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E.J. Longyear and Diamond Drill

Exploration diamond drilling rigs belonging to the E.J. Longyear Company are shown. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

MARQUETTE — Edmund J. Longyear was a pioneer in the opening of the Mesabi Iron Range in Minnesota who enhanced its development by introducing the diamond drill in 1890.

His company E.J. Longyear was an international mineral exploration and drilling company in the early 20th century. The company exists today as Boart Longyear, which concluded a mineral exploration contract at the Eagle Mine near Big Bay this past summer.

Edmund credits much of his success and the establishment of his company to the guidance he received from his older cousin John Munro Longyear, (whom Edmund called Munro) and his experiences in the Upper Peninsula from 1886 to 1890.

Born in Grass Lake, Michigan, near Jackson, Edmund ventured to the University of Michigan to study civil engineering. Following his second year, like his cousin Munro, he sought out the woods for his health upon the advice of his physician. In July 1886, Munro invited him to Marquette to look for a job.

Upon his arrival Edmund worked for Munro’s Marquette land office making maps to chart timber and geological data. Later that summer, the Marquette, Houghton, and Ontonagon Railroad was hiring a survey team to chart an extension from Nestoria to Duluth. Possessing an interest in trains, Edmund applied and was hired.

Edmund worked from November to June learning to navigate the wilderness while dealing with frigid temperatures, blizzards, and mosquitos. He would later say this was a tremendously helpful experience preparing him to live and work in the wilds of Minnesota.

While working on the survey team, Edmund reflected on his earlier experience in Munro’s office. Exploring, learning to prospect, and securing timber and mineral rights held his interest. His cousin had great success in the field and it was profitable. Edmund decided to shift his career interest from civil engineering to mining. When he informed his cousin, Munro took him under his wing.

When Edmund left the railroad, Munro arranged for him to work and learn from Edward Kingsford, one of Michigan’s top timber cruisers and mineral prospectors, and the namesake for Kingsford, Michigan. Searching for outcrops of iron ore in the southern U.P., Edmund learned to estimate timber yields and run lines with a dial compass.

Edmund later wrote, “. . . the experience I gained that summer was of great value to me when I had to do similar work on my own initiative on the Mesabi Range in Minnesota three years later.” Kingsford expressed to a colleague that Edmund was the best compass man and pacer he had ever had.

As this job concluded, Edmund decided to attain a formal education in mining. In September 1887 he enrolled in the recently established Michigan Mining School (Michigan Tech) in Houghton. Having met his math requirements at the University of Michigan, he concentrated on geology, assaying, and technical mining. A component of his education was a mining practicum in Ishpeming. With credits earned at U of M, Edmund graduated in one year with the mining school’s first graduating class.

His initial job as a mining engineer was for his cousin. Hired to lead a prospecting team in Gogebic County, Edmund noted they used “primitive tools,” referring to the pick and axe. When his crew moved to the Metropolitan Mine, near Felch, Edmund was introduced to the diamond drill. From that moment it became his drill of choice.

In a letter to his mother, Edmund explained the diamond drill was a “machine that will bore for a long distance into rock and bring to the surface a core from the center of the hole showing the kind of rock passed through.” The cutting edge was set with diamonds, not gems “but amorphous black diamonds called carbons.” At the time it was the only drill that could bore into hard rock to retrieve core samples. It was a tremendous step up from the pick and axe.

In 1890, confident in Edmund’s abilities, Munro sent him to manage the exploration of Longyear lands in the undeveloped wilderness of the Mesabi Range, today the leading supply of iron ore in the nation. Having learned to survive in the wild, Edmund confidently pitched a tent near the boomtown of Mesaba, located 75 miles north of Lake Superior in northeastern Minnesota.

He lived and worked from his tent for six months. In December he built a small building including home and office, at which time his wife joined him. Munro’s company hauled a large diamond drill over the rough Minnesota terrain to their crew. With his previous experience Edmund had no problem sinking the first diamond drill hole on the Mesabi.

By the early 1900s, Edmund was successful in securing his own mineral exploration contracts. This led him to form the E.J. Longyear Company. Under Edmund’s leadership the company expanded to offer a wider range of exploration and drilling services and secured new international markets.

The company initially consisted of two entities. Early operations were based in Hibbing, Minnesota. This office oversaw prospecting and drilling contracts in Minnesota. A second entity, Longyear and Hodge, was in Marquette and handled business outside of Minnesota. In 1911 these entities consolidated as E.J. Longyear Company and the company’s diamond drill manufacturing plant was built in Marquette.

The manufacturing plant was built on Lakeshore Blvd., near McCarty’s Cove. Today the building accommodates numerous businesses, such as Lake Shore Bike and Fred’s Rubber Stamp. Diamond drills built in Marquette were shipped throughout the world. The plant operated in Marquette until 1959. Around that time all E.J. Longyear operations were moved to Minneapolis.

Edmund Longyear maintained a close personal and professional relationship with his cousin until Munro’s death in 1922. In 1924 Edmund retired, transferring the reins of his company to his son. After raising his family in Minnesota, he moved to California for his retirement. He died in 1954 at the age of 90 leaving a legacy that began in the U.P.

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