In the heart of Michigan’s rugged Upper Peninsula lies a hidden treasure trove. It is not the typical kind you might imagine, but one that gleams just as brightly, gold. Yes, you heard it right, gold! But this is not the California Gold Rush or the Klondike. This is the story of grit, perseverance, and the pursuit of dreams. The forgotten gold rush of the Upper Peninsula is rarely in the annals of gold mining history.

In the late 1800’s the Upper Peninsula was buzzing with activity. While many flocked to the region for its rich copper deposits, a few daring souls had their eyes set on something even more precious – gold. They ventured into the dense forests, panning along the banks of icy streams, hoping to strike it rich. And strike it rich, they did.

unidentified man panning for goldDouglass Houghton

Gold in Michigan was initially unearthed by Douglass Houghton, the inaugural state geologist, who assumed the role in 1837. Undertaking multiple expeditions to the Upper Peninsula, Houghton notably documented the region’s abundant copper resources. In 1844, he successfully lobbied Congress for funding to conduct a comprehensive geological and linear survey of Michigan. Collaborating on the 1845 survey in the Upper Peninsula, Houghton partnered with William Austin Burt, Deputy Land Surveyor for the federal government. While Burt and his team delineated range and township lines, demarcating their intersections, Houghton’s team meticulously recorded geological observations, gathered samples, and assessed land elevations.

In 1845, while encamped near what is now Negaunee, Houghton returned from an independent exploration with rock samples containing enough free gold to fill an eagle’s quill. Fearing his men would desert to seek gold, he kept the discovery quiet, sharing it only with Samuel Worth Hill. Tragically, Houghton drowned later that year in a canoe accident, taking the location of the gold find with him.

Copper and Silver

The following year, Houghton’s brother Jacob discovered a copper vein on the Keweenaw Peninsula containing a small amount of gold. In 1854 and 1855, Silas C. Smith claimed to have found gold and silver deposits within Marquette’s city limits, a claim supported by later discoveries.

In 1864, during a silver mining boom, economic quantities of gold were found in mineral specimens from the Silver Lake district near Ishpeming. Despite the formation of numerous mining companies, few mines proved successful, with the last silver mine closing in 1868.

In 1869, Waterman Palmer disclosed the existence of a small vein of gold-bearing quartz near Cascade, sampled by the Cascade Iron Company yielding up to $900 worth of gold per ton of ore. However, the vein was too small for profitable mining and was eventually forgotten.

Gold Panning at a creekRopes Gold Mine

Among the most famous of these early miners was Julius Ropes, whose discovery of gold along the slopes of the Upper Peninsula’s hills sparked a frenzy that echoed throughout the nation. His findings ignited a gold rush of sorts, drawing prospectors from far and wide to seek their fortunes in the untamed wilderness.

Ropes Gold Mine was in Marquette Count and the first gold mine in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The mine operated on and off from 1883 until it closed in 1991. It is estimated that over the mines lifetime it produced almost $1 billion worth of gold.

After the opening of the first mine, more than 75 other gold mines and prospects were opened in the U.P. Some produced rich specimens of gold-bearing quarters, while other produced no more than traces of gold.

U.P. Gold Rush

The gold rush of the Upper Peninsula did not reach the fevered heights of its western counterparts. Still, there were several mines that were in operation in the late 19th century in the Marquette area. It is estimated that the U.P. yielded hundred

small pieces of gold in panning dishBy 1906, gold mining in Michigan had largely ceased, but the Grummett Gold and Silver Mining Company proposed to renew explorations on its Michigamme prospect. Despite efforts to reopen old shafts and showcase free gold specimens, no buyers emerged. This led to the abandonment of the prospect in 1913.

Today, you will not find sprawling mines or bustling towns like those of yesteryear. What you will find are determined individuals, armed with nothing more than a pan and a dream. Many still scour the streams and hillsides in search of that elusive glimmer. It is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the enduring allure of gold.

So, the next time you find yourself wandering through the wilds of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, take a moment to appreciate the rich history that lies beneath your feet. Watch for signs of the forgotten gold rush of the Upper Peninsula. Who knows, you might just stumble upon a glint of gold, and with it, a piece of the past that refuses to be forgotten.

Gold has been found in 6 of the 15 counties in the Upper Peninsula. In 27 of the 68 counties in the Lower Peninsula gold has been found. Read more about Gold in the Michigan in a previous article Northern Michigan Gold Rush.