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Addressing safety at former mine sites

A fallen wooden fence post near East Case Street in Negaunee is shown. This fence and others like it in Marquette County were meant to keep the public out of caving grounds in areas where mining activity once took place. (Journal photo by Lisa Bowers)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a four-part series about former mine properties, legislation surrounding their safety and the responsibilities of the county mine inspectors and property owners in Michigan.

NEGAUNEE — The ink on the stories dried long ago, but the names of Ruth Appleberg, John Johnson, Dale LaFreniere, Ruth Ann Miller, Aaron Boersma, Ernie Salo and Tommy Leklin should never be forgotten.

These children, ranging from 6 to 16 years of age, fell victim to the dangers of mine caving grounds, according to past articles in Upper Peninsula newspapers. Twelve-year-old Ruth Appleberg drowned in an abandoned test pit near Palmer in July 1903 while picking blueberries with her sister and some friends. John Johnson lost his balance and fell 200 feet into an open pit near Jasper Knob in Ishpeming in 1901.

In 1953, searchers looked for the body of 6-year-old Dale LaFreniere for nine days after he drowned in an abandoned shaft of the old Jackson Mine in Negaunee.

The year following LaFreniere’s death, Ernie Salo and Tommy Leklin, both age 12, were buried in a snow avalanche at the site of the former Maas Mine in Negaunee. Leklin and Salo were among a group of youths jumping and sliding into the pit, which is estimated to be about 100 feet deep. A third boy was buried as well but was able to escape.

Ruth Ann Miller reportedly slipped through a crack at the top of an abandoned mine shaft near Calumet in 1966 while playing hide-and-seek with her brother and a friend, and 16-year-old Aaron Boersma fell into an abandoned mine pit in Stambaugh while exploring the area with some friends.

Stories like these are important, safety experts say, because even though some of them date back more than a century, dangerous mine sites still exist, and there are over 200 in Marquette County alone.

Negaunee native and retired Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Co. safety officer James Paquette noted increased activity in abandoned mine sites that had previously been fenced off several months ago.

He first noted an issue, he said, at the Jackson Mine cave-in pit when he saw two young boys dumping rocks down into the pit.

“One of the boys had just crawled out of the fenced-in mine audit (mine shaft entrance) on the west side of the pit,” Paquette said. “I yelled at them, and they ran and jumped on their bikes near the pit entryway.”

He said what he saw next in the public access area was “just as concerning.”

“Major portions of the surrounding wooden fence are now down,” Paquette said. “This (was) a serious and imminent danger that requires immediate attention.”

Paquette brought his concerns about that site and several others in the area to the attention of authorities, including the Negaunee Police Department, the Negaunee city manager and the city planner as well as County Mine Inspector John Carlson.

According to Michigan Act 163 of 1911, the county mine inspector is an elected official who is responsible for, among other things, visiting abandoned mine sites and ensuring they are being safely maintained and delivering an annual report to the county board detailing those inspections.

“If a mine is idle or abandoned,” the law states, “the mine inspector shall notify the person, persons, or corporation owning the land on which the mine is situated, or the agent of such owner or owners, to erect and maintain around all the shafts and open pits of the mine a fence or railing suitable to prevent persons or domestic animals from accidentally falling into the shafts or open pits.”

Following Paquette’s inquiries, the city of Negaunee, which owns the area in question, is working with Carlson to “strengthen and enhance safety protocols” within the city, specifically in the area known as Old Town.

City Manager Nate Heffron said areas of concern stem from breaks in existing fence lines caused by either natural occurrences over time or trespassers.

The city has hired Marquette Fence Co. to install 360 feet of new fencing that will prevent individuals from exploring areas that may be dangerous, according to a press release issued on Tuesday.

The $8,295 necessary to complete the project will come from the city’s Parks Department budget, the release states.

Heffron also noted the city has also placed fencing at a mine shaft on Gold Street and will add new signage at the Lions Club Jackson’s Pit display.

He said fencing these areas is a “costly and continuous battle.”

“Fencing has been cut by trespassers, and it is a real problem,” Heffron said. “It not only costs taxpayer money to make repairs, but puts individuals at risk who may decide to go past the fence as well.”

He said future uses for the Old Town area are being planned, but ensuring public safety is the city’s top priority.

“The city will do everything within its power to ensure that the safety is at the forefront when designing all public access sites,” Heffron said. “We also pledge to make all necessary mandated repairs to take additional safety measures where warranted.”

Concerns about damaged fences at former mine sites can be directed to the county mine inspector or the local municipality.

Lisa Bowers can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is lbowers@miningjournal.net.

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