Park's Birthday Celebrates Copper Country Heritage
Twenty years ago, a bill I sponsored in the Senate became law, creating the Keweenaw National Historical Park in the Upper Peninsula. Recently, I joined park officials and the Keweenaw community in celebrating the park’s 20th birthday.
This park is a gem that celebrates the story of a mineral – copper – and the communities that sprung up here because of the area’s mineral riches.
This story goes back to prehistoric times. The Keweenaw is the only area in the country where prehistoric peoples mined copper. Artifacts made from Keweenaw copper nearly 7,000 years ago were traded as far south as what is now Alabama.
The more recent story of copper in this region dates to the 19th century, when immigrants from all over the world flocked here to mine the copper, build their homes, raise their families, and establish the wonderful communities that still are there today.
The story of Copper Country, like that of the economy that copper helped build, is in part, one of astounding technology. The park preserves massive structures used to bring copper to the surface and begin processing the raw ore.
But even more than the technology, we stand in awe of the enormous hard work, dedication and skill of the miners themselves. Ultimately, it is people – people like the miners of the Keweenaw – who powered the industrial revolution.
Workers swarmed into the Copper Country from Cornwall in England, Ireland, Germany, Canada, Italy, Finland, Croatia, Slovenia and China. Indeed, each decade’s census of the Keweenaw Peninsula showed a changing ethnic composition with a diversity that eventually numbered nearly 40 different nationalities.
The immigrant communities each brought a piece of their homeland with them to the Copper Country as evidenced in the architecture, foods and traditions. Churches of many denominations – including Roman Catholic, Methodist, Episcopal, Congregational, Presbyterian and Lutheran – provided a spiritual home to the miners and their families.
We cannot afford to lose that rich heritage. And yet, in the 1970s and ’80s, the physical reminders of Copper Country history were at risk of being lost. These buildings, and the history they hold, are irreplaceable.
That is why establishing park 20 years ago was so important.
In the two decades since, many historic buildings have been preserved and renovated. The National Park Service owns six buildings within the park boundaries, and has partnered with 19 other organizations operating 26 other sites – the Keweenaw Heritage Sites – to preserve and celebrate the cultural and natural resources of the area.
The people of the Keweenaw were instrumental in establishing this park, working closely with local and federal officials to respect the region’s past while protecting its present and future economic potential.
The people and institutions of the region continue to work closely with the Park Service in the unique arrangement between the park and partners at the many privately owned heritage sites.
But our work is far from over.
Funding is one of the key issues. Because this is one of the newer parks within the National Park Service, it still needs support to acquire, preserve and interpret additional historic properties such as the Quincy Smelter. Over the past ten years, national funding for such projects has been cut in half, which hampers progress at this park and others across the nation. With the help of private philanthropy, I hope we can reverse this trend and act as good stewards for the natural, cultural and historic treasures in our care.
Like a gem, Keweenaw National Historical Park has many facets. It tells a powerful story of hope and opportunity as well as struggle. Most of all, it offers us an appreciation for our past and an inspiration for our future.