Mining history

Lani and Tom Poynter, with their pet skunk Oreo, stand next to a train display in the Delaware Mine Gift Shop.

 

Story and photos by Deborah K. Frontiera

The first thing that Delaware Mine owner Tom Poynter told to me as I talked with him about the mine was that the “working years” of the mine numbered 40, and this is the 40th year since he opened the mine for tours.

“The tours will last much longer than the original mine,” he said.

Tom acquired the property at the Delaware in May of 1977 from Lake Superior Land Company after looking at different mine sites for a year-and-a-half. He felt the Delaware was the best option for development for tours.

Even so, there was still plenty of work to be done to get it ready for tours. The mine shafts had been bulldozed shut, there was no road, and no electricity.

Tom began by building a road simply to get near the operation. Just as a bulldozer had covered the entrance to the mine shaft, he used one to open it back up again.

The first few weeks, he and those working with him used camping lanterns and flashlights. They got a construction generator and then traded that for bigger one that came from an ice cream truck. They built an outhouse to start with, (but the mine  tours now offer chemical portable toilets.) Once the debris from the entrance was moved, and some equipment left in disarray had been taken care of, he could see that the mine itself was in excellent shape—the rock was as solid and safe as it had been over 100 years before.

There was a lot of underground cleanup; the building of stairs and railings; clearing pathways; blocking off other areas where they did not want people to go, etc. At that point, it was just Tom and his brother who helped get the mine ready for the public. It took six weeks of hard work, heavy lifting and a backhoe in addition to the bulldozer they bought, but the mine opened for tours on July 5, 1977.

Tom had thought about running his own tours of a mine ever since his high school days in the 1960s when he worked as a guide at the old Arcadian Mine. He had really enjoyed it and felt it would be a great business. Tom came back to the Copper Country in 1976 after working in Detroit in engineering and started considering old mine sites. A friend, Victor Maki, and his brother, Jack, thought it was “pretty interesting” and wanted to be involved, too. Once they acquired the site, Victor decided not to be involved, so it was just Jack and Tom who started working with two helpers, Eddie and Charlie Markham who were high school and college age at the time.

When they opened for tours in 1977, the area open to the public was about half the distance available now. Eddie and Charlie both worked as guides, still using lanterns and flashlights. It was a good first season, but short since they closed right after Labor Day.

The next summer, they doubled the size of the gift shop, and put in wiring and electric lights. Six people wired the whole place in one evening—700 feet of wire with lights between 5 and 11 p.m. That fall, Tom bought out his brother’s interest and became sole operator. His brother had another business and didn’t have time, so the Delaware became Tom’s baby.

For the next several years, Tom hired high school and college students as guides. It took time to train them on what to say and for them to learn enough background to answer questions. Eventually, Tom decided it would be much easier to switch to self-guided tours with underground signs, and found that the public liked this better because they could take their time.

“The number of visitors has increased every year to where we get several thousand a year now,” Tom said with pride. They like keeping the whole operation simple so they can manage it themselves.

An interesting “aside”, some people have reported seeing a “fog” of ghosts in the mine, all friendly, of course. While on tour in the summer of 2016, this writer and her family didn’t actually “see” a ghost, but a misty shaped “person” showed up in a photograph. At one time, Tom and his wife, Lani, invited a paranormal group to investigate, but the group didn’t see or record anything and they never sent the Poynters a report of their visit.

To accommodate families at various times, Tom instituted a petting zoo with baby goats, miniature deer, calves, llamas and a resident rabbit in the gift shop. He had to borrow animals for the petting zoo and give them back each fall because he could not maintain them in the winter. This began to be a major problem, so he dropped that part of his program.

The entrance to the Delaware Mine as it is today.

Tom and Lani have a skunk, Oreo, who can travel with them. (Pet skunks have their scent glands removed shortly after birth, Oreo included). It takes a while to tame a skunk and socialize it until it is good around people. People really get a kick out of petting Oreo as Lani holds him. From this writer’s point of view, skunks are a lot like cats.

Four years ago, the Poynters finally got electric wires from UPPCO—but they still kept one generator for backup because one never knows when a storm will take out power to the entire area, which happened one summer recently. They had enough fuel to keep the lights on that entire day while everyone else was without power across a two-county area.

Knowing that Lani had not been with Tom from the start, I asked how the two met. It was back in 1990 when Lani met Tom in Orlando, Florida, at a hot air balloon show. She went on a flight when he was a crew chief and in the days that followed, spent much time “chasing” him as he worked to get his pilot’s license. For those who may be unaware of how hot air ballooning works, someone must “chase” or follow the balloon on the ground to be there for passengers and pilot when they land.  Even though it’s a lot of work to be the chaser, Lani did it for the fun of it. She worked for a tour company at that time for her “regular” pay check and Tom did a lot of odd jobs during the winter in Orlando when he could not be at the Delaware.

It wasn’t long before Tom talked Lani into coming up to the Keweenaw during the summer. She had extensive experience in tourism, doing everything from working at an attraction, providing services, even booking tours, “And now I own one,” she said. It was an easy transition to ownership. Her biggest adjustment was “culture shock” between Orlando and the Copper Country. With a chuckle, Lani had this to say about her job at the Delaware, “I don’t work; I socialize all day. We give people more personal attention and a better experience.”

The pair are working on another major upgrade to the Delaware Mine—adding a Maritime Museum on the site. While that might seem like a contradiction, in the history of Great Lakes, mining and shipping went hand in hand. One would not have been possible without the other. Everything, and everybody, back then arrived in the Upper Peninsula by ship or by rail—mostly with steam power. The new building will house boats, trains, etc. A train which is now outside will be featured as well. There will be three types of displays in the building Tom has added: pure history—shipwrecks and shipping; things related to the lake—engines built for the area; and neat toys and engines Tom has collected over the years. He has steam engines from a couple ounces in size to 600 pounds and a 27-foot model ore boat on site. There will be a 10-foot operating steamboat, too.

“I get to share my collection of ‘toys’—boats, engines, trains—with others. When I find a new boat, I tell Lani I need it for the museum. That’s my excuse to get new toys,” Tom said. “I enjoy what I do and am living the dream that I had in high school and it’s still enjoyable. We work seven days a week but we don’t mind because we get the winter off. I’m excited in the spring and ready to get back to it.”

If you’ve never been to Tom and Lani’s neck of the woods, this is a great year to plan a trip to the Keweenaw and stop in to see them. They are located just off US-41 a bit north of Central and just south of the road to Lac La Belle. For more information on the mine, visit  delawarecopperminetours.com or call 289-4688.

MM

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