—Tim Bean

Folks call it Copper Country. 

In Calumet, Michigan, on a warm July morning in 1966, seven-year-old Ruth Ann Miller wove through the brambles to where the strawberries grew thickest—just behind the broken wire fence. Her older brother Gary and his buddy Eric struggled to keep up. They trudged like drunk bears through the foliage behind her.

Ruth saw the short fence posts ahead. The strands of barbed wire had lost their teeth to thirty years of rain. All around the posts grew patches of wild strawberries.

They grew everywhere except over a cracked square of concrete. It was the old seal of a busted mine, closed 35 years earlier. Anyone from Michigan’s Copper Country knew those caps.

Ruth Ann Miller

Shaft capping by Michigan’s copper miners was as conclusive as a death certificate. Michigan miners were the greatest miners in the world and they knew when a mine was tapped out without question. The concrete announced that copper there was too sparse or risky to continue.

Copper Country needed the greatest copper miners because it had the greatest copper mines in the whole world.

Map from the ‘Bedrock Geology of the Ahmeek Quadrangle, Michigan.’ 1953. USGS.

These warriors worked the whole day in darkness. They coerced wealth out of stone by the ton. In return, the mines didn’t make them leech out the metal with industrial poisons. Instead, the miners plucked hunks of native copper right out of the ground. In Copper Country, the red-brown metal gleamed in the dirt like found money.

On that July morning, Ruth knew the flat 10′ by 10′ concrete cap was as harmless as a gravestone. It couldn’t hurt her.

The cap and the fence surrounding it had been forgotten. The bounty of wild fruit hadn’t. Most plants can’t thrive in the cold or loose soil in the forgotten mines of Copper Country, but these strawberries could.

Native Copper from the Keweenaw Peninsula, aka Copper Country.

Hardly slowing, Ruth bent over until her chest ran parallel to the ground, and she twisted her way through the broken wire. She avoided mussing her tiny pigtails or neatly banged hair. The barbed wire missed her body entirely.

Calumet in the foreground; Tamarack mines in the distance.

There was no need to sift through any mealy, mock strawberries in this hidden patch either. Ruth bent down and plucked a few, hefting them in her hand. She picked out the largest and chomped down. A gush of sweetness! These wild strawberries were better than any bought or sold at the grocery store or farm stand. The secret patches in this secret place made them even sweeter. Ruth chewed happily.

Tamarack #4, 1897

The clumsy boys wove through the hole in the barbed wire. Neither got scratched (if only!), but Eric-something snagged the sleeve of his shirt on barb. The stitches along a seam stretched then popped. He cursed. Ruth giggled.

The two boys spotted Ruth and made their way toward her, snatching berries along the way. They plucked them like clumsy little boys. Grabbing too hard, too quickly, and strawberry juice soon stained their hands.

While they were distracted, Ruth backed up into the miniature jungle of weeds and strawberries. Her saddle shoes crunched in the loose gravel at the edge of the concrete cap.

“You can’t find me!” she called out.

Ruth Ann Miller, ages 7, 6, and 5

The concrete cap rose from the gravel about 18 inches and she hunkered down against it, covering her mouth with one hand to keep from laughing. Gary and Eric-something knocked weeds this way and that, looking for her.

Ruth’s dark eyes watched them over the edge of the concrete. She settled one dusty shoe into a dark crevice beneath the concrete. She didn’t feel the gravel first start to shift, then sag as it gave way under the cap. In that last second, if she had noticed, she could have simply rocked back out of harm’s way.

She called out again. “You can’t find me! Can’t fi—”

Ruth Ann Miller vanished, as though the Earth itself had swallowed her.

Marshfield News Herald. 7/18/1966.

Gary had seen that last flash of movement and quickly broke through the weeds to where Ruth had been. There was nothing there now other than a dark hole just large enough for her body. Gary stared at this fresh hole and heard an odd yelp in the darkness.

It couldn’t have been Ruth, he thought just before panic took over. It couldn’t have been. It sounded so quiet and so far away.

Gary ran home.

As soon as his stepson told him where Ruth Ann had disappeared, Eugene Taylor knew any search would be hopeless. Like most people in Calumet, his career had been in mining, and he knew the Tamarack mines.

“There’s no hope,” Taylor later said. “It’s a straight shaft, straight down.”

Petoskey News Review. 7/18/1966.

Men and equipment showed up within hours. By the time night came on, miners had opened the concrete cap, cracking it apart and hauling chunks away with a crane and buckets. Around 50 volunteers worked around the clock for three days. Two-man teams were lowered into the shaft to fill buckets with hunks of concrete debris to clear the way.

The good people of Calumet worked like fiends to clear the way, but progress slowed to a crawl at 400 feet. When they broke the cap initially, the odd position of the crane and the material’s weight had toppled tons of debris into the shaft, creating another yet barricade.

Bucket after bucket came over, but it seemed endless. Rescue divers stood at the ready, but everyone was grim and silent. Every wisp of optimism had fled. There had been no sign of Ruth in those 400 feet. No torn clothing, no blood, nothing to indicate she had slowed or stopped.

The News Palladium. 7/18/1966

Checking their schematics, the miners tracked another entrance, but it was covered by hundreds of feet of water. They had no choice but to continue the impossible excavation.

The entire community now realized what her Eugene Taylor had realized right after Ruth had fallen: neither rescue nor recovery would be possible.

If they continued to dig, others might be injured or worse. Breaking through the debris bottleneck would be miraculous in itself, but then there was the pit of water. 2000 feet deep and opaque with floating sediment. The brave divers were willing to go in and try anyway, but the idea was dismissed.

The machines stopped and became silent. Ruth was gone.

Ruth Ann Miller didn’t exactly fall “a mile.”

Articles on Ruth’s story from 1966 to today carry a wide discrepancy in the distance she fell. One source reported a 500-foot drop but no water. Another said a 400-foot drop, then a concrete bottleneck, then 1000 feet of water. The Detroit Free Press retold Ruth’s in 2012 and said the initial fall had been about 900 feet into 200 feet of rainwater that had accumulated over a secondary concrete plug. Yet another insisted it had been a 1000-foot drop, then…

You get the picture. Conflicting newspaper accounts are nothing new.

The US Geological Survey’s data recorded Tamarack #4’s depth at 4500 feet. This is almost a mile (picture five Titanics, standing vertically, bow-to-stern). Without shaft pumps constantly ushering seepage out, the groundwater would have risen to Lake Superior’s water level, 600 to 800 feet from the shaft’s cap.

400 feet, 800 feet, a half mile, one mile—it really doesn’t matter.

The Federal Aviation Agency (now the Federal Aviation Administration or FAA) investigated examined the history of high-velocity freefalls into water and discovered falling from any height above 186 feet (and reaching a velocity of 100 ft/sec) is almost always “beyond the limit of human survivability.”

It’s a morbid thought, but ending in such a way would be both instantaneous and painless. Ruth wouldn’t have felt a thing, or even known what was happening. We can take further comfort in knowing no one has or will ever reopen the shaft to find out for sure.

As upsetting as Ruth’s story is, it remains regional history, relatively unknown outside Copper Country except as trivia. 

It has nothing to do with corporate suppression or secretive grief. It’s because another tragedy had owned the headlines while the miners of Michigan searched for Ruth Ann. Only two days after her story first hit the press, the lone survivor of a Chicago mass murder identified the man responsible for killing eight nurses in their Chicago dormitory on July 13th.

The Racine Journal-Times. 7/17/1966. Ruth’s story (bottom-center) is an afterthought.

For the first time since that terrible night, newspapers had tattooed the name RICHARD SPECK on the front of every regional and national paper. In the coming decades, Speck would morph into one of the infamous killers in American history*. In his poisoned shadow, Ruth Ann Miller would become a news media afterthought.

But not in Copper Country.

*Compounding coincidences, only two months before the Chicago murders, Speck had undergone an emergency appendectomy at a hospital in Hancock, Michigan, only 12 miles from Calumet’s Tamarack #4 mine. A small world. A cruel world.

The News Palladium. 8/3/1966.

Friends and classmates remember her. Her remaining family still mourns her. Every week folks visit the capped mine serving as her grave, which has also become a shrine to the little girl. Ruth’s picture and story are mounted and preserved behind plexiglass. A hefty chain-link fence surrounds the fully-repaired mine cap.

Folks often decorate the memorial with messages, photos, and small toys. These gestures of affection come from both locals and strangers. At that spot and in that moment, strangers, family, and friends are connected in their shared grief.

Tamarack #4 will remain closed, forever.

Ruth’s grave today.

Ruth is not alone.

In 1988, Ruth’s mother Ruth Vivian Taylor died at the age of 53. At her request, her cremated remains were placed by her daughter’s grave.

In February 2022, her brother Gary Miller, who was the last to see Ruth alive, died at 65 in Arizona, but asked that his ashes join his mother’s and sister’s. While Ruth remains in the dark, but she’s got family nearby. Her stepfather maintains the site to this day, although he’s well into his 90s. He plans to be buried at there as well.

Atop the fenced entrance to her shrine, a bronze plaque reads:

“Your life’s brief journey ended

At this deep and lonely mine

But oh, little Ruth Ann Miller

It is now a cherished shrine”

There are over 500,000 abandoned mines in the United States.

At least half remain open, improperly sealed, or simply lost to memory. 

AMR SLC Project, open shaft image

Want to Know More? 

I stumbled across fascinating Calumet photos at Charles Voelker’s Copper County Reflections. The site hasn’t been updated in 12 years, but the photos there are truly unique. Well worth a look.

To learn more about the location and dangers of America’s abandoned mines, check out this report on Abandoned Hardrock Mines, part the US Government Accountability Office.

For a detailed map of the Tamarack Mines, check out Bedrock Geology of the Ahmeek Quadrangle, Michigan. 1953.