ISHPEMING - In 1969, representatives from the Cleveland Cliffs Iron Co. approached descendants of a Czechoslovakian immigrant, hoping to purchase the family's farmlands along the Middle Branch of the Escanaba River.
The mining company reps had a vision of flooding the property by damming the river and diverting the water to a new open pit mining venture whose ore concentrating and pelletizing processes would require 86,000 gallons of water per minute.
"The creation of the Greenwood Reservoir -a 1,400-acre lake seven miles southwest of Ishpeming- was the final step in a 24-year-long endeavor to make the Tilden Project a reality," said Cliffs Chairman and CEO H. Stuart Harrison in 1974. "The first step was the development of an economically feasible process to concentrate the low-grade, fine-grained hematitic ore. Research began in 1949."
The Greenwood Reservoir holds 22,000 acre-feet of water. Water from the basin is diverted to the Tilden Mine. Under current mine operations, the Tilden operations require 120,000 gallons of water per minute, of which 6,000 gallons is fresh water. The processing plant recycles between 95-97 percent of the water it uses in the concentrator separation process. (Journal photo by John Pepin)
A technological breakthrough, which cost $5 million, occurred in 1966 and gave Cliffs the ability to turn unmarketable 30 percent iron into 64 percent iron pellets. In August 1971, Cliffs announced its plans to create its new Tilden Mine, which would increase domestic iron ore pellet production by nearly 50 percent by mid-1974.
Four million tons of pellets were slated to be produced each year during the first of three development phases. A total of 550 full-time employees would be working at the mine and pellet plant during the first phase, with an annual payroll of $6 million. Goods and services purchased each year to support the operation were expected to total another $5.5 million.
By the third -full production- phase, 12 million tons of ore were expected each year, with 1,000 workers employed by 1980. Cliffs officials said that at the 4 million ton rate, the mine could continue producing until 2054, but new processing techniques developed in the interim might extend that date farther into the future.
Over $110 million was expected to be needed for initial capital expenditures and pre-production development costs. The mine and pellet plant would be situated three miles southeast of Ishpeming on 3,600 acres of otherwise unproductive land purchased from 21 separate landowners.
At the time the plans were announced, Cliffs and its associated companies employed about 3,300 people in the Upper Peninsula in its mining, forest products, electric power and research operations. In 1970, the payroll for those operations totaled about $29 million.
That year, Cliffs produced 8.1 million tons of iron ore pellets from properties it managed in the United States, of which, the largest mining operation was the Empire Mine at Palmer, which began operations in 1963 and was annually producing 3.6 million tons of iron ore pellets.
To develop its new Tilden project, Cliffs needed permit approvals from the Michigan Natural Resources Commission, Michigan Waterways Commission and the Marquette County Board.
In February 1972, Cliffs officials told a meeting of the Republic Sportsmen's Club damming 6.4 miles of the river would create a reservoir storing 22,000 acre-feet of water, with 26 miles of shoreline and 13 islands with another 11 miles of shoreline, which would not be open for development. Wilderness aspects of the area would be maintained.
Thirty-eight tons of water was needed for every ton of ore produced, with 93 percent of the water recycled into the East Branch of the Escanaba River, with the remaining 7 percent directed to a tailings basin.
Water from the Greenwood Reservoir would be piped to Green Creek, which flowed into the Schweitzer Reservoir, and then pumped across a tailings basin about two miles to the pellet plant.
"The Cliffs spokesmen assured their (club) audience that every effort would be made to carry out the Greenwood flooding with the least possible damage to the environment and solicited support of the group for the project," the Mining Journal read. "But a question and answer period following remarks by the company officials indicated many in the audience held reservations about the proposed reservoir and the meeting was adjournedwithout a vote on the matter."
In March 1972, a public hearing was held at the Holiday Inn in Marquette by the Water Resources Commission on the application to divert water from the Escanaba River. About 150 people attended the session, with 27 offering oral statements.
The following month, the Natural Resources Commission heard from proponents and opponents.
"(Legislators) told the commissioners the plant would help the economy of the area and cause only minimal harm to the environment," the Mining Journal reported. "Environmentalist groups contended the plant would destroy the natural beauty of the area and damage the water quality."
Cliffs would spend $10.7 million annually on environmental quality measures for the project.
Lawmakers, including state Rep. Dominic Jacobetti, D-Negaunee, supported the project, hoping it would reverse out-migration of job-seeking youth.
"The only alternatives to the successful operation of the Tilden Mine are more welfare, more unemployment and more out-migration because of the lack of jobs," Jacobetti said. "If this happens, most of the Upper Peninsula will be an economic disaster area and a number of its county governments will be unable to function or render services because of the lack of local tax base."
Sierra Club Chairman Daniel Weber said "to continue on the present course of action is to yield all environmental considerations to the overwhelming economic pressures behind this proposal."
Professor William Cooper, a Michigan State University zoologist, said the project's environmental impact statement was "biased" and suggested a performance bond be required to ensure Cliffs kept to its environmental program.
Trout Unlimited's Charles Fellows lobbied for up to two more months to study the environmental impact statement, saying his group took no stand on the mining project.
"We feel that the changes in the Middle Branch will be so drastic that time should be provided to all interested parties," Fellows said.
Two of Cliffs' partners -Algoma Steel Corp. Ltd. of Canada, which owned 30 percent interest in Tilden and Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., which owned 27 percent- threatened to pull out of the Tilden project, if official delays threatened the July 1, 1974 start of production timeline.
"Two of our participants have expressed uncertainty and trepidation that our schedule will not be met. If we can't meet the schedule, very frankly, the project could be abandoned," said J.S. Westwater, Cliffs executive vice president. "And that volume of iron reserves (300 million tons, worth $46.9 billion in 1972) would not be worked for some years."
In late May 1972, Upper Peninsula groups affiliated with the Michigan United Conservation Clubs urged the statewide organization to support damming the river, provided Cliffs would guarantee its operations would not pollute the river.
On June 1, the two state commissions granted permit approvals on unanimous votes.
Natural Resources Commission Chairman Harry Whitely of downstate Rogers City said "the research and study that went into the decisions will set standards for future cases in which environmental and economic values collide."
"I'm satisfied that in the 11 years I've been on the commission never has more study been made on a project," Whitely said. "This will be the standard for other companies to meet."
Later that month, after the Marquette County Board toured the timber-covered proposed dam site located along County Road 478, the panel voted its unanimous approval for the project.
Construction of the 54-foot-high main dam, 12 wing dikes, fuse plug and emergency spillway was completed by fall. The old bridge over the river had been demolished.
In April 1973, more than 600 workmen were on the Tilden Mine site, with more than 86 percent of them U.P. residents. The construction project averaged a $1 million monthly payroll over the two years of construction. Cliffs was to pay $600,000 each year in local and state taxes on the project.
By midsummer, the former farmland at the dam site had been inundated with water up to 30 feet deep. The farmhouse, built from rough-hewn pine logs, and the weathered outbuildings on the property had been torn down the year before.
In August 1974, Cliffs and the DNR dedicated the Greenwood Reservoir, with local scouts unveiling a wooden and rock monument near a boat launch. By November, construction at the Tilden Mine was nearing its end. At its peak, 33 subcontractors working on the project had 1,100 men on their payrolls.
Construction had begun in March 1972. The first ore concentrate was produced in October 1974 and the first pellets were shipped out in December that year. The mine was dedicated in August 1975, with tours offered to the public.
"Crowds up to several hundred persons waited patiently in line to tour the premises," the Mining Journal said. "Only a short cloudburst in the afternoon disrupted the program and CCI officials termed the visitors' reactions 'very complimentary.'"
In January 1995, the Tilden Mine produced its 1 millionth ton of iron ore pellets, with a total of more than 207 million tons produced through 2011. Today, a total of 730 employees work at the Tilden and 830 at the Empire.
The Greenwood Reservoir is popular with anglers, kayakers, boaters and others. Though the carved lettering on the dedication monument has faded, the inscription is still clearly legible.
It reads: "The integrity of Michigan's Upper Peninsula will be maintained only through careful balance between man and nature. The Greenwood Reservoir, created in 1973 to provide water for the Tilden Mine, is such an achievement."
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. His email address is email@example.com.