instrumental in creating a more efficient and systematized work-flow at the mine.

      Our work this year is concentrated on the mine’s stamp mill, where the rock was crushed and then “washed” with water to separate the copper from the rock. Much of the equipment and the “wash house” were built of wood. It is possible that we will be recovering artifacts cut, sanded, and nailed into place by your great grandfather.

      If there is any other information you come across about him (such as where exactly in England he was from) we at the Cliff Mine Archaeology Project would be very grateful.

      Again, thanks for sharing you story,

      • Mary Schwoppe says :

        Sean, so glad to see you researchers back again this summer. I must have missed the above post last summer, because, yes, I have always wondered if James Watson, the Super in 1862, was related to my great grandfather. He never mentioned it in his memoirs, and I am going to look again at the names in the Lakeview Cemetery plot. I have yet to find the relationship if there was one. Wishing you all sorts of luck this summer…and will definitely try to get up there! Mary

    • john rascona says :

      Wow what an exciting branch on your family tree. do any of his mining days items remain in your family

  2. karen snyder says :

    I was recently there as some of my family lives in the area. We took some time and went to cliff cemetary and the mine. I was facinated by the history and now am doing some more reading. Thank you for providing some of the history seeing they do not teach this history in schools any more. It is to bad because there is a lot to learn as I did reading your page. I got some good photos of the gravestones I was amazed that some were done in wood instead of stone.

  3. Michael Moffatt says :

    I remember driving through the old mine site when I was on a family vacation 40 years ago and true to being Cornish fascinated a mine was on that tall bluff. I’ve always wanted to get back there and have a good walk around. A couple years ago I had a great surprise finding my ggg-grandfather’s sister was the wife of Thomas George, one of the Cliff’s mine captains in the 1860s and 1870s.

    • ed chaput says :

      GEORGE FAMILY This is such a common Cornish name that summary or comprehension is practically impossible. In the copper districts and on the Marquette Iron Range there were dozens of mining people with this name, and such common combinations of John, Henry, Harry, and Robert exist by the hundreds. On the Marquette Range, at least three members of the the George family were killed in mining accidents over the years.
      In Keweenaw County, one of the pioneers was Thomas George. He was born in Cornwall and was one of the earliest employees at the Cliff Mine. He served as an underground captain there for some years, and retired shortly after 1870. He moved to Indiana, where he farmed until his death in 1903. His brother, Captain Harry George, also worked at the Cliff Mine in this same period. Another brother, William R. George, died at the Cliff Mine, probably in an accident, in 1864. Captain Harry George later worked for Calumet & Hecla and was still alive in 1903, living in Lake Linden. Another Henry George served for some years as superintendent of the Franklin Mine in Hancock, and returned for a visit in 1887. Others named Harry, Henry, and Thomas George also worked for Calumet & Hecla in this era. (Census of 1870; Portage Lake Mining Gazette, July 7, 1887; Chaput, The Cliff; Daily Mining Gazette, November 3, 1903; World War I Draft Registrations).

  4. Susan Williams laurent says :

    My great-grandmother was born in 1856 at the cliff mine area. Her father, John Rowe was from Cornwall and worked at the mine. I’m trying to find more info about his work there.

    • Sean Gohman says :

      Thanks for the message. John Rowe is a very common Cornish name and off the top of my head I can’t say I’ve come across it in reference to the Cliff mine. Another John Rowe wrote a great book about Cornish miners influence in North America a few decades ago.

      John Rowe, The Hard Rock Men: Cornish Immigrants and the North American Mining Frontier, New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1974.

      Another place you may try to contact for information regarding your ancestor is the Keweenaw County Historical Society. They are more active in the summer months but they have a lot of people with genealogical info.


  5. Alan Theobald says :

    My Great Great Grandfather John (Johann) Schafer (Schaeffer) worked at Cliff Mine and was injured there. He married a woman named Mary (?) Merzt (?) whom died in the 1860’s from cholera. Is there any way of getting any old records from this time about either of these people? His bother (Christian) and mother (Magdelena) lived there also.

  6. John H. Heidmann says :

    My gg grandfather John Henry Faull was fatally injured in an explosion I think in the Cliff Mine about Oct. 25, 1878. Died about 50 days later. Was buried at Eagle River but remains moved to Lake Linden later by his sons. Any records
    available to confirm date and location of accident?

  7. Tony Clarke says :

    I have been researching the technology and development of Cornish tin and copper ore ‘dressing’, and came across a reference in The Mining Journal (a prominent G.B. 19th and 20th century publication) to James Watson, of The Cliff Mine, Michigan (who I find, after reading your blog) was superintendent at the mine in the 1860s and after. The reference is dated July the 1st, 1865, and comments on James Watson’s development of a variation on the old type ‘bumping’, or percussion table, for fine ore separation. This variation was described as ‘a combination of the long tye (a sloping trough for ore washing to remove waste) and the percussion table, suspended so as to allow a cam to impart a vibrating shock.’
    I wonder if any more information on this invention is available from your archives?
    Mr. Watson certainly sounds like an able man for the job of superintendent.

    • Sean Gohman says :

      Here is a link to Watson’s patent. From what I know, this tye was 100 feet long and that meant the wash house of the mill had to be extended another 50 feet in length in order to accommodate it. Since it was suspended from the roof, we have found no obvious trace of it. Some other comments on Watson and this unique solution to the problem of ore washing can be found in Roy Drier’s Copper Country Tales Vol. 1 (in a chapter about Joseph Rawlings-who takes some credit for the apparatus as well) and in Philip Mason’s Copper Country Journal, the Diary of Schoolmaster Henry Hobart, 1863-1964. Hobart mentions the work Watson and Rawlings are doing upgrading the mill.

      My take on it is that Watson most likely had little to do with all the inventing aside from overseeing (it was the men in the mill doing the work) but since he was the Superintendent of the mine, following my understanding of Cornish mining tradition, he is given credit for the invention.

      A similar story can be found at the Moonta Mines in South Australia, and Captain Henry Hancock’s jig.


      • Tony Clarke says :

        Thanks so much for the link to James Watson’s Patent. 100 ft. long? Wow! That’s really something. It possibly had to be that long in order to allow a thorough separation of fine copper particles of no more than medium S.G.? The idea of a suspended trough & cam mechanism may have been derived from this form of separator (though not so long) as
        used in the German mines in Saxony. I’ve only found 1 example of this form of separator used in Cornwall, in 1844 on a lead mine, where it was referred to as ‘the German table.’
        Thanks again,

  8. marilyn osier-swan says :

    I have come across a copper printing plate of the above 1849 sketch of image. the plate says cliff copper wine, Keweenaw peninsula 1842-1887. would like to know more about this plate.

  9. David W. Simmerer says :

    I am the Genealogist for the Simmerer Family from Germany and Michigan. I have often seen the grave in Cliff Cemetary of Maria Simmerer “Tochter von J. & G. Simmerer” I assume these must have been Maria’s parents. They must have immigrated to the U,S.A. around this time. Can someone research the employee records of the Cliff Mining Co, during the years from 1850 to 1853 and find out who J.&G.Simmerer were? This would be very helpful in determining little Maria’s family background, and where she belongs in our Family Stammbaum. I am assuming, hopefully, that these records may still exist somewhere.

    • Timothy James Scarlett says :

      Dear Mr. Simmerer- we are working on the cemeteries at Cliff this season. We are concentrating on the Hillside and Catholic cemeteries. If the students have time, I will ask them to check for records related to the Simmerer family in Cliff, but please be aware that they are not working with the archival records right now. Perhaps a student will opt to take on more of the demographic research soon. You can hire an archival researcher through the Copper Country Historical Archives if you want the work done more quickly.

  10. Connie (Wills) Currie says :

    ‘I was surprised and pleased to find this site and learn of the dig at Cliff Mine. My grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Warren, was born at Cliff Mine in 1877 to Henry “Cap’n Harry” and Mary (Wearne) Warren. They emigrated from Cornwall, England – he in 1870 and she in 1973. Cap’n Harry Warren leased the Old Cliff Mine in 1913, restoring and installing machinery for crushing the Old Cliff stockpile. He was never able to make it pay and the 1913 Copper Strike forced him to abandon his work. I have not been able to found any record to confirm his leasing the mine.
    Mary (Wearne) Warren died at Cliff Mind in 1919
    Also, is there any plat map or record of who lived where back in the day? My family visited the area when I was young. In general, my dad told me where his grandparents’ house was. I’d like to confirm.
    My daughter and I planning a trip to the Keweenaw area in early May to do some genealogy research. Will you be in the area that early?

    • Mary Hill says :

      Hello Connie,
      My name is Mary Ellen (Ruzicka) Hill and Henry and Mary Wearne Warren were my great great grandparents. Your grandmother, Mary Liz, and my great grandfather , Joseph Warren were brother and sister. The Cliff Mine Project has done a fantastic job at uncovering our family history as they unearthed the Warren Stamp Mill in the summers of 2011 and 2012 and my family was able to attend the tours both years. We missed last summer but plan on coming back thus summer. I also submitted family photos, including those with Mary Liz, to be displayed in the Eagle River Museum. I have a lot of history and photos I am most willing to share if you are interested. I have also done our family history on Ancestry.com.

      • Connie (Wills) Currie says :

        Hi, Mary
        I got your message on Facebook and see this site has answered some of my questions. Would love to get-together and share info. Henry, Joseph and William don’t seem to have a middle name. The last two boys went by their middle names. Connie

  11. Jonah Denuccio-Mcshane says :

    how many people lived there in 1850?

  12. Susan says :

    My (many) great grandfather and his father came from England, arrived in Montreal then stayed in Toronto until they went to the Cliff mines. This was around 1862. Last name Jackson. After a couple of years they’d earned enough to buy a farm in Essex County Ontario and went back to establish their home. My mother vaguely remembered one of them telling of huge copper veins which they excavated completely around so that it stood like a wide pillar. We once stayed at a B&B which had a picture of a copper pillar with men gathered around and peaking out from behind it.

  13. Peter Weyrens says :

    Hi, my name is Pete Weyrens and my gg grandfather was James James. Family history says that he emigrated from Cornwall, England, sometime between 1867-1870 and was Superintendent of two copper mines near Eagle River. When he first came he left his wife (Elizabeth) and oldest son (Peter) in England. Later, they joined him and they had 9 other children born in Michigan beginning in 1871. Do you have any information confirming his story in the UP, or any good references that I could check? With such a common name it is difficult to find good history on him and his family. Thanks!

  14. Elizabeth Baker says :

    My 2nd great-grandfather was a mining engineer sent to work at the Cliff Mine. He was killed there in 1865 at about age 35. His daughter was born that year.

    • Elizabeth Baker says :

      Oops, forgot to leave name in my previous reply! His name was Joseph Stephens. His wife was Elizabeth Bishop Stephens.

  15. linda0713 says :

    Are there any records of the miners who worked in the mines? My GGG Grandfather immigrated to U.S. in 1844 from Switzerland and ended up in Eagle River. I have reason to believe he was a miner and worked at the Cliff Mines as well as his sons. His name was Joseph Bam (Baum, Bohm) and his sons were Joseph and Peter.

    • Timothy James Scarlett says :

      Hello Linda- I’m sorry that I didn’t see your post until today. This blog has been archived until we return to this project someday when we have more time and resources. In the meanwhile, I’d be happy to talk if you contact me. If you have not yet seen it, please check out the Keweenaw Time Traveler website, which contains all kinds of information is growing all the time as students and staff add more information (https://www.keweenawhistory.com/). You can search the data by your great great great grandfather’s name and the places he worked. I’m really proud of this digital archive, put together by my colleagues in collaboration with local archives. You can always reach out to me directly at scarlett@mtu.edu. There are several local archives that contain resources about miners (they have many great resources for family history research!): Michigan Tech archives (https://www.mtu.edu/library/archives/); Finnish American Heritage Center at Finlandia University (https://www.finlandia.edu/Department/FAHC/fahc.html); and the Keweenaw National Historical Park (https://www.nps.gov/kewe/learn/historyculture/researcher-information.htm). You can also share information you have in the Time Traveler, by adding digital copies of pictures or documents, or typing in your family’s oral history. The archives listed also collect additional information, besides having research resources. Please consider sharing copies of any documents you might have!

  16. Pilot Dave says :

    while on vacation in 1986 with my GF, we visited the Cliff Mines. No gates then. We climbed the mine rubble to the top of the Cliff where we noticed about 50′ from the red brick mine shaft, a 6′ depressing in the ground… with a few 20″ black holes in the center…. guessing it was the top of a stope, we stayed clear. Looking over the edge of the brick wall, we saw an earth floor about 20′ below grade, and a tree about 20 years old growing in the center… Very strange at the time, not know of the scandal in the 1970′ to cap these shaft so children would stop falling in. back to the base. the mine rock was so sharp, it destroyed out shoes… We saw a small shaft still ope, but surrounded by chain link fence. Near it, was the entrance to a horizontal shaft, pointing at the shaft on top of the cliff. there was an attempt to block it with a pile of dirt, but someone dug it open. Stayed clear as it looked like a great place for bear. Noted the chimining for the stamp house / foundry. Between the stamp house foundation and the horizontal shaft, were three foundation about 12″ above grade, and about 10′ x 10’… looked like three garages. There were thimbleberry bushes in full harvest state. So we stepping into the foundations. My GF freaked and said her ground moved beneath her feet. We stopped eating and waited. Nothing. We started eating again and she said it moved even more. We slowly stepped out. That is when I saw a white 2″ pneumatic hose going over my foundation and clearly straight down inside the “foundation. We left the site, and went to mich tech library to research. Found the 1970′ scandal where they said most mine owner just used timber and earth to block the shafts. Hummm Enough time to rot. Most significant, we were standing on top of 1,000′ plus shafts. Cheated death that day. Wish I had my 35mm professional camera as I can no longer find images of these shafts.

    • Timothy James Scarlett says :

      Hello Pilot Dave- I’m sorry that I didn’t see your post until today. This blog has been archived until we return to this project someday when we have more time and resources. In the meanwhile, I’d be happy to talk if you contact me. Thanks for sharing the stories of your visit. If you do find the pictures of your trip, please let me know. I’d be interested to add copies to the collection in our archive. There aren’t as many photos of the Cliff ruins and the landscape from those years (by which I mean that the archive does not have as many- but people like you do!).

      If you have not yet seen it, please check out the Keweenaw Time Traveler website, which contains all kinds of information is growing all the time as students and staff add more information (https://www.keweenawhistory.com/). The site does not have much information about the Cliff yet, as the team started building the resources using the Sanborn Fire Insurance maps. But it will grow to include all types of information!

      You can always reach out to me directly at scarlett@mtu.edu. There are several local archives that contain resources about miners (they have many great resources for family history research!): Michigan Tech archives (https://www.mtu.edu/library/archives/); Finnish American Heritage Center at Finlandia University (https://www.finlandia.edu/Department/FAHC/fahc.html); and the Keweenaw National Historical Park (https://www.nps.gov/kewe/learn/historyculture/researcher-information.htm). You can also share information you have in the Time Traveler, by adding digital copies of pictures or documents, or typing in your family’s oral history. The archives listed also collect additional information, besides having research resources. Please consider sharing copies of any documents you might have!

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