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A trip through history in the Porcupine Mountains

While the Porcupine Mountains and Ontonagon County in the western Upper Peninsula offer their share of scenic natural wonders and outstanding recreational opportunities, the area is also rich in history. Here’s a closer look at the history of the area and the historic sites you can still visit today.

Mining history

Mining was a key industry in the Upper Peninsula in the mid-19th and early 20th century. It drove the population and led to the settlement of communities that still exist today, and you can find remnants of these now-abandoned copper mines almost everywhere you look.

Just inside the entrance to the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park sits the sealed entrance of Mead Mine, a roadside stop on M-107 between the Porcupine Mountains Ski Area and Lake of the Clouds. Along South Boundary Road, you’ll find the ruins of the Nonesuch Mine (as well as Nonesuch Falls), which was in operation off and on from the 1860s to the 1910s.

Adventure Mine, located in Greenland Township, lets visitors take a hardhat tour of one of the best-preserved copper mines in the Upper Peninsula. Different tours offer different experiences—the Prospector’s Tour is a family-friendly trek through the mine, the Miner’s Tour rappels guests 80 feet down into another part of the vast mine, and the half-day Captain’s Tour takes visitors to the second level of the mine.

Try your hand at identifying copper and other valuable minerals at the Caledonia Copper Mine in Mass City. The mine started operations in the 1860s but today welcomes groups to dig through their own ore piles (left over from the mine’s original ore) to collect and identify different specimens.

Ontonagon, Silver City & White Pine

The village of Ontonagon (and Ontonagon County as a whole) was established in 1843, and it is the oldest permanent settlement on the south shore of Lake Superior. In 1845, a portion of Ontonagon County was partitioned to become Gogebic County, and a year later, the village of Ontonagon was named the county seat. At the height of the U.P.’s copper boom in the 1850s, Ontonagon’s population was 6,000 (compared to 1,500 in the most recent census).

Silver City was founded in the late 1870s and named after a short-lived “silver rush” when a small vein of silver was discovered just south of the city.

Mining first began in White Pine in the 1880s and took place sporadically for the next 75 years, until the White Pine Mine began operations in earnest. From 1952 to 1995, the White Pine Mine produced more than 4 billion pounds of copper, with peak production in the mid-1970s, when the mine employed 3,000 people and processed as much as 15,000 tons of ore a day.

Other historic sites

The Ontonagon Lighthouse, built in 1866, is one of the oldest lighthouses in Michigan and was in operation on the shores of Lake Superior for nearly 100 years. Today, guests can still visit the historic lighthouse on the shores of Lake Superior. Walk around and admire the exterior of the building or purchase a ticket for an indoor tour, which starts downtown at the Ontonagon County Historical Society and includes a short shuttle ride to the lighthouse. The historical society is also home to a museum, which houses hundreds of artifacts from more than two centuries of life and culture in the western Upper Peninsula.

Old Victoria Restoration shows visitors what life was like for miners and their families in the 19th and early 20th centuries in Ontonagon County. The historical site, one of several Keweenaw Heritage Sites in the Upper Peninsula, contains four log cabins restored to the conditions residents would have encountered in the 1800s and 1900s. 

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Note: Please travel safely and responsibly when you are visiting the Porcupine Mountains and Ontonagon County. Some businesses and facilities may have modified hours or procedures; please contact them directly for information. See Michigan’s latest coronavirus orders here.

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