Digging for answers

How mining continues to shape Marquette County

A sculpture from an Iron Ore Heritage Trail directional sign at the trail head near the Cliffs Shaft Museum in Ishpeming is pictured. Marquette County is home to hundreds of former mine sites, which are overseen by the county mine inspector. (Journal photo by Lisa Bowers)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second story 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.


Journal Staff Writer

NEGAUNEE — For more than a century, copper, iron and gold mining reshaped the topography of many areas of the Upper Peninsula, not just by virtue of the mine operations themselves but the communities that grew up around them.

Sometimes the very activity that created those communities caused them to have to move. For example, the occupants of 90 households in Republic were forced to relocate their homes in the middle of the 20th century after the mine grew so large it pushed into town. In Negaunee, concerns over caving grounds rendered a 900-acre portion of the city “unsafe due to underground mining activities,” according to the city’s 2017 master plan.

“Residents leaving this area had to take all belongings including their homes. For decades the land was fenced off and considered unusable,” the plan states.

Much of Old Town in Negaunee is now open to the public for recreational use, with all-terrain vehicle trails, rugged fat-tire bike trails and the non-motorized Iron Ore Heritage Trail, which extends through multiple Marquette County communities.

The trails themselves have become an economic driver for the area, and have drawn outdoor enthusiasts from all over the world.

So who decides when a former mining area is no longer a danger to the public? The answer seems relatively simple if you look at a 1911 Michigan law — the county mine inspector.

The act, which governs copper and iron mine inspectors, states that if a mine is idle or abandoned, “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.”

If a safety issue exists and the owner of a property cannot be found, refuses or is unable to put up a suitable barrier or fix one that is existing, the county mine inspector will arrange the necessary changes or repairs, which will be paid for, and bill the property owner on the tax rolls.

John Carlson, who has held the elected position of Marquette County mine inspector for about 20 years, said it is rare for the county to have to step in to fix a violation.

“Basically, I have only had to do it once in 20 years that the county went in and did the job and charged the land owner and the mineral right owner the bill,” Carlson said.

He said the job can be challenging because there are hundreds of mines within a 1,873 square-mile area.

In fact, Marquette County rivals the state of Rhode Island at 1,045 square miles and is almost as large as the 1,954-square-mile state of Delaware.

Carlson said not all areas that were once fenced in by mining companies are inherently dangerous, and some tend to be more concerning than others, like the sites near populated areas.

“These are, to me, major danger areas,” Carlson said. “Having a pit filled with water, a kid can fall in and drown. The danger with having the subsidence or exploration where they (mining companies) dug in is not as (important.) Some of the sites that you look at, in your own opinion, are not overly dangerous. I will, in time, get it done. But the major thing are the ones that are very close to houses, very close to population.”

The job of mine inspector has become more complex in the last decade or so with the recreational trails that have cropped up, he said.

“What’s hurting me in Negaunee is they are opening up all of these ORV trails and bike trails. And those bike trails are not listening to the law, do not travel in these areas because of caving grounds,” Carlson said. “They wanted a thrill, and I told them I don’t like this, because I don’t want kids riding in there.”

Organizations like the Iron Ore Heritage Recreation Authority, whose multi-use trail traverses caving grounds between the cities of Ishpeming and Negaunee, worked alongside those two municipalities doing their due diligence prior to, during and after construction, IOHRA administrator Carol Fulsher said.

“The IOHT usually follows abandoned rail lines. When we couldn’t use the rail line because of private ownership, etc, we looked for plan B, C and D. In the Negaunee and Ishpeming area, we followed an old rail line,” Fulsher said in an email. “This was chosen after the cities of Negaunee and Ishpeming hired a former Cleveland-Cliffs geologist to research possible caving areas and fence them off.”

She said the organization also worked with the mine inspector to put up fencing where it was necessary.

“If we own a fence and it is compromised, we would have to fix it,” Fulsher said.

Carlson said people who damage fences in order to access caving grounds are guilty of a misdemeanor and could face a $500 fine, but with so many areas to monitor, it can be hard to keep up.

“How can you keep safe?” he said. “There are so many people that cut them because they’ve got to go in there to get apples or they go in there for excitement. I have to do my job around people that don’t respect (it). If somebody wants to get through there, and they have done it for 20 years, lots of times I can get it all fixed up and within a couple of days or even hours the fence is down again.”

Carlson said he is most proud of the relationships he has forged, his efforts to record the GPS coordinates of over 60 gold mines in the county, his early efforts to educate area children about the dangers of entering caving grounds and above all, trying to keep people safe.

“I have worked with a lot of the mine managers and a lot of the people that work for the mine. We’ve got an understanding that safety is number one, but I am not out here with a vendetta against anyone. We get it done safely, we are friends. You know how easy it is when you work with a friend,” he said.

His advice for the new mine inspector that will be elected in November?

“If I were to talk to the next guy who got elected mine inspector, I would tell him, use your common sense and you will get along as well as I have,” Carlson said.

He said residents who have concerns about damaged fences or other safety issues with former mining sites should contact him.

“They contact me immediately and I make a judgment and determine if the danger is there,” Carlson said.

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


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