Once a Year, This 19th-Century Michigan Ghost Town Comes to Life

Last month, descendants of copper miners and history enthusiasts alike gathered for the 117th annual Central Mine reunion service

Choir at the 117th annual Central Mine reunion
A total of 163 people attended the 117th Central Mine reunion. Jeff Curto

The morning sun pierces the windows of Michigan’s Central Mine Methodist Church, suffusing in a brilliant hue the pages of sheet music propped up on an 1882 reed organ.

This heavenly illumination seems to guide the fingers of organist Corbin Eddy, and a flourish of lush chords soar to the rafters. The 15-person, ad hoc church choir—whose members managed to hold four rehearsals despite coming from as far away as New York and California—doesn’t miss a beat. Their voices fill the church with the joyous sounds of a hymn:

Blest be the tie that binds

our hearts in Christian love;

the fellowship of kindred minds

is like to that above.

The 117th annual Central Mine reunion service has begun, bringing a 19th-century ghost town back to life for just one day of the year.

View of the pews at the 117th annual reunion
A volunteer board of directors organizes the annual event. Jeff Curto

At this year’s event, traditionally held on the last Sunday of July, 163 people attended services at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m., consecrating a ritual that, for many present, began with their great-great-grandparents. Though the 38-acre Central historical site is open to visitors throughout the year, its surviving buildings are sparse, consisting mainly of restored miners’ homes and the 155-year-old church.

The shafts of light penetrating the church’s high windows offered a stark counterpoint to nearby mineshafts that once ran more than 3,000 feet below ground. These passageways led to copper deposits that made Central one of the many successful mines on the 150-mile-long Keweenaw Peninsula, the northernmost appendage of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, in the second half of the 19th century.

Here, surrounded by the vastness of Lake Superior, receding glaciers left massive caches of remarkably pure copper, a key ingredient in everything from cookware to cannons. Beginning in the early 1840s—several years before the discovery of gold in California in 1848—tens of thousands of people eager to take advantage of this largely untapped resource flocked to what became known as Copper Country. Many were immigrants from Cornwall, an English county with a long mining tradition.

The 1923 Central Mine reunion
The 1923 Central Mine reunion Michigan Technological University Archives

“Copper mining in the Lake Superior country seems to be all the rage just now,” wrote the Detroit Democratic Free Press in 1845. “From Boston, New York, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, and many other eastern cities, there are constant arrivals … all making a grand dash at the newly discovered copper region.”

This “grand dash” resulted in a flourishing industry that endured into the early 20th century. The Keweenaw Peninsula “had the richest mines, the deepest mines, the most technologically innovative and the most profitable mines here,” says Timothy J. Scarlett, an industrial archaeologist at Michigan Technological University in Houghton. The area was “well known around the country.”

By the time white miners arrived in the region, its Indigenous inhabitants had already been mining copper for millennia. “The last glaciers receded about 9,000 years ago,” says Scarlett. “Almost as soon as they melted, people began arriving.”

According to Scarlett, recent scholarship suggests the area’s prehistoric residents excavated copper from shallow pits (Central itself was built on one such ancient site) and practiced metallurgy, essentially using fire to heat copper and then shaping it with handheld tools. “People used the landscape seasonally, much like [tourists] who rent summer cabins here today,” he says. “They came up in the summer to hunt, grow things and harvest some copper.”

The Indigenous Ojibwe people maintained control of the mineral-rich territory until 1854, when they ceded the western half of the Upper Peninsula to the United States government under the Treaty of La Pointe. Shortly after, Central, the midsize mine that lent the Methodist church its name, opened and prospered for four decades. Work began in 1855 under the auspices of the newly formed Central Mining Company. According to the Keweenaw County Historical Society, miners extracted 83,836 pounds of copper in Central’s first year in operation, turning a profit faster than any other mine on the Keweenaw Peninsula to date.

A 1933 photograph of an abandoned Central mineshaft
A 1933 photograph of an abandoned Central mineshaft Michigan Technological University Archives

The town of Central grew in tandem with the mine, welcoming a post office, a school, a hotel, a general store and a range of local businesses by the early 1870s. Mining accidents were few and far between. But on April 22, 1872, disaster struck when a wire rope connected to a skip, or railcar, snapped while lowering 13 miners—most of whom were Cornish—into the shaft. Ten died. A poem published in Cornish newspapers commemorated the dead:

Sad news from across the ocean we hear,
Sad news from the Central Mine,
Sad news for the wives and children dear,
Of death in that distant clime.

The decade after the disaster saw the Central Mining Company’s profits decline, with workers finding less copper the deeper they dug. By 1898, miners had excavated nearly 52 million pounds of the metal. The mine dried out, and the miners and their families dispersed.

At the turn of the 20th century, Central was a ghost town. As newer mines cropped up in the western United States, the Keweenaw Peninsula became a landscape of towering, skeletal mineshafts and roofless industrial buildings dotting U.S. Route 41. “Towns Dead and Dying,” declared the headline of a 1979 Audubon magazine article on the region.

Yet there must have been something special about Central, because in 1907, less than a decade after the mine closed, a group of former residents returned for a reunion, the highlight of which was a Sunday church service. Like the mythical Scottish town of Brigadoon, Central Mine Methodist Church has been resurrected just one day a year ever since. A volunteer board of directors organizes the annual service, which features choral music, a themed sermon and reminiscences on the town’s history. The tradition even weathered the Covid-19 pandemic, with the church holding live-streamed outdoor reunions.

Alfred Nicholls (third from left, holding a Cornish pasty) and his family enjoy a picnic in Central.
Alfred Nicholls (third from left, holding a Cornish pasty) and his family enjoy a picnic in Central. Michigan Technological University Archives

Occasionally, Central Methodist is rented out for weddings, which help fund the cost of maintaining the 155-year-old building. During the year, board members check in on the church periodically to make sure wasps, mice or bad weather haven’t caused any damage.

Now a nondenominational Christian service, the reunion honors the memories of those who once called this remote place home. When he took the pulpit at the 2023 services, Pastor Lawrence J. Molloy—also a historian who has written books on the local mining industry—recalled his first time visiting Central, back in the summer of 1985. He was spending a weekend at a campground an hour’s drive away when he heard about the reunion. Intrigued, “I drove all the way to Central surrounded by dense fog,” he said. “I didn’t know a soul.” He found a seat at the back of the church and was deeply impressed when the congregation called out the names of the original Central families to which they were related.

From the pulpit, Molloy then invited those assembled for this year’s reunion to continue the tradition. They responded, shouting out the last names of some of the relatives who once lived in this thriving community of more than 1,200: Bryant. Ivy. Nicholls. Hocking. Bennett. Omans. “Those names are important,” the pastor said after the roll call.

An undated photo of the Central Mine Methodist Church
An undated photo of the Central Mine Methodist Church Michigan Technological University Archives

Today, Central Mine Methodist, with its distinct crenellated tower and lush greenery, might look like “Little Church on the Prairie.” But during the decades the mine was in operation, the area would have been anything but bucolic. “There would have been houses all around,” Molloy said while standing outside the church before the 9 a.m. service.

The town of Central boasted some 130 houses in 1882. A handful of these structures survive and are now open to visitors. (Central is part of the Keweenaw Heritage Sites under the umbrella of the Keweenaw National Historical Park.) Construction of the church, which served as a school for a time, began in 1868. The building was a focus for the community’s social and spiritual life.

Central’s residents were certainly in need of diversion from the region’s harsh climate. (Average annual snowfall on the Keweenaw Peninsula is around 270 inches.) “It was a scrubby, dirty mining village that they just cut out of the forest on a hillside,” says cultural historian Dan Truckey, director of the Beaumier Upper Peninsula Heritage Center at Northern Michigan University in Marquette.

Locals had a flair for showmanship. To the delight of the children in attendance, during the annual Christmas service, Santa Claus was lowered by rope through an opening in the church’s ceiling, descending into the pews much as Central’s copper miners descended into the town’s mineshafts.

A view of the church at night
A view of the church at night Jeff Curto

In his sermon, Molloy pointed out that it took a village above ground to support the one laboring below. The 1870 U.S. Census recorded Central as having 929 residents. Of these, approximately 434 were children under the age of 18 (8 of whom worked in the mines). Among the adults, a total of 151 listed the occupation of copper miner. But an almost equal number were categorized in the census as “keeping house.” These were women who were often responsible not only for their own families but also for boarders. Their lives consisted of unceasing toil in a harsh environment. “Central would not have been Central without these 154 women doing their work, each and every day, to keep the mine and community going,” said Molloy.

The 19th-century copper mining operations used gears, levers and steam power to dig deep into the earth. It was a profitable but dangerous enterprise. Growing up, Gary Bryant, a member of the Methodist church’s board of directors, heard the story of his great-grandfather Edward Bryant, a Central miner who’d left Cornwall for Copper Country in 1875.

Settling in Michigan, Edward married and fathered three children. His wife was pregnant with a fourth when, in 1883, Edward decided not to descend with the other men in the cable-powered “man-car”—the typical conveyance for miners—and instead opted to ride down on a pallet of lumber that was being lowered separately. “The family story is that the miners around him said, ‘You shouldn’t do this,’” Bryant recalls. “But he hopped onto the pile of wood, got himself comfortable and said, ‘California, here I come!’” With that, the cable broke, and Edward and the pallet of wood vanished into the darkness. “There was nothing to stop my great-grandfather until he hit the bottom of the mine, a half mile below,” says Bryant.

Edward’s pregnant widow and their children returned to Cornwall just two weeks later. Bryant, who now lives in nearby Eagle Harbor and is a past president of the Methodist church’s board, says the mine owners evicted his great-grandmother from the family’s company-owned home. Molloy points out that she likely would have struggled to make a living in Michigan without her husband’s financial support. “[Cornwall] might have been the only place for her to go to survive,” he says. (Edward’s descendants eventually made their way back to Michigan, where Bryant grew up.)

After Central ceased operations in 1898, some of the miners went to work at other local mines. Others headed back to Cornwall or migrated to downstate Michigan or the American West. Nine years later, in 1907, one of Central’s former residents, Alfred Nicholls, decided to organize a reunion. About 200 people showed up for a Sunday service and picnic at their old church.

They’ve been coming back ever since.

One of those in attendance this year was Jeff Curto, a photographer and a direct descendant of Nicholls. The reunion first organized by his great-grandfather, Curto says, “has morphed from a get-together of those who lived here to a memorial to these people and their toughness.”

Truckey emphasizes Central’s importance to the families who lived there and their descendants. “This is where their American story began,” he says. “Like all immigrants, there’s going to be a close connection with it.”

Unlike Curto or Bryant, Jeff and Kathy Ihde are unrelated to anyone from Central. But the couple, who vacationed on the Keweenaw Peninsula for years before moving there from Wisconsin in 2018, try to attend the service every year. “We’re not churchy people,” says Kathy, “but it’s such a beautiful and emotional service.”

The 15-person choir performs at the 117th reunion.
The 15-person choir performs at the 117th reunion. Jeff Curto

The reunion is also attracting members of the next generation. Nola Duwe, a 15-year-old from Portola Valley, California, has been coming to her family’s summer home in nearby Copper Harbor for as long as she can remember. Nola’s mom, Hilary Duwe, is descended from one Henry Martin, a Cornishman who worked at another local mine. The extended Martin clan has embraced the church service: A total of 17 family members from three generations were present on July 30. “There’s such a community built around it,” says Nola, who also sings in the choir. “Even if you’re not a member of one of the original families, you’re welcome here. It’s a great way to connect with history.”

The tradition seems to be in no danger of ending soon. The church’s website announced the date for the 2024 service (July 28) the very day after the 2023 one, which concluded, as it began, with another fitting hymn:

Till we meet, till we meet,

God be with you till we meet again.

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