14 Years of 24 Karat Mining

By Tom Segall, Geology Division & Glenna Segall MNR Magazine
Michigan Natural Resources Nov.-Dec.,1975

    Yep! There once was gold in them thar hills in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. One mine was probably as productive and as ornery as most any of our western El Dorados. And in fact, friend, there may still be gold up there in them hills!Ropes Gold Mine
The first gold mine in Michigan was dug on a discovery located just north of Ishpeming in Marquette County. It was named the Ropes Gold Mine after its founder and major owner, Julius Ropes. He was a canny prospector who started hunting for gold in the region after wood-choppers uncovered an unusual deposit of asbestos. Asbestos is sometimes found in association with gold deposits. Ropes heard about the asbestos and began to poke around in the region. On May 17, 1881, he sank his miner's pick into a rock out-crop which turned out to be loaded with gold and silver. He kept hunting in the same location and soon found more outcrops, some assaying out as high as $442 of gold per ton. News of the Ropes find was published in the local paper, but oddly didn't seem to stir much interest. Perhaps local residents thought it just another pie-in-the-sky gold scheme. Others, however, decided it was on the level, and investors came forth steadily.
Soon after, the Ropes Gold Mining Company was organized with 80,000 shares of common stock. The first shaft was dug on an elevated location about 1,200 feet from the main vein outcrop. The main shaft was called the Curry in honor of one of the mine's chief supporters, S. S. Curry. By the time the shaft had reached a depth of 30 feet, the first crushing mill was completed and ready for stamping. This was a little "five-stamper" built by Frazer and Chalmers of Chicago. The ore came out of the mine as lumps of rock. The crushing mill reduced all of this material to a fine powder, which was then put through a water trough, or sluiceway. The gold and silver, being heavier, sank to the bottom. In that way, most of the rock dust could be skimmed off the top and the "amal-gram" in the bottom of the sluiceway could be collected for smelting in the company's small furnace. After the material was melted in the furnace, it was cast into small bars, and a few days later a team and buckboard headed for the National bank in Ishpeming, loaded with three armed guards and the precious bullion. It was Michigan's first shipment of gold and silver. At the bank, it was weighed, and calculations showed that in the first month about 100 tons of ore crushed by the stamp mill had produced $704.62 in gold and $98.81 in silver. The tailings - rock material left after the bulk of gold and silver was removed - had been sifted a second time to produce an additional $9 in gold and $2.72 in silver, for a total of $815.15, all from 100 tons of ore! At today's prices, that doesn't seem like much, but back when dollars were real dollars, that was Big stuff. The owners were excited, the local residents were astonished, and word drifted throughout the Midwest that a minor, but important new strike had been made.gold nugget
Work at the mine progressed rapidly after this first recovery, and year by year the yield of gold and silver kept coming out of the Curry Shaft. By 1887, the average annual yield had reached $43,156, of which amount $4,654 was sliver. The mine was proving a very prosperous venture for its officers and owners. Just for the record, it should be noted that Captain Richard Trevarthen was in charge of underground work, Julius Ropes was president, and S. S. Curry was superintendent. The board of directors included W. F. Swift, W. H. Rood, and Dr. W. T. Carpenter, as well as Ropes and Curry.
In 1888, these men expanded the mine's operations by construction of a dam on the Carp River about a mile east of the mine. This provided the mine with all the water it would need for its sluiceways. Also, the stamping operation was expanded from five stamps to 45 stamps, so production could be increased very substantially. These raised production in 1889 and 1890 to an average of $57,685 annually. A new mill also was built containing an additional 40 stamps, and some of the older stamps were discontinued at this time.
Through most of the 1890's, the mine continued to prosper, but by 1897 production began to fall off and costs of mining were steadily increasing. The ore deposits increased in size and value below the 600-foot level, but the ore became more difficult to recover and process. Finally, in June 1897, conditions had reached a point where costs were higher than income and so, sadly, the crew was told the mine would have to close down. It had reached 800 feet into the earth to extract $647,902 in gold and silver over a 14-year mining history. That was a very successful record considering the fact that those who operated the property had started as strangers to the business of gold mining and milling.
After the mine closed, the property was sold several times, and a few owners even reopened operations briefly. In all these later attempts, however, the main view was increased only about 500 feet in length, and none of the attempts proved very successful.
The Ropes was not unlike many other gold mines successfully prospering in those days, and it had all the earmarks of being one of America's very best gold mines. Its ores, in fact, were richer than those of the Homestake, Treadwell Island, and other mines that proved more prominent in America's gold mining history. Recently, with gold reaching record high prices, the Ropes mine has been sold again, this time to the Callahan Mining Corporation of Darien, Connecticut. At present, the company has adopted a wait and see approach as to whether or not the mine will be reopened. William A. Nicely, secretary of the Callahan Company, has stated that the mine might be opened in the future, depending on results of geological exploration on the 80-acre parcel of land.gold
The Ropes, however, was not Michigan's only gold mine. A second glory hole that became well known was the Michigan Mine, also located in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, about five miles west of Ishpeming. It was started on August 15, 1887 by F. P. Mills, superintendent of the Cleveland Iron Mining Company at Ishpeming. A deposit of unbelievable richness was found near the surface in a vein of sugar quartz. Samples assayed out to a value of $50,000 per ton! Unfortunately, there weren't any tons of such rock and the find appeared to be a single instance of one small but valuable deposit of gold. Nonetheless, work continued at the site until the winter of 1887 by which time a shaft 77 feet deep had been dug. The vein of quartz ore held, being about 10 feet thick, but the gold had thinned out and work was suspended. In May 1888, work was resumed at another point on the vein, with another strike of great richness being found, assays running better than $100,000 to the ton! But again, the tons were lacking and the vein thinned out, however, specimens from this find were taken to Chicago and exhibited at the general offices of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. As a result, the company built a spur line westward from Ishpeming, paralleling the "gold range" and ending at a station named "Golden." Finally, however, the Michigan mine quit entirely and work was stopped. The vein had played out. Later the property was purchased by another company and worked for its silica deposits.
Michigan also had several other smaller mines. We even had a mythical mine. Around 1924, reports were received in the Geological Survey Office of an "important gold occurrence" in Alpena County. Geologists realized at once that something was wrong. It sounded as though someone had struck a concentration of yellow material in a shale formation and had mistaken pyrite for gold. Pyrite is a mineral often found with shale. It's bright yellow in color and has been mistaken for gold so many times it's often called "fool's gold." In this case, however, the gold deposit was supposedly found in limestone deposits in that area. Now gold ore occurs almost solely in "igneous" rock forms - those where great heat has melted the rock and the gold into complicated masses. Limestone is not that kind of rock, being sedimentary, or rock that has been formed by settlement of fine materials in underwater deposits, where such deposits are buried under many later layers of material thus causing great pressure which finally forms them into rock slabs. So the idea of a gold strike in Alpena County sounded to geologists like a hoax. An investigation was started, but no gold was found. After that, everyone expected the excitement would die down, but that was not to be the case, and several more rumors and announcements of gold strikes continued to be heard. In a few cases, unsuspecting individuals, with big pictures in their heads, gave up their hard-earned cash to fast-moving promoters. They had to learn the hard way about the practice of "salting." Salting is usually accomplished by loading a shotgun shell with gold dust and then shooting it into a vein of rock. Back in those days of gold fever, a promoter with half a dozen gold-dust shot-shells blasted around into a small rock formation could usually convince half a township to turn loose his cash, meantime asking everyone to keep news of the find - and the promotion - very, very quiet "so claim jumpers don't beat us to it." Naturally, once the investors had invested, the promoter left on the first train west.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, one-gallon prospectors again roamed across both peninsulas of Michigan, looking for the answer to their dreams, but none ever struck it rich, or even found driblets of the yellow metal. Is there a big, rich vein of gold still down there somewhere beneath Michigan's topsoil? No one knows for sure, but our past history at least offers the possibility. In any case, most of us will just have to wait and see.