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A History of the Gogebic Range

Raphael Pumpelly hiked up the hill and sat down to watch smoke from a forest fire in the distance. It appeared that the entire north woods of Wisconsin was engulfed. The smoke was from a fire 200 miles southeast from where he rested. Since he was a geologist, he checked out some of the rocks around him. It probably did not occur to him at the time that what he found would be the start of the greatest iron ore boom the world would ever know!

On that morning in October 1871, the same day that Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicked over the lantern that destroyed Chicago, Pumpelly and his Indian guide Jingobenesic returned from Lake Gogebic and noticed the billowing smoke from the now-famous Peshtigo, Wisconsin, fire. Fearing for his wife's safety, the pair hurried to the base camp on the east bank of the Montreal River where Mrs. Pumpelly, along with Henri Ledouceur, a Canadian voyageur and his wife, Pricilla, waited. He took the yellow-spotted rock sample with him; a rock that had iron oxide in it.

Suspecting that his find might be valuable, he made the trip to Marquette and purchased two miles of the Range where the Newport and Geneva mines were to be built several years later.

The Gogebic Range was actually initially explored on the Wisconsin side, but it was in Michigan where ore was first mined. Richard Langford, trapper and hunter, is credited as being the first to see ore on Colby Hill. However, in 1873, N.D. Moore, looking for pine timber, picked a lump of rock from the roots of a fallen tree. He had it examined, and it proved to be iron ore. Moore raised money to purchase the tract in Bessemer that became the Colby Mine. Colby was the granddaddy of the mines on the great iron formation that runs almost 80 miles continuously from Lake Gogebic on the east to English Lake, west of Mellen, Wisconsin. The first shipment of ore came from the Colby Mine in 1884. The 1,022 tons were loaded on flatcars and made their way to Erie, Pennsylvania, via Milwaukee.

In October of that year, the Milwaukee Lake Shore and Western Railway entered the southeast corner of Gogebic County, and by the close of the year trains were running into Ironwood, then a small group of shacks in the wilderness.

With the railroad came a flood of immigrants and the wilderness was quickly changed to a place that resembled a small community. The first settlers were the Irish and English because men of both nationalities were familiar with underground mining operations.

Soon, the mining companies posted bulletins in several countries in Europe among which were the Slavic principalities, Finland, Sweden, and Austro-Hungary. Entire families moved en masse from Europe for the chance to become rich in America. The Federal census for 1890 lists 7,750 individuals, only a minor increase in population. But the influence of the growth of the mines was beginning to show, nonetheless. It became apparent that new sources of labor would be required, and provisions for living would be needed if the mine owners would succeed in their quest for wealth.

Europeans, ready, willing, and able to handle the difficult labor in the iron mines, would provide the source of labor. The mining companies imported many potential workers for a fixed number of years of guaranteed work in exchange for passage. Organized labor found this practice deplorable because they feared the new workers would become strikebreakers. Its political muscle forced Congress to pass the Contract Labor Act in 1885 that outlawed the process of importing workers just as the mines were producing more and more ore. The mining companies had another card to play, however. They simply posted notices of employment at ports of entry and scattered them throughout European towns. Steamship lines eagerly spread the word that workers were needed and lured thousands of immigrants to work in the mines. This flood of Scandinavians, Finns and Germans would not peak until well into the twentieth century.

The population of Ironwood in 1892 was approaching 10,000. It wasn't too long before the infant towns of Wakefield, Bessemer, Hurley and Ironwood were booming. Each city and town had its individual settlements, called "locations", a primary means of geographical identification located in the shadow of a mining company head frame.

It was more meaningful to identify one's home as being in the Ashland, Aurora, Bonnie, Jessieville, Newport, Norrie, Pabst, Puritan, Yale, Castile or Wico location, for example, than in Hurley, Ironwood, Bessemer or Wakefield. Each of these small settlements had a family-owned grocery store or two, a tavern, and often, company-owned stores and homes. Many homes in the locations housed a family plus several boarders who had come to the area to work in the mines. They worked in shifts, and when one gang of workers went to work, the miners who worked the shift before came home to sleep in the beds that had just been vacated.

Ethnic and cultural distinctions made each location a separate entity. Several mining companies competed for the rich iron ore, and each one tended to recruit miners from specific areas of Europe. As immigrants arrived, it was only natural that they sought a community of their own language and custom. Thus, locations grew with Finnish or Swedish or Italian, French-Canadian, Austrian or English families.

Although only a short distance apart, the mining locations were physically separated by "stockpiles". These vast mountains of deep red ore, piled high on the horizon, would be loaded into ore cars for the 40 mile trip to Ashland, Wisconsin, dumped into ore boats, and delivered to the steel mills in Gary or Ashtabula.

The rapid growth of Ironwood was due principally to the fact that the largest and most productive mines were located within the city limits. For that reason, Ironwood gave a lot of business to two railroads, the Chicago-Northwestern and the Wisconsin Central. They transported all the ore to the huge ore docks in Ashland. In addition, they scheduled daily passenger trains to Chicago, Milwaukee and the East Coast, and via Ashland, to the West Coast.

The mining of the Gogebic Range only lasted about 75 years. In the early 1960s, the mines closed. It was more cost-effective to import lower cost ore from other countries. But the legacy the mines created remains. The headframes are gone, but the locations still exist with descendents of those early miners and merchants, some still living in the homes built by their ancestors. The tourist industry has taken over. Snowmobiles, downhill and cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are the big winter attractions along with hunting deer and bear. In the warmer months, the crop of trout, walleyes and smaller game fish attract fishermen from all over the Midwest. The area is abundant with hiking trails, beautiful waterfalls and kayaking streams.