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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: Who worked at Quincy Mine?

Most of the people who worked for the Quincy Mining Company during the copper boom were immigrants or the children of immigrants. The first wave of immigrants arrived in Michigan to work in the mines in the 1840s. These immigrants were from Ireland, Cornwall (England), Germany, and Scandinavian countries like Norway and Sweden. Michigan’s French-Canadian immigrants worked as timbermen and woodchoppers, but rarely in the mines. Italians would come in larger groups at the end of the 19th century. Each ethnic community created its own churches, meeting halls, and welfare societies. In 1870, nearly all residents of Houghton County (where Quincy Mine is) were immigrants or children of an immigrant.

New waves of immigrants came to work in the mines in the early 1900s and copper mining continued to boom. By 1905, Quincy Mine employed about 1,400 people. A third of the new workers were from Finland. Other new immigrant groups included people from Italy and Austria. The experiences of Finns and Italians at Quincy were the same as earlier immigrants: they were hired for the most laborious and low-paying jobs. The connection between a worker’s ethnicity and job placement put some ethnic groups at an advantage. People in the established groups had higher-paying jobs and were the bosses, supervisors, and engineers. New groups had lower-paying jobs and worked less-desirable jobs. This divide sometimes caused tensions between immigrant groups.

Most of Quincy Mine’s immigrant workers took unskilled jobs. The hardest jobs were mucking and tramming. These unskilled jobs required workers to shovel rock and push heavy tram cars, a task easily fulfilled by someone with little mining experience. Early waves of Finnish immigrants often found themselves in this sort of work. Some of the unskilled immigrants from Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy were also trammers when they arrived.

Another hard job was processing rock when it came to the surface. After the workers brought the rock to the surface, they dumped it from the ore cars and then rock-house workers took over. The rock-house laborers sorted the ore and sent it out in rail cars to its next processing stop. As with the underground work of mucking and tramming, rock-house work was often considered unskilled. Immigrants from Finland, Italy, Croatia, and Slovenia often did this back-breaking work.

Not everyone who worked at a mine was called a "miner." At most mines, a “miner” was a skilled worker who operated a drill or drilling machine, filled holes with explosives, and set off explosive charges. Early Cornish immigrants often became miners because copper mining was an important industry in Cornwall, England. Men from Cornwall could enter Michigan’s mines with experience. Unlike the Cornish, the Irish and German immigrants did not take skilled jobs immediately. In later years, workers of other ethnicities could be promoted to the position of miner.

Mining captains, assistant captains, and shift bosses oversaw the copper production at Quincy Mine. The mining captain was the executive officer. Assistant captains and shift bosses helped the captain manage the underground work force. Assistant captains could be in charge of individual shaft or an underground working area. Shift bosses were responsible for individual groups of men and might be directly involved with actual underground work. Mining captains stood out from the workmen because they wore white clothing. At first, skilled mining captains were often the Cornish immigrants with experience mining in England. After a generation passed, college-trained mining engineers took over the work of the experience-trained mining captains.

"Local" immigrants were French-Canadian men who traveled from Canada to work at Quincy. They built timber support beams for the mine shafts. This was a skilled job. Timbermen were employed to move, cut, install, and maintain wooden beams underground.  These beams lined the mine shafts and kept the mine from collapsing, but they could catch fire. The mines were candlelit. The mines used sprinklers to spray water and flame-fighting chemicals onto the beams to keep them from being set on fire.

A Keweenaw resident’s ethnicity was a very important part of his or her social identity when the copper industry boomed between 1870 and 1930. Journalists included information about a person’s ethnicity next to names in articles. They would call a person a “Finnish trammer” or a “Croatian laborer” and did not always give a full name. Ethnicity was used in jail records, too. Jail documents kept track of the ethnicity of jailmates rather than their place of birth. The mining companies kept written records of workers’ ethnicities, too. Quincy and other mining companies recorded workers’ ethnicities in their official employment records.

Questions for Reading 2

1) What were some of the main immigrant groups in copper mining communities? Who was known for mining in their homeland?

2) Who qualified as a “miner”? Who usually held this job? If you were not a miner, what type of job would you hold? Who typically held these jobs?

3) How large a role did ethnicity play in the daily life of workers? Where you can find examples of a person’s ethnicity being used to define their status?

4) Women and girls did not work in the mines, but they were part of the Quincy community. How do you think female immigrants might have been affected by their ethnicity in Keweenaw?

 

Reading 2 was adapted from National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, Quincy Mining Company Historic District, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1988; “An Interior Ellis Island: Ethnic Diversity and the people of Michigan’s Copper Country,” Michigan Technological University Archives and Copper Country Historical Collections.

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