From the book Superior: Under the Shadow of the Gods


The Battle at Silver Islet:

The Bonanza Find

John Morgan had been sent to obtain samples of lead-enriched galena for the Montreal Mining Company. Now he was searching for a place to shield himself from the blast his partner Patrick Hogan was about to detonate. Where to hide? This godforsaken "Island No.4" was barely 27m (90 ft.) long. When the explosion erupted, Morgan almost didn’t hear it because beneath the water, practically within reach of his outstretched hand, lay several nuggets of silver. Within a week, several hundred pounds of silver-rich ore were on board the steamship Algoma bound for Montreal, along with detailed descriptions of a silver vein running northwest from Island No. 4 towards the mainland.

The executives in Montreal were very impressed by the samples, and less so by the location. An exposed mine site out on Lake Superior? For two years, the company struggled to make the site productive, but it became apparent that the investment would have to be heavy, so the company sold the property to a Major Sibley of Detroit. Sibley knew that in order to succeed, he would need an iron-willed superintendent. He found William B. Frue, spurring him on with the promise of a $25,000 bonus. Frue arrived in 1840, prepared for battle.

The Battle Begins

Frue and his engineers arrived with two horses, machinery, a scow, a raft of timber, provisions and thirty labourers. It was September and the lake was in a surly mood. The men worked eighteen-hour days to build extensive timber breakwaters, foundations and a coffer dam around the vein. Miners managed to extract about seventy tons of ore, no thanks to Superior.

In October, half the breakwater was shredded. They rebuilt it 8-m (26-ft.) wide, twice the original width. Before Christmas, large parts of the cribbing were destroyed, dumping 3,000 tons of rock into the lake. In March , another 75m (250 ft.) was ripped away. As Frue held up the twisted iron bolts, someone quipped, "They might as well have been my wife’s hairpins." For the rest of the month, Superior attacked relentlessly, eliminating another 15,000m (50,000 ft.) of timber cribbing.

The first winter was difficult for the wives and families who endured the cold in tents and primitive conditions. It was not until the summer of 1871 that the mainland town of Silver Islet Landing was built, along with the harbour’s breakwater, basin and wharves. An elegant three-storey house was completed for the President on Camp Bay, and construction began on a jail for drunks and roughnecks. To guide vessels into Silver Islet, the firm installed its own lighthouse and range lights. Frue even organized a library for the single men living in bunkhouses on the Islet. (Because the library was situated in the saloon building, the bartender doubled as librarian).

As the mining moved underground, a complex grew above: shafthouse, engine house, rock house and pump house (to keep the shaft from flooding). Despite the incredible challenges, the operation at Silver Islet seemed to be progressing. By the end of the summer, the island was surrounded by a breakwater 22m (75 ft.) at the base, with 5-metre-high (18-ft.) bulkheads holding 50,000 tons of rock rubble.

By now the operation employed over 480 men. Originally Frue had hired a group of miners from the Keweenaw Peninsula in Michigan. Later he went further afield, paying the passage for a number of Norwegian and Cornish miners who soon grew dissatisfied and left. A sixty-hour work week, poor conditions, not to mention strict rules–like having their whiskey consumption tallied–were just too much. Frustrated, Frue wrote, "Our last assortment of Cornishmen turned out as troublesome as our Norwegians. Ten of them stole off the day after their arrival. The remainder all struck work after one day underground. As to the reasons offered, they are as many and as opposed to compromise as Quills on a porcupine.…"

Working conditions were unpleasant, even by mid-nineteenth century standards. Safety measures were virtually non-existent, and miners worked in constant fear that their head candles would ignite trapped pockets of gas. The threat of flooding was ever-present and as the shaft sank deeper and deeper, the terror of being lowered beneath the lake intensified. Only a flimsy wall of wood and stone protected the miners. In one of Superior’s frightening assaults, observers watched horrified as mountainous waves crushed the breakwall and crashed into the shaft. Two brave miners entered the shaft to warn others below:

we saw to our horror the waves rushing right through the middle of the island between the machinery house and shaft of the mine and boarding house…. We saw two buildings go down before the waves, and as the storm permitted we noticed the breach of water widen more and more while dense clouds of spray shot up against and over the houses, shops, steam-house, threatening to engulf them…. The waves poured over the destroyed breakwater carrying logs and stones upon their crests.

Monthly wages were $68 (minus $14 for room and board). Before leaving the mine after each shift, miners had to submit to body searches, just in case they were hoping to augment their wages with some silver. Anyone who refused the search was fined $10.

Frue left in 1875 and over the next three years, the mine production was disappointing in spite of its very capable replacement Richard Trethewey. It was only when they brought in a diamond-tipped drill that they struck a new vein (the drill was a first of its kind, improving on European drills used in subway tunnelling).

Superior Succeeds

At that time Silver Islet was one of the richest silver mines in the world. With breakwalls and cribbing, the 27-m (90-ft.) island had been expanded to ten times its original size. By 1883, one of its shafts reached 375m (1,250 ft.), almost a quarter of a mile deep. Some people worried about nearing 1,300 feet in the 13th year of operation. To them the events of 1883-84 were inevitable.

As winter approached, the mine superintendent noted there was only enough coal to last until March 1st. Without fuel, the pumps could not operate, and without the steam pumps in operation, the mine would flood. Not to worry. The steam freighter H. B. Tuttle was on its way with 1,000 tons of coal, more than enough to hold Superior’s waters at bay until spring. But the Tuttle did not arrive. The lake froze early and the boat was locked in ice somewhere off Houghton, Michigan. Miners frantically fed wood into the pump boilers. They even began dismantling wooden buildings. But it was not enough. Within weeks the mine flooded and had to be abandoned.

In its 13 years of operation, the Silver Islet Mine had shipped more than $3,000,000 of ore, $1,300,000 in its first three years alone. The mine spawned a vibrant community that continues as a summer community to this day. The general store now includes a tearoom. Many of the "camps" or cottages, along the waterfront date back to the mine era. Even the old jail has been converted. At the Islet, remnants of the building foundations, and the mine shafts and breakwalls, still lie under the frigid water.

From time to time, reminders of the Silver Islet mine era are uncovered, some more poignant than others. When the old freight shed was torn down a hundred years after the closing of the mine, wreckers found a sealed shipping crate. Inside was the small tombstone of a miner’s child who had likely died during a typhus epidemic. Perhaps the miner had been unable to pay for the tombstone when it arrived. The tranquil cemetery is gradually returning to nature, in among trees at the far end of The Avenue.

The island is privately owned. Trespassing is prohibited... and Silver Islet residents make it their business to notice transgressors! (Much of the information for this story was gathered from Elinor Barr’s Silver Islet: Striking it Rich on Lake Superior.)

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