The ghost towns of the Upper Peninsula

One doesn’t have to go to Appalachia to see the poverty and ghost towns from failed and abandoned mining.

One need only take a relatively short drive from Minnesota to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where copper mining isn’t what it once was.

Life might seem bleak in a ghost town. For some people though, it’s ideal.

Posted by Detroit Free Press on Sunday, February 18, 2018

Mining and lumber pretty much built Donken, Michigan, which sits on Lake Superior’s south shore.

“Now it’s just a brief interruption in a corridor of trees along a narrow highway,” the Detroit Free Press writes.

Mining ended with the collapse of copper prices during the Great Depression.

The mining/lumber economy has given way to tourism.

“This is also a very familiar story to so many American places, especially industrial places where you have a lot of people come and work in one particular industry,” said Sarah Fayen Scarlett, a 41-year-old assistant professor of history at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, which was founded in 1885 as the Michigan Mining School specifically to train new mining engineers.

“It’s a one-industry town mostly, and then when something goes wrong with the industry it really, really affects the people who live there. And that’s something that’s happened over and over again in so many American towns.”

She was standing in Lake Linden, near the ruins of a stamp mill for the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company, for years the leading copper producer in the world.

An iPad in her hands featured an app that she helped create called the Keweenaw Time Traveler, which allows users to summon historical maps of any place they’re standing in the Keweenaw Peninsula, ghost town or otherwise, to evoke from the past the names of the buildings and streets that in many cases are now gone, and to give life to the ruins left behind. It showed a long row of buildings at the spot where she stood, where now there’s just a grassy park.

“I think there’s a lot of human story in ghost towns, even though there aren’t people there anymore,” Scarlett said. “They’re so evocative of what might have been there.”

Some people still live in the ghost towns of the U.P.

“I love it. Oh, I love it. You don’t even know,” one resident said. “I love just the peace and quiet, just the wind blowing. You can’t open up your door in a big city and piss out your back door. But here, you can.”

It’s a fabulous look at history of the region with incredible photos.

  • Wayne

    “You can’t open up your door in a big city and piss out your back door.”

    The voice of someone who has probably not lived in a big city.

    • Guest


    • Now, THAT’S funny! Well done.

    • Long ago when I worked as a part-time newbie cop in Mankato, we did “house watches” – keeping an eye on homes while people were away on vacation. One of the more experienced guys told me about his most embarrassing moment: He did a house watch check, and stopped in the backyard to take a whiz.

      A lady opened the back door and informed him, “We haven’t left yet”.

  • Guest

    One industry town or one supplier or one customer……all a fragile situation. AND out of the hands of those affected.

  • Mike Worcester

    The UP reminds me of parts of Cape Breton (Nova Scotia). Built on mining and fishing. The mining is totally gone. The rail line pulled out years ago though the tracks can still be seen as you cross the Cansco Causeway. Now it’s some fishing (lobsters) and tourism and trying to lure American expats to enjoy the scenery and casual way of life. Not sure where they stand on the pissing out the back door bit, but every place I visited did have a bathroom, and an outhouse.

  • Rob

    Another example of industry demise in the U.P. is the Ford Motor Co. sawmill and car body plant near the small twin towns of Iron Mountain and Kingsford. Ford’s tract of land covered 430,000 acres, and the plant/logging operations employed thousands of people during the company’s 30+ years of operation there.

  • Ralphy

    When the cod fishing industry collapsed for Norway, they quickly realized that the west coast would turn into ghost towns and Oslo would be swamped with unemployed (and homeless) economic refugees.
    The solution?
    Create government jobs in these coastal towns. A mail carrier might only have 50 or 100 addresses to deliver to. A pothole inspector might have a coupe of miles of roadway to routinely inspect.
    The result?
    Everybody has a job. Small town retail and restaurants stay vibrant. Schools stay open. Churches stay open. The crime rate is very low. People have a purpose and stay busy, with money to spend, save and taxes to pay. Norway effectively has full employment and a very robust budget surplus, with one of the highest standards of living in the world.

    Norway hasn’t done anything the US couldn’t do. If only.

    • wjc

      Socialists! 😀

      We could use some of that!

    • Brian Simon

      Norway also has an enormous national income from north sea oil & gas production. I wonder how the budget will be impacted when that extraction ends?

      • Ralphy

        Good question.
        Like any region, when resources are either depleted, obsolete or prohibitively expensive, the economy is in for a shock. Coal and cars are two prominent examples.

        As for Norway’s cash cow, the US has even more oil and gas.
        Norway treats their oil and gas as belonging to Norway, and the revenues derived. The US treats is oil and gas and respective revenues as belonging to industry. Norway is investing those revenues in education and infrastructure locally and a diversified investment portfolio globally.

        I’m much more concerned with the course the US is taking regarding the “game over” dilemma.

  • Jeff C.

    Makes me wonder why someone would want to put mines near the BWCA. The mines will go out of business a couple of decades after they open, leaving behind messes that will be around for centuries; natural beauty and tourism can be around forever, providing a constant infusion of people and cash to the community, sustaining it for generations.

  • Phil

    Oh, that takes me back. My aunt and uncle used to own and run a convenience store near Newberry that was in much the same state, and we would make family trips out there once or twice a year. The sparseness of the territory (Seney Stretch anyone?) always made going back home to the Iron Range feel like a return to civilization.

    I couldn’t live out there, but I do miss the cribbage.

  • Jerry

    Basing your region’s economy around an extraction industry is not a formula for long term financial success.

    • SPHINX

      Last time I was in the UP, we drove across the border into Hurley, WI for dinner. I saw many signs proclaiming “Mining is Our Future”

  • jon

    I went to school in Houghton, and took my wife through the UP for a vacation a few years back….

    The UP is like the land time forgot… at one point gassing up the car, there was no pay at the pump option, I had to go inside, where there was a cashier, who took my credit card, and put some carbon paper a top it and “ran” it through the knuckle buster…

    This was only a few years ago.

    And on the other hand you have places like copper harbor that have turned into mountain biking destination trip… full of touristy shops…

  • Coming soon to North Dakota when the shale gas plays out – and without the benefit of the UP’s natural beauty. Just miles and miles of miles and miles.

  • Matt Black

    I spent 6 amazing years up there, 4 as an undergrad at Tech and 2 working. My wife (also a Tech grad) and I were married up there. We love going back and spending time up there. We loved exploring, the outdoor activities, the weather (200+ inches of snow and mid 20s was great). There just wasn’t enough of an economy so that we could stay.

  • Ralphy

    I look at these ghost towns – whether a depopulated farm town, mining town or a big city such as Detroit. Then I look at these massive refugee encampments. Then I look at the number of vets and others in our country that have lost their purpose and their way. It seems like the opportunity is right to impact all these concerns.