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Keweenaw County Historical Society

Caretakers of the past, stewards of the future

Exhibit title Copper Milling at Gay on stylized beach background

About the Exhibit

Seated on the shores of Lake Superior, Gay, Michigan has transformed the coastline and waters of Big Traverse Bay. Once a lightly traveled region on the eastern Keweenaw Peninsula where Ojibwa harvested wild rice, berries, lake trout, and whitefish, and briefly a late 1800s logging port, it became a copper mill town in 1900 when the Mohawk and Wolverine mines built their mills. In just thirty years these two copper stamp mills deposited a large volume of mine tailings in the bay. The black tailings migrated down shore to the Traverse River, into Lake Superior and covered the vital cobblestone fish spawning grounds of Buffalo Reef. Ninety years later, these tailings, known locally as “stamp sands,” are a hazard and pollutant for wildlife, shoreline residents, and the Ojibwa who depend upon Buffalo Reef for subsistence and commercial fishing. Today federal, tribal, and state governments are working to limit their harm.

This exhibit explores the long history of the Gay landscape, the effects of copper mining and milling, and the story behind the effort to “Save Buffalo Reef.”  Mining both shapes communities and leaves behind problems that require perpetual attention. Gay’s legacy provides important lessons that can benefit other communities.


This exhibit was funded by a Keweenaw Heritage Grant and the Keweenaw County Historical Society. This project was made possible by the skills of Carol MacLennan, Mark Rhodes, Mike Stockwell, Charles Kerfoot, Emma Wuepper; with help from Nancy Sanderson, Elise Nelson, Tom Wolniewicz, Duane Coponen, Dick Mintkin, MTU’s Geospatial Research Facility, and students in Mark Rhodes’s Industrial Communities course: James Juip, Larissa Juip, Val Pulido.

Exhibit Index


A Rich and Unique Landscape

Copper Processing and Stamp Sands

Social Life in a Company Town

After the Mills: Fishing and Lumbering

After the Mills: Gay Industries

Migrating Sands and Buffalo Reef

How Harmful are Stamp Sands?

The Legacy: Living with the Effects


KCHS museum sites and cottage rentals will be open for the 2022 season.  Please see the site and rental webpages for specific dates and operation information.

The Keweenaw County Historical Society’s Board of Directors will follow the COVID-19 Epidemic Orders issued by the State of Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services.  These public health orders are updated as needed, so KCHS may need to change access to buildings and events.

Please check back for updates.

Keweenaw County Historical Society
670 Lighthouse Road Eagle Harbor
Mohawk, MI 49950
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