“They’re all faded from all the light
we have in here,
but I kind of like the color
they faded to.”
– Angela Cummings
One of the first things someone driving into downtown Ontonagon will notice, and there is no kinder way to put it, is that Ontonagon is a dying town. At least a third of the homes are for sale. Most downtown businesses are empty. If you continue on down to the end of the road on either side of the Ontonagon River, you’ll come to what used to be the lifeblood of the town, the paper mill that was fueled by the area’s lumber industry.
The area has a fantastic history both visible and a bit buried. One stop to be sure to make is the Ontonagon Historical Museum, filled not only with interesting memorabilia and recreations of the town, but many curious archaeological finds from all over the area. When visiting, the curator was more than happy to guide me around.
I mentioned to him that I had a specific interest in the ancient copper pits that litter the area between here and Copper Harbor and a spark lit up in his eye. He started to point out individual artifacts and telling the story of where they came from.
He also recommended that I look up a book called Michigan Copper: The Untold Story by C. Fred Rydholm, a local historian who has been a large proponent of the pre-Columbian contact as the source of the ancient copper pits throughout the region. Digging a little deeper, you will find that this is a fairly common belief among some of the locals, including the museum’s curator. An essay on the topic here.
The curator then pulled out a map of Ontonagon County and highlighted several around the area where I would be able to find the ancient copper pits. He also told me where I could find a couple of the pyramidal mounds. Unfortunately, the earthworks were all in the immediate vicinity of the Ontonagon River in very marshy land, which I didn’t have the equipment to get through at the time.
I thanked the curator, who had said he would even like to bring me to the copper pit site, were it not for another obligation. Following his directions on the map, I was brought to a mountainous road to the southwest of town that was littered with empty pickup trucks that had brought hunters to these thick woods.
It took me a few times driving back and forth and an intermittent GPS to find the exact spot. I got out in a rocky gravel area and it was very obvious that it had rained recently with large muddy puddles and patches of soggy earth. I followed a path along the base of a cliff about a half-mile east of the area that I parked. All the time, rifle shots were echoing though the wooded valleys for miles, prompting me not to wander too far into the brush.
Despite the sign and the curator’s direction (and a few possibilities) I wasn’t able to find anything that I could personally identify as one of the copper pits.
After looping back up through Ontonagon to US 45, I continued south toward the valley town of Rockland. Curiously enough, I found out later, this road mirrors a wooden plank road that once existed. Rockland has a quaint charm to it, with a small grid layout and its surrounding hills.
A drive or preferably a walk around the town provides a feeling of tranquility but also a sense of how empty the town is these days. The main street is lined with several buildings with for lease or for sale signs. The only businesses are the general store and Henry’s Never Inn, the local tavern that has a surprisingly eclectic menu.
Along the main street, you will also find a couple curiosities, such as the Rockland volleyball field, which is sorely lacking in its upkeep. There is also the Rockland Weather Station, which is best explained by the picture, as I cannot necessarily put it into words.
Like Ontonagon, Rockland also boasts an amazingly dedicated town museum. Along with visual displays of the school and how the town has looked through the decades it also has extremely detailed records of the town’s history. Unfortunately, the do not have any records or dimensions of the mound that was demolished where the town stands today. Supposedly it was the largest in the area.
Taking a road southwest out of Rockland, aside from the constant winding and hills you will come across, you will come to Victoria, the restored wooden remnants of an old miners’ village near the Ontonagon River. The site provides guided tours during the warmer seasons.
Past the Victoria site, at the end of the road, stands the Victoria Dam and Reservoir at the Ontonagon River. It provides an interesting falls and site design, and gives you even more an idea of just how uniformly red the river actually is.