Historically speaking

Facility named for William Gwinn Mather

The Mather B Mine is pictured in its heyday. (Photo courtesy of the Negaunee Historical Society)

NEGAUNEE — Negaunee is a mining town where fine ore dust was a part of life, and the color of houses took on a shade of pink. That part of Negaunee’s history closed on July 31, 1979, with the closing of the “Mighty Mather.”

The Mather was the most productive underground mine in the Western Hemisphere, and a significant contributor to America’s industrial revolution.

When they started drilling for the Mather “B,” Frank Matthews made a comment that this would be the last deep shaft mine. Frank Matthews collected mining artifacts to preserve the history of mining.

He said mining started with pick, and shovels and went to pushing buttons and pelletizing.

The Mather “B’s” shaft cut 3,500 fet below the surface and was located under the site where iron ore was first discovered in Negaunee. It was fitting that a chapter in Upper Peninsula history, that began with pick shovels and sweat in the open pit of the Jackson Mine, went far underground and ended here at the “B.”

It has come full circle and returned to open pit mining at the Empire, Republic and Tilden. The Jackson was the first open pit and as the open pit went deeper, the cost of production went up. Cleveland Cliffs bought the Jackson property in 1905 and except for test drilling.

The mine lay dormant until 1940. World War II kicked the mine back to life. The war effort needed steel and that meant ore. Vast deposits of the Jackson property had scarcely been touched and now the ore had to be blasted from the earth in tunnels that were thousands of feet below ground.

New mining techniques were developed and miners followed the ore down through tunnels. In 1944, there were twelve underground mines being worked in the Upper Peninsula and by 1978 the Mather “B” was the only one left. At that time the cost of hauling ore up from 3,500 feet below ground, then concentrating it at the pelletizing plant couldn’t compete with open pit mining.

Hardest hit with the closing of the Mather was the city of Negaunee, losing $127,000 in specific ore tax each year, that was based on production. Most of the 800 employees at the Mather “B” were reassigned to the Republic and the Tilden mines.

About 250 employees were temporarily laid off. For the men who worked at the “B” the closing was personal. One of the miners had worked underground for 27 years and was not looking forward to working outside in the winter at the Republic.

The temperature underground was a constant 60 degrees. The miners were paid $7-10 an hour. Contract miners were paid by the foot, it was hard work but the pay was good, $50 to $75 on a good day.

It was said, you had to be a certain type of man to work underground, there were times you could hear the earth move. It was asked of a miner, “Did you ever think of the millions of tons of earth over you?” “Yeah all the time, but it’s not as bad as some people think it is.”

There were times when miners saw pieces of steel twisted like putty from the pressures of the earth. Massive steel tunnel supports would slowly sag under the weight of the earth. Underground mining is more hazardous than open pit.

The Mather had about two accidents per million man hours worked in a year. The headframes and trestles were placed on bids upon their removal. The men who went down deep underground to mine ore and came up sweating rusty red dust will now go to work in gigantic holes in the ground.

They will still get dirty, but a different color, you get black in the open pit mines.

The Mather mine was named for William Gwinn Mather, who along with his father, served as treasurer, president and chief executive officer of Cleveland Cliffs and its predecessor companies from 1854-1933.

Today, the Negaunee High School is located on the grounds of the Mather “B” and a rail that carried ore cars is still visible. The miners are still there, but it is the student body that proudly carry the name Negaunee Miners.


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