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Gold Mining in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: Boy Gold Miner

Updated on March 8, 2015

This is an article written by my father (James M. Clem) in the early 1960’s aboutGold mining in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It was published in the Marquette Mining Journal.


The Ropes gold mine near Ishpeming cease actual operations in 1897 ending an era of history.

Had the child labor laws of the late 180’s been what they are now, Jim Davey, who lives near the Midway between Negaunee and Marquette, would be unable to cherish memories of working in that property.

Born in Nantcoke, Pa in 1883, Davey very likely would have remained a Pennsylvanian and missed this part of Michigan history had not the death of his father – while he was still in the crib – caused his mother to move to Upper Michigan and become Mrs. Sam Stanoway.

In 1894 Sam Stanoway, Jim’s step-father, was offered a job at the Ropes mine as a shift boss. Accepting, he moved his family from the Cambria Mine Location, five miles away, into a house a few hundred feet east of the main shaft of the Ropes.

Jim recalls there were many other buildings at the gold mine. Next to his home, for instance, a large boarding house provided accommodations for from 10 to 15 men. Close to the mine was Captain Robbins’ home, a two story building, and across the tailings north of the mine were many log cabins, the kilns, and a last but not least a school, aptly named Goldmine School.

Ropes Gold Mine in the late 1800's
Ropes Gold Mine in the late 1800's

Worked in Mine At 12

A Mr. Wentworth had the task of teaching Jim and 11 other children, but Jim was his problem student. He was in fact, so much of a problem that Mr. Wentworth approached his father and said that Jim was to mischievous and that it was his opinion he ought to be put to work in the mine. Thus in 1895, at 12 years of age, Jim became the youngest miner at the Ropes Mine. He began work on the fifth level of the mine as operator of the air tugger. This was a small hoist which lifted a bucket, when filled with ore by the miners, which in turn was emptied into a tram and finally deposited in the skip. Ringing of a bell told the hoist man operating the machinery on the ground level to hoist the skip.

Jim work for $1 a day and put in a 10 hour shift. This seems like a tremendous and cruel task, to place a 12 year old lad 500 feet below the surface of the ground and make him work by the light of a single candle in his hat.

But Jim Davey, like all boys, even here found time to play and make play of his work. He chuckles as he remembers the miners giving him the remaining stubs of the three candles each man received every morning. He would place these candles a short distance from his hoist, light them, and with his sling shot, attempt to shoot out the flames without striking the candles.

With all this youthful energy he expended, a boy quite naturally acquired a thirst. Jim, not to be thwarted, found his own way of solving this problem. Near the work area he discovered a small crack in the ceiling that continually dripped water. A tin can placed on the floor under the drip supplied all the water he wanted.

Because he was only 12 and worked entirely on the fifth level the two years prior to closing of the mine, Jim’s knowledge of the operations is somewhat sketchy, but the few things he did learn and the incidents he can recall are all jewels of fact that reveal some of this shrouded era of Michigan mining.

Recent photo of cave in at Ropes Mine site
Recent photo of cave in at Ropes Mine site | Source
typical mine ladder
typical mine ladder | Source

Not Completely Safe

It would seem that a gold mine, being all rock would be completely safe to work in. Davey, however, remembers one sad day, while he was working, when two miners were killed on the bottom level. When drifting in they left some loose rock above them because they were unable to reach it. The rock borke loose and crushed them.

Approximately 20 men worked in the min and a ladder was the only means of descending to the bottom. The skip was considered unsafe and therefore carried only tools and ore.

Only on one occasion did Jim ride the skip. A crank for one of the hoists had broken and Captain Robbins gave him the crank with a note tied to it telling the machine shop repairman to fix it as soon as possible. He instructed Jim to ride the skip to save time.

The hoist man on the ground level saw Jim climb into the skip but hadn't seen the Captain, so, whe the bell was rung to hoist up, instead he lowered Jim down to the bottom, bounced him up and down a few times, the raised him back up to the fifth level where he had started.

Jim, somewhat shaken, climbed hurriedly from the skip, walked over the Captain and said “Captain, that was kind of a rough ride I just got. If it’s all the same with you, I’d rather climb the ladder”.

Ropes Gold Mine
Ropes Gold Mine | Source

Water Pumped from the Mine

Water was kept out of the mine by a pump on the bottom level which pumped the water up to a cesspool carved into the rock on the fifth level. Here another pump raised the water the final distance to the ground level. Water for the mill, on the other hand, was pumped from the Carp river nearly a mile away.

Davey never knew much about the ore that was taken out of the mine. He explains the darkness made it difficult to identify anything other than quartz and rock. The miners, he remembers, were to be especially careful not to spill any wax on the ore because it would get on the rubber belts in the mill and cause trouble in the separating process.

Ropes Gold Mine
Ropes Gold Mine | Source

Paydays Missed

In the early spring of 1897 the miners began missing paydays and complained. After three months without pay the refused to work, so the mine had to be shut down. On July 27, 1897 the miners stated their case in court and succeeded in having the mine sold later to pay their wages.

After all this trouble, they received only 3% of the wages owed them Davey recalls.

Whet the Ropes mine closed, Jim’s family moved back to the Cambria Mine Location, north of Ishpeming. The interesting excitement packed life to Jim Davey continued.

By now a schooled miner, he went to work in the Lake Angeline Mine. While with this company, he was sent with eight other men to Sunrise, Wyoming, from 1904 to 1906. Was married in 1906, and acquired such and outstanding work record that in 1915 he was recommended for a position as captain with the Longyear Company.

Davey went to work for the Longyear Company’s mining division and was immediately sent to Norway, Europe along with 59 other men.

Worked in Many Countries

While in Norway he was given the position of captain, a position that, until he retired (actually he retired several times) in 1951, sent him all over the United States and several foreign countries, including, besides Norway, Cuba and Australia. His work consisted primarily of sinking shafts and seldom kept him in a location more than two years. As a result of all the movement, Jims seven living sons and daughtes are widely separated. Two boys are in Negaunee, and two are is Bisbee, Arizona. One daughter is in Alabama, another in Minnesota and a third in Michigamme.

At 78, Jim Davey, still spry, often returns to the site of the Ropes gold mine to pick huckleberries, to fish and to reminisce. The land has changed – what once was a toad is now a lake, clearing are woods covered and buildings are gone.

To us the area represents a dead civilization, but to Jim Davey it is more than this. It is part of his life, his youth. He can still remember his first trip into the depths of the mine, its eerie noises and now quiet voices. Voices that use to resound from the walls as they shouted “hoist up”


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    • jimmar profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Michigan

      Thanks for reading, uncovered this clipping after my father recently passed away. I thought it was an interesting story.

    • john000 profile image

      John R Wilsdon 

      8 years ago from Superior, Arizona

      This is a great piece of work. I love to read about mining and live near an area where there once was the most productive silver mine in the United States. The mine was called The Silver King. Much of what your father talks about vis-a-vis the gold mining is similar to what I have read about The Silver King. It too is abandoned, but not far from where I live.

      Our biggest claim to fame is copper mining. And, by the way, the first company to invest in dropping shafts here in Superior, Arizona was the Lake Superior Mining Company (of Michigan). Hence, the name of our little mining town, Superior.

      Reading about the life of the times at the mines is fascinating. Thanks for sharing.


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