Early History of the North Shore

The 1850s “copper towns” platted in what is now St. Louis County. (Image: Zenith City Press)

If you live in Minnesota’s Arrowhead region and have picked up a newspaper or tuned in to the local news in the past two years, you are likely well aware of the controversial copper-nickel sulfide mining operation proposed by PolyMet Mining. While the Arrowhead has been known for iron mining since the 1880s, copper mining is considered a new venture in mineral extraction today. But it was the promise of copper—and the wealth that would come from mining it—that spurred the first settlement of the Lake Superior North Shore by non-native Americans in the 1850s.
Even then, copper mining was nothing new to the area—though it had long been forgotten. Ancient Native Americans known as the Old Copper peoples once populated Isle Royale and what is now Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, perhaps as long ago as 5,000 BCE and as recently as 1,200 BCE. They extracted copper by heating native rock with fire and then dousing it with cold water, causing the rock to crumble and leaving the copper behind.

By the time the European explorers arrived in the late 1600s, the Western Lake Superior region was the home of the Ojibwe, who did not mine copper. Ojibwe led missionary Claude Dublon to the Ontonagon Boulder, a 3,708-pound chunk of native copper found along the Ontonagon River in the Upper Peninsula. In the 1830s, physician and geologist Douglass Houghton explored the Keweenaw Peninsula on an expedition with Henry Schoolcraft; he returned to complete a survey after Michigan achieved statehood in 1837. In 1841 he published his fourth annual field report on the region, explaining that he had found pieces of copper in streams and copper pits abandoned by early native peoples. The report would help Houghton become the “father of copper mining in the United States.”

The very next year U.S. government officials met with Ojibwe leaders at La Pointe on Madeline Island in the Apostle Islands. There they made an agreement known the 1842 Treaty of La Pointe.

The treaty in part turned over what is now Michigan’s U.P. and Northwestern Wisconsin to the United States, and prospectors rushed to the region in search of copper. By 1844 they were mining it, and an agreement made that year gave Isle Royale to the U.S. as well. From 1845 to 1887, Michigan was the largest source of copper in the U.S., and in 1869 the state produced 95 percent of the nation’s copper. Houghton didn’t see the end result of his discovery. The scientist—who was reluctantly elected mayor of Detroit in 1842—died in October, 1845. He and two companions drowned when their small boat was wrecked on Lake Superior.

The success of copper mining along the Lake Superior shore in Michigan got people to thinking: if there are copper deposits along the south shore, shouldn’t there also be copper on the north shore? This idea led to the 1854 Treaty of LaPointe, which in part opened the North Shore of Lake Superior to settlement by U.S. citizens of European descent.

With the treaty ratified in 1855, prospectors rushed to the region to make claims. From Portland in what is now Duluth’s east hillside to Grand Marais, dozens of “copper towns” sprung up along the shore, nearly all of them adjacent to the mouth of a river or stream—the same type of geological formations that held copper deposits along the south shore.

In 1856 the town of Buchanan—platted by W. G. Cowell and other pioneers and named for sitting President James Buchanan—was established southwest of the mouth of the Knife River. Buchanan was selected as the site for the new U.S. Land office for the Northeast Section of the Territory of Minnesota, and so it became vital to the shore’s development: anyone who wanted to make a land claim along the shore did it at the office in Buchanan. It was thought that the community would soon rival Octonagon, Michigan’s main copper town.

To access the north shore, prospectors first traveled to Superior, then the only settlement west of the U.P. The Seneca, a small steamer, regularly made trips from Superior to Buchanan. Pioneer Leonidas Merritt would later remember Buchanan as “the emporium of the North Shore, with a pretentious hotel, kept by one George Stull, the United States Land Office, steamboat docks, several saloons, boarding houses, etc.”

Buchanan was technically the third copper town established along the shore, preceded by Clifton near the mouth of the Talmadge River and Montezuma at the mouth of the Sucker River. Clifton—the first townsite on the North Shore—was platted October 31, 1855, by J. S. Watrous. Watrous was ambitious: the plat of his townsite, about nine miles north of Duluth, included two long parallel piers stretching out into Lake Superior to create a large harbor. Since claim-jumping was common, prospectors often hired men to “hold” the property—to camp or build a small cabin on the site in order to hold the claim. One of the men Watrous hired to “hold” Clifton was John Talmadge, who camped along a nearby river, which today is named in his honor.

The 1850s “copper towns” platted in what is now Lake and Cook counties. Beaver Bay was settled as a farming community of German immigrants. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Stretching north from what is now downtown Duluth, so-called copper towns established between 1856 and 1859 included Portland, Bellville (the western-most portion of Lakeside), Schmidt River (named for settler Henry Smith), Clifton, Montezuma along the Sucker River, Stoney Point/Sucker Bay, Buchanan, Knife River, Burlington Bay (part of today’s Two Harbors), Flood Bay, Stewart River (named for settler John Stewart), Encampment River (platted by George Stuntz), Saxton (named for Commodore Horace Saxton), and Grand Marais (platted by Robert McLean and first occupied by trader John Godfrey).

The great exception along the north shore was Beaver Bay, settled by the Weiland Brothers and other German immigrants not as a copper town but as a farming and logging community.

Many of the men who platted those copper towns had their hands in more than one venture. For instance, Vose Palmer was involved with both Bellville and Montezuma, and W. G. Cowell also owned land in what is today Duluth’s Canal Park. Stuntz—a surveyor by trade—and Saxton were involved with several townsites. Some of these men were part of northeastern Minnesota’s first organized mining outfit, the North Shore Mining Company. Organizers D. S. Cash, W. W. Spaulding, S. C. McQuade, W. W. Kingsbury, R. B. Carlton, Vose Palmer, John Parry, and W. G. Cowell had an authorized capital of $400,000—but the company never mined very much copper.

Despite all this activity, little copper was actually extracted along the North Shore. The Financial Panic of 1857 struck a severe blow to the region, and soon prospectors were fleeing their claims as fast as they had made them. The outbreak of the Civil War further decimated the population and put a halt to any commercial activity. Soon even Buchanan was abandoned, and the land office moved to Portland on June 26, 1859. According to Lon Merritt, “The several homes and business places [that made up Buchanan] stood for many years tenantless and intact, until finally destroyed by forest fire.”

Every other North Shore copper town disappeared as well—most, of course, never existed except on paper. John Godfrey abandoned his trading post at Grand Marais in 1860; the town would spring up again around 1870, when it became a logging center that helped provide the timber that built Duluth. Logging and commercial fishing—not copper mining—drove the north shore economy into the 1920s, when tourism took over.

As the Civil War was approaching its end, attempts were made to revive the quest for copper. Pioneer Sidney Luce, who took over the U.S. Land Office when it moved to Portland, was placed in charge of restarting the North Shore Mining Company’s efforts. He outfitted some unemployed men, commissioned Michigan copper miner Frank Salisbury, and sent them to mine sites at Buchanan and the French River. According to Luce, the group spent about a year working before the effort was suspended due to unsatisfactory results. They sent for an “eminent geologist from New York, a Mr. Moore” to take a more scientific approach to finding copper. But upon his arrival Moore was stricken with an acute skin infection and died, “thus depriving the company of the result of a scientific exploration.”

That was the end of copper mining along the north shore. Within a few years the promise of Jay Cooke’s railroad would merge the townsites at the Head of the Lakes into a boomtown city named Duluth. In 1869 the promise of gold near Lake Vermilion resulted in a gold rush, and soon pioneers were calling newcomers to the area “Sixty-niners.” Just like copper, the dreams of vast gold mines never came to fruition. But during that wild summer of 1869, several prospectors found evidence of iron deposits that, as we know, became the wellspring that has helped nourish the Arrowhead Region’s economy for more than 130 years.

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