When you travel on a motorcycle, you often find yourself driving down roads just for the sake of exploration, and frequent u-turns to “go and check it out” make up a big part of the day. By now we are so adept at the sudden u-turn, that our bike handling skills are constantly improving and our use of the phrase, “Wow is this cool!” is becoming cliché. One such unexpected jaunt took us from Houghton, Michigan, through some scenic farm country, and along a motorcyclist’s dream of twisting and rolling forests that left me giggling after every corner. Just as I was starting to think that this road is truly epic, we abruptly came to the end at the haunting relic of a former boom town named Freda.
Freda sits overlooking Lake Superior and the ruins of an old copper processing mill. As we roll in on our motorcycles, the tall spire of the former mill’s chimney stack looms into the sky in a manner that makes both of us automatically drive straight toward it to investigate further. As we pass through what can only be called a village, a lazy and ancient dog rambles along between the few houses that are still inhabited. As we near the cliff edge and are able to see the complete stack jutting up from amongst a vast arena of ruins, the sun is low on the water casting orange and gold shadows everywhere. Both of us are struck speechless by the site. It is almost like stumbling upon a mining-themed version of the ancient Roman ruins of Sabratha, Libya, on the northern coast of Africa.
As we are busy taking in our surroundings, a car pulls up and parks alongside of us. A third person has arrived at the end of the earth! Out jumps a college kid in swimming trunks. “Hello!” he greets us with a friendly, yet thick local accent. He proceeds to dig out of his car various snorkeling gear and what looks like gold panning equipment. He is off to spend the evening panning the sediment off shore for copper.
Since we rolled into town completely unaware of where the road would lead us, we asked our unwitting tour guide what it was we were looking at. He kindly explained to us that the ruins were part of the Champion Stamp Mill and that Freda was once a booming town during the early 1900’s. He informed us that during the heyday of the mill, a tremendous amount of the copper running through the mill was washed out as waste. At today’s high copper prices, this copper sludge is worth a lot of money. For his efforts, he can make more than enough money to pay for his hobby, depending on the wind and waves.
Freda was also a popular vacation spot due to its beautiful Lake Superior shoreline, the rail stop along a busy passenger rail line route, and a beautiful town park. The town boomed and the Champion Stamp Mill pumped out processed copper until both the decline of the copper industry and society’s reliance on rail service rendered the town and the mill obsolete. The plant’s final whistle sounded on November 4, 1967. Since then Freda has been a dot on the map of history.
After we watched our modern-day copper miner submerge under the calm surface of the lake, we turned our attention to exploring these vast ruins. There is little left of the original building except for the concrete foundations, chimney stack, and furnace. However, the scope and size of what this operation once was is obvious. A lonely work boot discarded amongst the crumbling concrete is evidence of the men who toiled their hours away here. It’s not a scary place by any means. As a matter of fact, if we would have had our camping equipment, we would have stayed right there all night to watch the sunset over Lake Superior and listen to the gentle waves. However, there is a sense of some presence here that is just under the surface. Maybe it’s the knowledge of the men who poured the best years of their lives into this place. Maybe it’s the remoteness of this location. Maybe it was just that lone work boot poking out from the ruble. It’s so quiet that when you peer into some of the concrete openings, you half expect a voice from the past call out in greeting.
This day’s ride is proof of why the road less traveled is often the one to take. We didn’t know what we were going to find, but it seems that the unexpected discoveries are always the most rewarding.
Categories: Motorcycle Travel