Saving Buffalo Reef

Shifting stamp sands are threatening a popular spawning area for Lake Superior lake trout and whitefish. Here’s how a group of people are working to mitigate the damage.

By Pam Christensen


1. This aerial photo shows the stamp sands deposited along the coast north of Grand Traverse Harbor and the natural beaches that lie to the south. (Photo courtesy of Neil Harri)

2. A photo taken from the roof of the Mohawk and Wolverine Mill in 1907, looking at the sand-hoisting house and launder. (Photo courtesy of Michigan Technological University Archives and Copper Country Historical Collections)

3. A line of carts carrying copper-rich rock wait to move into a stamp mill for the Mohawk and Wolverine mines, where the rock will  be crushed.  (Photo courtesy of Michigan Technological University Archives and Copper Country Historical Collections)

4. Graphic courtesy of MDNR

5. The Big Tamarack River winds slowly toward the Grand Traverse Harbor, past homes, docks and yards. The river dumps into Lake Superior at Grand Traverse Bay Harbor, which was built from 1949 to 1950 by the Thornton Construction Co. of Hancock. Before reaching its mouth, at the commercial and recreational boating harbor, the river moves slowly, lined by homes and cottages, docks and yards. The harbor acts as a barrier, a dividing line, between the stamp sands migration and the natural beaches to the south and the important lake trout and whitefish habitat of Buffalo Reef. (Photo courtesy of Michigan DNR)

The landscapes of Houghton and Keweenaw counties are dotted with industrial ruins from the once robust mining industry that developed the Copper Country over 100 years ago.  The suspension of mining activity negatively affected the social, cultural and economic health of this area, but other more visible impacts remain.

A common sight across the Copper Country are waste rock piles and stamp sands.   Stamp sands were created when ore bearing rock was crushed to process the valuable copper.  A series of metal stamps would crush the rock prior to its being processed.  The stamp sands are a mixture of black sand-like material that can be finer than sand or as coarse as small pebbles.  Stamp sands were generally deposited near the processing site, on beaches, in Lake Superior and other waterways.  The finer particles are washed out into Lake Superior and settle into deeper water when exposed to waves and wind. The coarse black stamp sands are generally left in place on beaches and along the shoreline.

Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) are working with communities, individuals, scientists and entrepreneurs to address the damage caused to Buffalo Reef by stamp sands that were created by the Mohawk and Wolverine Mine.

“The stamp sands found in the Buffalo Reef area were created in the early 1900s as a byproduct of the copper processing at the Wolverine and Mohawk stamp mills in the community of Gay,“ said John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources deputy public information officer.  “Since that time, the fine black sands which were dumped into Lake Superior, have drifted south and are now threatening to smother Buffalo Reef and the natural beaches south of the Grand Traverse Harbor.”

Buffalo Reef is a 2,200-acre collection of rocks that naturally occur and form a reef in Lake Superior.  The reef is vital to the spawning of Lake Superior whitefish and lake trout. Migrating stamp sands have filled in areas of the reef, and left unmitigated, will cover the reef and destroy this valuable spawning area.  Damage to the valuable spawning ground and to fish habitat also negatively affects the economic benefits derived from commercial and recreational sports fishermen.

“It is currently estimated that this reef, critical to both lake trout and lake whitefish populations in the area, is currently 35 percent unusable by spawning fish due to stamp sands that have filled spaces between rocks, which are necessary for successful fish egg deposit and incubation,” said Phil Schneeberger, Michigan DNR Lake Superior Basin coordinator.  “Furthermore, migrating sands along the shore have made fish nursery areas useless to newly hatched fish.”

Both lake trout and whitefish spawn on Buffalo Reef.  The trout move to deep water for juvenile recruitment while the whitefish move to the shore, especially south of Grand Traverse Harbor.  Fish tagged on Buffalo Reef have been caught as far away as Pancake Bay, Ontario, and the western arm of Lake Superior. This proves that the reef is an important source of genetic diversity for the Lake Superior fish population.                                                                                                                                                          

The stamp sands deposited on shore and in Lake Superior, near Gay, are migrating.  The Traverse River flows into Lake Superior at Grand Traverse Harbor approximately five miles to the south of Gay.  The harbor acts as a barrier between the stamp sands migration and the natural white beaches located to the south of the harbor and Buffalo Reef.  The black stamp sands reached the harbor in 2009.  Several dredging efforts have been conducted to remove the stamp sands, but an October 2017 storm pushed stamp sands over a retaining wall and back into the harbor.  Stamp sand migration into Grand Traverse Harbor also impacts recreational boating activity.

The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission states that nearly a quarter of the annual lake trout yield from Lake Superior’s Michigan waters come from within 50 miles of Buffalo Reef.  The annual economic value of fish spawned at the reef is $1.7 million.  It is estimated that if action is not taken to preserve the reef, 60 percent of the reef will no longer be viable for lake trout and whitefish spawning by 2025.

Michigan’s DNR, DEQ, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are all working to develop a long-term management plan for protecting the reef.  A task force has been named to develop this plan.  Task force members are Lori Ann Sherman, natural resources director for the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community; Tony Friona, Great Lakes liaison for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Research and Development Center; and Steve Casey, U.P. district supervisor of the Michigan DEQ’s Water Resources Division.

The DNR has applied for a permit from the Michigan DEQ, under the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act, to allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to remove more than 200,000 cubic yards of stamp sands from Lake Superior.  The U.S. EPA has provided the Army Corps of Engineers with $3.1 million to design and carry out the dredging work to begin in May.

“The dredging project would buy five to seven years of protection for the reef and the white sand juvenile recruitment area south of the harbor,” said Steve Casey.  “In the meantime, we need to develop a long-term, adaptive management plan, a solution, for the Gay stamp sands problem.”

In order to develop this plan, the task force has held several public hearings to assess the issues that should be addressed by the plan, potential funders and volunteers who will help the task force, and other stakeholders to develop an effective long-range plan.  The first public meeting was held in August 2017.  A second meeting was held in January. Casey predicts another meeting will be held in the summer of this year.

A brief history of the

Mohawk and Wolverine mines

Ernest Koch, a lumberman, was cutting trees and brush northeast of Calumet in an effort to build a road in 1896.  During his labors, he discovered what would be one of most prosperous copper ore bodies in the Keweenaw Peninsula.  Joseph E. Gay and other investors founded the Mohawk Mining Company in 1898.  Located in what is now the village of Mohawk, the mine and associated buildings sprung up to form a new community.

John Stanton was the first president of the Mohawk Mining Company. He acquired a dock at Lake Superior and purchased a railroad previously used by the Jacobsville sandstone quarry.  In order to process the ore, the company needed a water supply.  A four-stamp mill and 265-foot-tall smokestack were also built in this location, which was 13 miles from the mine.  This location was soon named Gay in honor of Joseph E. Gay.

In 1902, two of the four stamps were operational. The first shipment of ore arrived at the site in November, and by December processing had begun. By March of 1904, a third stamp head was placed into service.  A byproduct of this process was a coarse, dark sand created by the crushing stamp heads.  This stamp sand was dumped into Lake Superior and along the shore near the stamp mill site.

The Wolverine Mine opened in 1882, closed in 1884 and reopened in 1890.  The mine was closed permanently in 1925.  This mine was also supervised by John E. Stanton and was considered a “smaller cousin” of the Mohawk Mine. The Wolverine Mine originally processed ore in a small stamp mill located next to the mine, but Stanton soon constructed a new stamp mill to process Wolverine ore next to the mill serving the Mohawk Mine. The two mills shared a pump house, a superintendent and were built simultaneously. The two also closed within seven years of each other.

The development of open pit copper mines in the Western United States and diminishing ore bodies sealed the fate of the Wolverine and Mohawk Mines. The Wolverine closed in 1925 and the Mohawk ceased operations in 1932.    

The Times Herald of Port Huron reported on the closure of the Mohawk in May 1925 by saying, “When the Wolverine Mine suspended operations recently after 35 years of almost constant activity, there passed into history one of the most successful openings ever drilled in the Michigan copper region.   Exhaustion of mineral resources in four shafts, all of which had reached a depth of nearly 4,000 feet, caused abandonment of the mine…During its banner years, the mine recovered as high as 26.82 pounds from each ton of rock.  An original investment of $300,000 in property brought total dividends of $10.3 million before the reserves began to show signs of diminishing. Production at one time reached a maximum of 10 million pounds of refined copper a year.”

The Bessemer Herald reported that over its lifetime, the Mohawk Mining Company paid more than $14 million to stockholders and millions more in wages, supplies and equipment. At its production height, the mine employed over 1,000 workers.

By October 1933, the stamp mill was being scrapped by dealers who bought the building and machinery.  By this time, the stamp sands piled at Lake Superior extended the shoreline of Sherman Township a mile into the lake.  In October 1934, Copper Range Company acquired the Mohawk Mine property and the stamp mill site.

In addition to the stamp sands, some evidence of the Mohawk and Wolverine Mines can still be found. Mohawk’s Stanton Avenue is named for the man whose mines shaped the area. The Keweenaw County Road Commission building on the south end of Fourth Street was once the location for the mine’s machine and blacksmith shop.  The road commission has used approximately 900,000 cubic yards of stamp sand for road treatments.

The Mohawk and Wolverine Mines were not the only enterprises to blame for the stamp sands accumulated throughout the area. Estimates credit the mining industry for creating half a billion tons of stamp sands deposited across the Keweenaw Peninsula.

The stamp sands accumulated at Gay have been estimated to contain 22 million cubic yards at the conclusion of mining in 1932. Today, officials believe 2.3 million cubic yards of material remains. The action of Lake Superior, waves, winds, currents and storms have carried away the majority of the deposits. An average of 26 feet of stamp sands have receded between 1938 and 1999. Stamp sands are estimated to cover 1,426 acres of Lake Superior shoreline and lake bottom.

Stamp sands are an unwanted byproduct of the Keweenaw Peninsula copper mining industry that are still impacting life 100 years later. Thankfully, many agencies, organizations, scientists and residents are working to control their damage and develop ways to preserve valuable natural resources for the future.

Additional information about Buffalo Reef can be found at the Michigan DNR website


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