North Shore Copper Rush (1854–1858)


The Village of Superior in November 1856 as seen from the dock of pioneer George Stuntz’s trading post at the southern end of Minnesota Point, painted by Eastman Johnson. (Image: Library of Congress)

While the French referred to Lake Superior’s far-western end as Fond du Lac (Bottom of the Lake), English-speaking explorers had an entirely different perspective. They called it the Head of the Lakes, a phrase later used to collectively identify Duluth and Superior, Wisconsin. The position of those communities on the opposite banks of the St. Louis River has tied them together physically, economically, and culturally; if not for the state line between them, Duluth and Superior would certainly have become one city. Consequently, their histories are profoundly intertwined. (Learn more about early Superior here.)

In 1854 droves of immigrants began arriving at the Head of the Lakes. In September speculators incorporated the Village of Superior, platting it between the Nemadji River and Conner’s Point along the shore of Allouez Bay behind both Wisconsin and Minnesota Points. A year later the population had jumped to 585, including 329 men, 119 women, and 137 children. They called their village Superior City. Many of them would also become the founders of the townsites that would eventually form Duluth. Many of the same people who established the townsites that would become Duluth also came to the Head of the Lakes filled with dreams of striking it rich mining copper along Lake Superior’s north shore. Beginning in 1856, many of them took the steamer Seneca from Superior to Buchanan, a brand-new townsite (named for presidential candidate James Buchanan) at the mouth of the Knife River twenty-four miles up the north shore from Minnesota Point. Leonidas Merritt, who arrived in Oneota in 1856 when he was twelve, later called Buchanan “the emporium of the North Shore, with a pretentious hotel . . . steamboat docks, several saloons, boarding houses, etc.” The federal government established a land office at Buchanan, and there prospectors made claims on parcels of land along the Minnesota shores of Lake Superior from Duluth’s modern borders to Grand Marais.

Those hoping to make fortunes mining copper plotted so-called copper towns, townsites that existed only on paper. Nearly all of them sat at the mouth of a river or stream, the same type of geological formations that yielded copper in Michigan. Most of these towns and their adjacent waterways were named for either the men who platted them or those they paid to “hold” the property by camping or building a small cabin on the site to protect it from claim jumpers.

The so-called “Copper Towns” platted along the Minnesota North Shore of Lake Superior in the 1850s. Just which townsite at the Head of Lakes would become the commercial center that would ship that copper east remained unknown. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Stretching north from what is now Duluth, copper towns established between 1856 and 1859 included Schmidt River (named for Henry Schmidt), Clifton near the Talmadge River (the latter named for claim-holder John Talmadge), Montezuma along the Sucker River, Stoney Point, Sucker Bay, Buchanan, Knife River, Burlington Bay (which later joined with Agate Bay to become Two Harbors), Flood Bay, Stewart River (named for John Stewart), Silver Creek, Encampment River (platted by George Stuntz), and Saxton (named for Superior and Duluth lighthouse-keeper Commodore Horace Saxton).

The exceptions along the north shore were Grand Marais, a trading outpost, and Beaver Bay, where the families of Christian Wieland, three of his brothers, and other German immigrants started a farming and logging community. The Wielands and their friends left their homeland to avoid mandatory military service established after the German revolution of 1848. They wasted no time looking for copper. Within weeks of their arrival they had built docks, a sawmill, and roads.

Some of the prospectors organized northeastern Minnesota’s first mining outfit, the North Shore Mining Company. Daniel Cash, William Spalding, Samuel C. McQuade, William Kingsbury, Rueben Carlton, Vose Palmer, John Parry, and William Cowell pulled together an authorized capital of $400,000, worth over $11 million today. All they had to do was figure out which claims actually contained copper and then start mining.

But there was no copper there—at least not enough to justify opening a copper mine. None of the so-called copper towns contained much copper, and some none at all. In fact, very little copper was actually extracted from the North Shore. Most prospectors gave up following the Panic of 1857, abandoning all but Beaver Bay and Grand Marais.

Story by Tony Dierckins. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Tony Dierckins.