Some kids grow up to be firemen, some become ballerinas. Others own and operate their own copper mine and tours.
Matthew and Victoria Portfleet earned engineering degrees at Michigan Tech University in Houghton, then dove into ownership of the Adventure Mining Company in Greenland, not far from Ontonagon in the Western Upper Peninsula.
Michigan’s copper boom began in the 1840s, ahead of the better-known Gold Rush out west. By the late 1800s the Keweenaw Peninsula, the northernmost part of the U.P., was supplying 75 percent of the country’s copper, but the end of the era began in the early 1900s and came to a close in 1967.
The story is told through the buildings and sites of the Keweenaw National Historical Park, and companion Keweenaw Heritage Sites, including the Portfleet’s Adventure Mine.
Adventure Mine is on a site that was first mined about 5,000 years ago; its modern excavations date from 1850 to 1920.
Tour options range from a fairly easy surface walking tour to the challenging Miner’s Underground Tour that includes rappelling down 80 feet into a mine shaft, plus crawling down slopes and navigating steep terrain. There’s a new swing bridge across a 30-foot chasm the Miner’s tour participants can cross—I break out in a sweat just looking at the photo on the website.
The most challenging, the Captain’s Underground Tour, requires advance reservations and good physical condition for traveling over rough terrain for five or six hours to remote parts of the mine. And it includes a traditional miner’s pasty lunch! Check out the website for details.
At least two of the tours are suitable for young kids (see website for guidelines and rules). All tours begin with a bumpy ride to the mine entrance aboard a Pinzgauer, a Swiss military vehicle.
We chose an underground tour that involved walking through tunnels and large rooms, and occasional stooping through low passages.
The only light came from our provided headlamps, and in the darkness we encountered several bats. Harmless, but startling.
As promised, the ground is uneven—leave the flip flops at home. Sturdy, closed-toed shoes are the order of the day. And dress appropriately; it’s chilly in the mine—a constant 48 degrees or so. Our college student tour guide was knowledgeable (or seemed to be; who am I to challenge anything about mining?) and the whole experience was a blast—for a couple of hours. Makes you appreciate the hard work of the sturdy souls who labor in the mines.
We toured the Adventure Mine with a family from Wisconsin who’d just been treasure hunting at the nearby Caledonia Mine, a copper operation from 1863 to 1958. They’d seen it on the Travel Channel’s Cash & Treasures show, and spent a few hours digging through a pile of ore hoping to uncover copper, silver or other minerals. Their yield won’t make them rich, but they were happy with the experience and the specimens they found.
Each Caledonia “miner” or group (up to four people) pays for a 3-yard pile of ore, and gets a bucket, tools for digging, water for rinsing the rock, and 4 hours of rock pickin’. Prospecting starts at 11 a.m. and wraps up at 3 p.m. Staff is on hand to help identify native copper, silver, quartz, feldspar and other minerals so you know what’s worth hauling home.
Digging dates are Thursdays and Saturdays from June through August. Safety glasses are required and for sale on site. Gloves are recommended, and you can bring a metal detector or rent one on site. (This activity is not for children under five.)
Advance registration is required and by the time I tried to book a pile, they’d all been claimed. We did stop by and got a look at the operation—enough to appreciate the beauty of the remote site and know that a few hours spent picking through a heap of rocks in the heat and sun is not everyone’s idea of a good time. Incredibly, as TJ observed, “People are paying to do what prisoners did as hard labor.”
200 Adventure Ave., Greenland, Michigan
Located in Area E on map
Tours are offered seven days late May through Labor Day, six days in October. Prices vary depending on the tour chosen: $14 or $25 for adults and $7.50 or $14.50 for kids 6-12 (under 6 free); adult-only options are $60 or $120
Mass City, MIchigan
Other mines we’ve toured and recommend (all in Area E):
Quincy Hoist and Mine in Hancock, (do the full tour: the trip into the mine 7 levels down, the world’s largest steam-powered hoist engine, and the Cog Rail Tram for the scenic view).
Iron Mountain Iron Mine, ride the train 400 feet underground to see the operation that yielded more than 22 million tons of iron ore from 1870 to 1945. In Vulcan, near Iron Mountain.
Also, on the To Tour list: Delaware Copper Mine, which was active from 1847-1887. Located south of Copper Harbor. We didn’t tour this but may in the future, especially to see the owners’ pet skunks. Only in the UP.
All stories and photos copyright Kath Usitalo unless otherwise noted