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A History of the Gogebic Range
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.