Calumet and Hecla Mining Company
The Calumet and Hecla Mining Company was a major copper-mining company based in the Michigan Copper Country. In the 19th century, the company paid out more than $72 million in shareholder dividends, more than any other mining company in the United States during that period.
In 1864, Edwin J. Hulbert discovered a copper-bearing section of what became known as the Calumet Conglomerate of Precambrian age. The find was in Houghton County, Michigan, between the rich Cliff mine to the northeast, and the copper mines of Portage Lake to the southwest, but a long way from either. Hulbert formed the Calumet Company in 1865, with Boston investors. The company spun off the Hecla Company the following year, and assigned shares in the new company to Calumet shareholders.
Hulbert was a major shareholder in both companies, and was in charge of mine operations. But despite the rich ore, Hulbert did not have the practical knowledge to dig out the ore, crush it, and concentrate it. Frustrated with Hulbert’s lack of success, the company sent Alexander Agassiz, son of famous geologist Louis Agassiz to Michigan to run the mine.
Under Agassiz’ expert management, the Hecla company paid its first dividend in 1868, and the Calumet company began paying dividends in 1869. The two companies merged in May 1871 to form the Calumet & Hecla Mining Company, with Quincy Adams Shaw as its first president. In August of that year, Shaw retired to the board of directors and Agassiz became president, a position he held until his death.
Calumet and Hecla built itself into a copper mining colossus. From 1868 through 1886, it was the leading copper producer in the United States, and from 1869 through 1876, the leading copper producer in the world. From 1871 through 1880, Calumet and Hecla turned out more than half the copper produced in the United States. In each year save one between 1870 and 1901, Calumet and Hecla made most of the copper produced in the Michigan copper district.
By 1901 the underground mining complex had 16 shafts. The company operated a large ore treatment facility at Lake Linden, Michigan. The first smelter was built at Hancock, Michigan, but in 1887, the company moved its smelting to the new smelter at Lake Linden. The company later built a second smelter at Buffalo, New York, which took advantage of the cheap electricity generated from Niagara Falls to electrolytically refine copper. The Buffalo Smelting Works was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011. Electrolytic refining had the advantage that it separated out the silver from the copper.
Annual copper production from the mines peaked in 1906 at 100 million pounds (45,000 metric tons), then declined in response to lower prices to 67 million pounds (30,000 metric tons) by 1912. Output dropped to 46 million pounds (21,000 metric tons) of refined copper in the strike year of 1913, but rebounded due to high copper prices during World War I to 77 million pounds (35,000 metric tons) in 1917. The boost in production was attained partly by purchase of the Tamarack Mining Company in 1917. But copper prices fell drastically after the war, and in 1921 copper production fell to 15 million pounds (6,800 metric tons) as the company shut the Osceola (amygdaloid) mine in 1920, and shut down mining on the Calumet conglomerate in April 1921.
Copper production rebounded in 1922, and rose steadily through the 1920s. Calumet and Hecla grew in the 1920s by buying and merging with neighboring copper mines. In 1923, Calumet and Hecla merged with the Ahmeek, Allouez, and Centennial mining companies. The combined entity was renamed the Calumet and Hecla Consolidated Copper Company. The merged company essentially controlled all the operating copper mines north of Hancock, Michigan.
The company had always disposed of the mill tailings (locally called stamp sands) in lakes adjacent to the mills, but about 1900 began investigating methods to recover the copper remaining in the waste tailings. Beginning in 1915, C&H began reprocessing the stamp sands at Lake Linden, using a finer grind and ammonia leaching. Once the process proved profitable, the Tamarack mill also began reprocessing tailings. Through 1949, the company had recovered 535 million pounds (243,000 metric tons) of copper by reprocessing tailings. One of the dredges used, Calumet and Hecla Dredge Number One, is currently sunk in shallow water in Torch Lake.
By 1902, Calumet and Hecla had 5,000 employees, and the towns of Calumet (then named Red Jacket), Laurium, and Lake Linden were virtual company towns. The mining superintendents (called “captains”) were traditionally Cornishmen; the workers were Finns, Poles, Italians, Irish, and other immigrant nationalities.
Calumet and Hecla was a pioneer in providing employee benefits. The company built and ran a hospital for employees. It established an Employee Aid Fund for disability and death benefits; each employee paid in 50 cents per month, and the company matched the amount. The company maintained employee clubhouses and free libraries, and donated land and funds for churches. However, the all-encompassing company presence also led to charges of “paternalism.”
In July 1913, the Western Federation of Miners called a general strike against all mines in the Michigan Copper Country. Hundreds of strikers surrounded the Calumet and Hecla mine shafts to prevent others from reporting to work. All Calumet and Hecla mines shut down during the Copper Country Strike of 1913–1914, although the workers were said to be sharply divided on the strike question. The union demanded an 8-hour day, a minimum wage of $3 per day, an end to use of the one-man pneumatic drill, and that the companies recognize it as the employees’ representative.
The mines reopened under National Guard protection, and many went back to work. The companies instituted the 8-hour day, but refused to set a $3 per day minimum wage, refused to abandon the one-man drill, and especially refused to employ Western Federation of Miners members.
On Christmas Eve 1913, the Western Federation of Miners organized a party for strikers and their families at the Italian Benevolent Society hall in Calumet. The hall was packed with between 400 and 500 people when someone shouted “fire.” There was no fire, but 73 people, 62 of them children, were crushed to death trying to escape. This became known as the Italian Hall Disaster. The strikers held out until April 1914, but then gave up the strike.
The end of copper mining
During the Great Depression, copper prices dropped, and as a result most copper mines in the Copper Country closed, including Calumet and Hecla. Many mines reopened during World War II, when wartime demand raised the price of copper. After the war copper prices plummeted, and most copper mines closed almost immediately. However, Calumet and Hecla was able to stay afloat due to C&H’s practice of acquiring many of the formerly great mines in the Keweenaw during and before the depression, and as a result outlasted nearly all other mining companies.
The company branched into other minerals after World War II. C&H geologists drilled into a major lead-zinc ore body in Lafayette County southern Wisconsin in 1947. Ore minerals were galena, sphalerite, calcite, and marcasite. The mine, named the Calumet & Hecla mine, opened in 1949. C&H sold the mine to the Eagle-Picher Company in 1954. The company also diversified into copper-based products, including a copper tube manufacturing business and fertilizers.
Calumet and Hecla opened the Kingston mine in 1965, the first new native copper mine opened in more than 30 years. By 1967, the company was operating six mines in the region. However, the company by this point was not even able to produce enough copper for its internal uses. Universal Oil Products (U.O.P.) bought Calumet and Hecla in April 1968. But in August of that same year the more than one thousand Calumet and Hecla employees went on strike. The last of its copper mines shut down, and as labor and management were unable to agree, the company shut down the dewatering pumps in 1970. The mines have remained idle ever since, and most are permanently capped.
- Buffalo Smelting Works
- Solar compass
- Copper mining in Michigan
- Calumet and Hecla Industrial District
- Calumet & Hecla Band
- Copper Country Strike of 1913-1914
- C. Harry Benedict, (1952) Red Metal, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, p.28-39.
- Horace J. Stevens (1902) The Copper Handbook, v.2, Houghton, Mich.: Horace J. Stevens, p.133-144.
- Horace J. Stevens (1908) The Copper Handbook, v.8, Houghton, Mich.: Horace J. Stevens, p.1457.
- Horace J. Stevens (1902) The Copper Handbook, v.2, Houghton, Mich.: Horace J. Stevens, p.1457,1466.
- "National Register of Historic Places Listings". Weekly List of Actions Taken on Properties: 11/07/11 through 11/10/11. National Park Service. 2011-11-18.
- Mineral Resources of Michigan, 1917, Michigan Geological Survey, Publication 27, Geological Series 22.
- Mineral Resources of Michigan, 1921, Michigan Geological Survey, Publication 33, Geological Series 27.
- C. Harry Benedict (1952) Red Metal, Ann Arbor: Univ. Mich. Press, p.177-193, 209.
- The Copper Country strike, Engineering & Mining Jour., 2 Aug. 1913, p.230.
- Lake Superior wages, Engineering & Mining Jour., 13 Dec. 1913, p.1136.
- Allen V. Heyl and others (1959) The Geology of the Upper Mississippi Valley Zinc-Lead District, US Geological Survey, Professional Paper 309, p.227.
- Donald F. Klyce, Annual Statistical Summary 5, Mineral Industry of Michigan, 1965, Michigan Geological Survey.
- Donald F. Klyce, Annual Statistical Summary 11, Mineral Industry of Michigan, 1968, Michigan Geological Survey.
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