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Copper Markers Provide a Glimpse into America’s Past

September 9th, 2009

This article is not about markers made of copper. While many of the markers I found in researching it were fashioned from copper or one of its alloys, what really intrigued me was the copper storyline that emerged, the artifacts of America’s centuries-old relationship with copper.

Recently, in the course of one of those online meanderings we all succumb to now and then, I came across The Historical Marker Database (HMDB)Old Copper Culture Cemetery marker, an illustrated, searchable online catalog for people who like to share, according to the site’s tagline, “bite-size bits of local, national, and global history”.

The HMDB has hundreds of photographs, inscription transcriptions, marker locations, maps, commentaries, and links to more information. With one search, I knew I had hit pay dirt. I found fascinating remnants of copper mining and manufacturing history, told through the statues, plaques, monuments, and documentation submitted by citizen historians all over the country – and a great place to while away an afternoon.

The HMDB database can be filtered by state or country, historical period, industry, or some sixty other categories, as well as by keyword. My keyword, copper, yielded more than a few “bite-size bits” in which the semi-precious metal played a role.

These words are from a road sign in Copper Hill, New Jersey:

By 1816 copper ore was found here, and north towards Flemington. The mining craze lasted through 1865. It was never profitable, but gave Copper Hill its name. Erected 2009 by Hunterdon County Cultural And Heritage Commission.

There was more New Jersey trivia. I learned that, in 1786, the town of Rahway, New Jersey, the home of the first national mint, created the “Horsehead Copper”, the first coin to bear the motto E Pluribus Unum.

Gunpowder Copperworks buildingWhen we think of copper, places like Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Colorado, and South Dakota come to mind. Seeing the Copper Hill and Rahway signs, so far afield of what we know today as mining country, piqued my interest. I wondered about other towns and industries built on copper that were no more.

In fact, there was quite a bit of mining and quarrying activity in America’s northeast, right through the 19th century, including the Canton, Massachusetts, rolling mill of our most famous metalsmith, the American patriot Paul Revere. It was there that he built the innovative copper hull for the USS Constitution, helping the fledgling United States of America to win the War of 1812.

Moving west, the town of Copperopolis in California was, by 1863 the largest producer of copper in the western United States and had a population of more than 10,000. It supplied much of the copper ore used in the American Civil War, World War I, and Word War II. Copperopolis is now a California Registered Historical Landmark and its page in the HMDB gives a fascinating peek into America’s mining past.

Back east, Gunpowder Copper Works, in Kingsville, Maryland, did business from 1804 to 1883, rolling and refining blocks of copper shipped across the Atlantic from Wales. The original dome of the United States Capitol was rolled Copperopolisand fabricated here. The company’s stone Copper Works building still stands, even down to the colonial shingle outside the door. Maintained by the Baltimore County Historical Society, it looks much the same as it did 200 years ago.

One of the oldest historical sites, the Old Copper Culture Cemetery in Oconto County, Wisconsin, dates back 4,500 years. It is where the Wisconsin Indians buried their dead. The people of this Neolithic culture were America’s first miners. They used copper tools, weapons, and ornaments, and became known as the Old Copper People. Their marker, erected by the Wisconsin Historical Society, can be viewed here.

Now it’s time for you to do your own search: perhaps your birthplace, your branch of the armed services, or a favorite historical era. As you explore, you may remember, as I did, a sign you’ve passed every day for years, and decide to document it for other armchair historians. If you do, HMDB can help you get started.

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