Negaunee festival steeped in rich history
NEGAUNEE — With the 39th annual Pioneer Days wrapping up on Saturday evening in its usual spectacular display of fireworks over Teal Lake, it is only fitting to look back on the pivotal role the people of Negaunee played in the success of an industry.
The volunteers of the Negaunee Irontown Association organize the entire week-long series of events with the mission “to preserve the heritage of Negaunee and to encourage former residents to return to the area,” according to the group’s website.
Pioneer Days brings thousands of people to Negaunee every year to participate in picnics, class reunions, softball games and parades. But the legacy really started with one man.
When United States Deputy Surveyor William A. Burt’s compass began to act strangely on September 19, 1844, everything changed for an area that had been previously described as a “barren wasteland.”
In fact, according to a Michigan State University geography report, prior to Burt’s discovery early 19th century settlers migrating westward from the eastern United States bypassed the Upper Peninsula due to its reputation as an “inhospitable wilderness.”
People flocked to the area in the next several decades, with the population of Negaunee ballooning from a paltry 124 citizens in 1850 to 8,500 by 1900 and for good reason — 4.4 million tons of iron ore was shipped from the Jackson Mine alone from 1848 to 1924, the plan states.
Mining was a dangerous vocation, further complicated by the unforgiving Upper Peninsula terrain and language barriers between immigrant groups.
“No one knows or understands what went through the minds of early immigrant miners as they stood near the shaft waiting to go underground for the first time,” career miner, Negaunee resident and author Ernie Ronn wrote in an autobiography titled “Fifty-Two Steps Underground.”
“I believe that among the worries and concerns included what they would see, what was to be expected of them, how were they going to do the work that they had no knowledge of, how would they communicate with a boss or fellow worker who didn’t speak or understand their language, and how much light would be given by the candle or carbide lamp they carried on their heads.”
The mining regions of the U.P. were said to be as ethnically diverse as anywhere in the United States, with as many as a dozen languages spoken on the streets of any given mining town.
The number of foreign-born Ishpeming and Negaunee area residents are said to have reached nearly 48 percent at its peak in 1910, according to a paper published by NMU archivist Marcus Robyns.
Both towns were divided into locations, Robyns explains, made up of two principal types — locations dependent on nearby mines and locations associated with abandoned or idle mines. He goes on to say that residents of the locations tended to be of the same nationality, such as Finnish, Italian or Cornish.
Negaunee was a city on the move for much of its history, with houses, churches and even graveyards being relocated either because of mine expansion or safety concerns, like the houses in the Old Town area that were torn down for fear of a sinkhole swallowing them up.
And safety at work was another grave concern of miners in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Local historian, architect and retired mine safety professional Jim Paquette said there were 584 mining-related deaths between 1898 to 1926 in Marquette County alone.
“I began to go back into the past in the early 1900s in the newspapers. The Mining Journal, the Negaunee Iron Herald and the Ishpeming Iron Ore were my sources, it was just incredible what I saw in terms of unknown history — in terms of the amount of miners who were killed in Negaunee and Ishpeming,” Paquette said during his “Miners Died and Widows Cried” presentation at Ronn Hall in November 2016.
Paquette recounted a story from an elderly Italian neighbor who had worked at the nearby Queens Mine.
“He told me, ‘When I got here, I did not have to apply for a job at that mine. What we did was we just went down there and we stood there. We stood in line and as a miner came out either dead or hurt, the next guy went down. They took us in line,” Paquette said. “It didn’t even sound like that was real, but it was.”
Everywhere you look in Negaunee you will find a reminder of its mining heritage, from the street names like Pioneer, Iron and Burt streets to the decades-old buildings that line the downtown area.
Negaunee Historical Society President Virginia Paulson said every time she sees the numbers 1844 depicted in Negaunee she can’t help but think of the sacrifices that miners and their families, the city’s primary residents in its formative years, must have faced.
“I try to imagine what it might have been like to live in those early years,” Paulson said in a June NHS newsletter. “Mining was hazardous, back-breaking work. They didn’t have the most up-to-date equipment. But miners made a living for themselves and put Negaunee on the map.”
Considering the word Negaunee itself comes from the Anishinabemowin (Ojibwa) word “nigani,” meaning “foremost, in advance, leading,” which was determined to be the closest Ojibwa translation for “pioneer,” it’s hard to imagine a better name for the place or a better place for Pioneer Days.
Lisa Bowers can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is lbowers@miningjournal .net.