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A Treasure of Copper at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History


Jeff Larkin is an Emmy award-winning independent creative video editor, who came upon the Smithsonian copper exhibit during a visit to Washington, D.C. last month. Jeff creates videos for the Copper Development Association.

Oct. 3, 2013

By Jeff Larkin

I took a trip recently to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington,D.C., and I was fascinated to discover how important Michigan’s role has been in copper production in the United States.

As a Michigan native, it seems strange to think that the story of copper in our state goes back over a billion years ago when lava covered what’s now what’s now our Upper Peninsula. There was later a continental collision, which broke the rocks apart. Mineral fluids – which included copper – were deposited in the cracks. That’s the source of the rich copper that was mined more than 100 years ago in Michigan.

Copper Specimen from Keweenaw Peninsula, Michigan.

A copper specimen from Keweenaw Peninsula, Michigan.

You’ve probably heard that the U.P. is known as “copper country.” In fact, copper mining thrived in the 1800s, and our state was the largest producer of copper from 1850-1887. Most of the mining took place between a hundred-mile stretch through Ontonagon, Houghton and Keweenaw counties.

At the Smithsonian, I was surprised to see our Michigan copper is most often mixed with small amounts of other elements – silver, arsenic and iron. These other elements make the copper color vary, depending on how much of these other materials are part of it.

The copper samples highlighted at the museum were collected from the White Pine Mine, in Michigan’s Ontonagon County. The White Pine Mine (shut down in 1995) was our state’s last major copper mine, producing more than 1.8 million metric tons of copper during its lifetime.

Copper Samples

Many of these copper samples come from northern Michigan, North America's largest producer of copper from 1850-1887.

I was born in Detroit and grew up in Michigan, visiting the U.P. as a boy. I enjoyed collecting rocks and minerals. But it’s interesting to know just how much copper continues to be important to our state and region.

Copper today is just as important to our world as it was when it was first mined hundreds of years ago. Copper has great conductivity – and is a vital component in our wiring, our machinery and in new technology, like electric vehicles. Copper is essential in our efforts to make energy more sustainable. Its antimicrobial properties also make our medical settings safer when copper is used in equipment and fixtures in hospitals.

If you’d like to know more about the many uses of copper, check out the Copper Development Association’s website. Or if you’re in the Smithsonian, check out the exhibit!

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