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The history of mining in Marquette County

An unidentified mine on the Marquette Iron Range is pictured. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)
Cleveland #3 Open Pit Mining is shown in Ishpeming in 1873. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

In 1844 William Austin Burt and his survey crew “discovered” what the Anishinaabe already knew- that this area held rich iron ore deposits. Iron from the Upper Peninsula helped spur the nation’s industrial growth and the development of the local communities.

The need for manpower at the mines drew thousands of immigrants to the region from Cornwall, Finland, Sweden, Italy and many other countries. Once the companies lured men to the area, they also had to provide living facilities for them, building housing, company stores, schools and hospitals to service the miners and their families.

Soon after mining began, forges were built to reduce the bulk of high grade ore before shipping. The increasing need for charcoal to fuel the forges in turn created a forest industry, filled either by independent contractors or a new division in the mining company

Once concentrated, the iron blooms or pig

iron were ready for transportation. Several companies cooperated to build a plank road, for the carts pulled mules and horses. But the heavy carts moving downhill on wooden planks were hard to control and the breaking systems poor, leading to frequent accidents.

In an effort to better control the wagons, wooden “rails” were laid on the planks and capped with iron straps. The cart wheels were made to these rails. The transition to railroads occurred when steam engines with more power and rail cars with more efficient braking replaced the horses, mules and carts.

Once the ore reached the harbor in Marquette, wooden sailing ships were loaded by hand at a rate of 50 tons per day by men pushing wheelbarrows. At Sault Ste. Marie, the ore had to be off-loaded, carted around the rapids on the St. Mary’s River and reloaded on a new ship.

In response to this bottleneck, a lock at the Soo was constructed in 1855 under the supervision of Charles T. Harvey. Ships could then be raised or lowered past the rapids, avoiding the costly and time-consuming portage.

Pocket docks were developed to reduce the loading times. Eventually, ships were designed specifically for hauling ore and marine companies were formed to meet the shipping needs.

The mining companies have mined iron ore in Marquette County for 175 years, leaving an indelible stamp on our communities. In the early days, “the company” owned or controlled almost everything. It owned the store, provided the utilities, and owned almost all of the houses workers lived in.

Wresting iron ore from the surrounding hills became tradition for generations of families. The industry employed tens of thousands of miners during its life; few families were not touched by someone who worked in the mines.

To learn more about the history of the Empire Mine, the largest of Michigan’s iron mines, join us for an online book release presentation with local author and retired mining engineer, Allan Koski on Wednesday, February 10, 2021 at 6:30 p.m.

Koski will present an online slide show featuring his recent book release: Empire Mine and the Cascade Range. The book tells the story of life on the iron range through written voices, images and detailed events from 1844 to 2016, the idling of the Empire Mine. During his presentation, Koski will review the life span of the Empire Mine in the context of mining history on the Marquette Range, focusing on several important events that shaped the iron range.

Register in advance on the Events page of MarquetteHistory.org or follow the QR code. $5 fee to join supports the History Center. After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.

An in-person book-signing will follow at the MRHC from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Feb. 13.

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