Snowbound, Day 6: "Iron"

January, 2011.

I returned to my motel room to check out, and call Brad Livingston at the Bergland/Matchwood Historical Museum before I got underway. Brad is directly descended from miners who worked the old Norwich Hill that I explored the previous summer, and wrote about in the Norwich Report. He took a keen interest in my story, saw my photos of the mines there and asked me for copies so he could print and hang them in the museum, since he said they were the best (and only) ones he had ever seen.

I hit the road toward the Iron Range from Houghton, following M-26 in its southwesterly-snaking direction amongst the hills. It was snowing.

Once I reached the museum, which is actually a former Forest Service ranger station, Brad shoveled the steps and we went in. I had to chuckle privately because the temperature was about 10F, but when he stepped out of his pickup truck I could see he was wearing a spring jacket, shorts, and huge swampers. This was clearly a true Yooper.

A room upstairs had a lot of artifacts pertaining to the old Norwich mines, and surrounding village. Brad also told me immensely more about the area’s history than I can relate here. The big bucket is actually a kibble--which was used to haul ore out of the Norwich Hill mines in the 1850s:

Axe and pick heads, and handheld drill steels...all recovered from the mines and bluffs I explored the previous summer:

The huge “BERGLAND” sign across the top of the next photo is actually from the old, long-lost railroad depot that once stood in Bergland. According to Brad this sign sat on the abandoned depot for decades, but then was stolen by some drunken downstate hunters who later tried to sell it. Having no takers, they eventually brought it back to the local tavern in Bergland, where it hung above the bar for several more decades. Now I believe the venerable old tavern has gone as well, but the sign reposes here:

Brad and I chatted for quite some time but had to part ways soon. My intent was to actually take M-28 further toward the extreme western corner of the Yoopee, which is a part I had never been to before. Between the towns of Ironwood and Bessemer were a couple old iron mines I wanted to scope out.

Leaving Bergland by the westward road, I crossed into Gogebic County, and the Central Time Zone. I had originally been drawn here by photos of the Peterson Mine complex posted on the CCE forum by fellow explorer Dan Glass a few years ago, but I had now also found another potentially tasty looking specimen near it called the Newport-Bonnie Mine, which looked doable. This area was positively peppered with old iron mining sites, but looking at them on Google Earth shows that most were either pit mines that have been flooded, or completely wiped away. Just outside Wakefield, near the aptly-named “Crusher Drive,” I saw this:

…and circled back to check it out closer.

Neat, but I decided that it was best viewed from afar, and not worth a swim through four-foot-deep snow. I kept going west. These structures could have belonged to either the Pike Mine or the Brotherton Mine.

Early Michigan surveyor William A. Burt noted his magnetic compass needle would spin erratically in certain areas, indicating the discovery of massive iron deposits (he subsequently invented the solar compass). Iron mining began in Michigan in the 1840s, roughly the same time as copper mining, and continues to this day.

According to Michigan State University well over one billion tons of ore has been extracted since then, and Michigan still produces 25% of America’s iron ore. The Great Lakes has one of the world’s largest and richest iron deposits--the ores were often around 60% pure, and therefore could be shipped directly to the steel mill without further refinement.

Courtesy of MSU Geology Dept.

The native Anishinaabeg were the first to utilize iron, using its oxide as a red pigment, or in its hematite form by crafting it into weapon tips. Once the white man came with his ravenous appetite for steel, he hollowed out the earth to such a ridiculous extent that the ground around the mines literally began to sink in several cases…prompting one or two towns to actually have to relocate. One such town was Negaunee, sometimes referred to as the "Sinking City."

Around any well-established iron mining town if you look at an aerial view, you can see deep ponds, or strangely blighted areas that appear boggy. These are either open-pit mines that have been tapped out and flooded to form a lake, or what are known as "subsidence areas" or "caving ground"--literally zones that have begun to sink due to collapses in underground mines.

Coming into Ironwood and locking my sights on the Newport-Bonnie Mine, it occurred to me that this was the furthest west I had ever been in Michigan. Out of the corner of my other eye I caught tree-interspersed glimpses of something else on the other side of the road--a mine office or schoolhouse, perhaps:

This road had been groomed, making the plunge into the snow all the less appealing, seeing as I would somehow have to vault over a five-foot-tall plowed berm in order to land in the three-foot-deep snow on the other side. As such, I needed a running start before Supermanning myself over the hurdle.

At least this time I didn’t have to trudge a mile, and I could already see a nicely-askew board leading into the school’s lower level. Better yet was a small hand-painted sign usefully indicating that this was the former schoolhouse of the defunct village of Bonnie, within Erwin Township, built in 1912. Even though the total distance between my car and the gaping-wide entrance of this schoolhouse was a mere 20 yards, I still had to stop and take a breather halfway.

I finally plopped into the darkened recesses of the school and found a stairwell. Annoyingly, this stairwell was completely choked with splintered wood and debris. I had seen this trick before; a deadpan tactic of discouraging people from entering your vacant building. Not wasting any time I climbed over it, since I knew the hour was growing late and that somewhere behind all those layers of stony clouds the sun was setting fast.

To my dismay I found the hallway of the first floor to be equally choked off with more wood and B.S.…as well as the entire stairway leading to the second floor, and apparently every possible usable space within this damn school. I said to hell with it, and snapped one picture before leaving.

I crawled back out and swam through the drifts to cross the road again and perform the same routine on the remaining surface buildings of the Newport-Bonnie Mine:

It looks like just any old building now, but I feel I should give you an idea of what these now-desolate areas looked like in the heyday of mining. The following are historical photos of the Newport Mine, circa 1920s, from the archives of Michigan Tech:

As I’ve said, the Yoopee was once a booming metropolis whose skyline consisted of black, starkly geometrical rockhouses and sooty, churning smokestacks:

According to the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER), the Newport Mining Co. opened several shafts on a deposit discovered by John Burton of Milwaukee, and worked them from 1886 to 1923, at which time Youngstown Steel's mining corporation took it over. Newport Mine was one of the greatest producers on the Gogebic Range, and employed 1,100 men by 1910, who consistently brought at least a million tons of soft, non-Bessemer ore to the surface per year. Newport Mine stayed open until 1963. The Newport's "D" Shaft was also one of the deepest iron mines in Michigan, reaching 3,300 feet.

However, according to the book Traveling Through Time: A Guide to Michigan's Historical Markers, by Laura R. Ashlee, the iron deposits here were actually discovered by a Harvard geologist, Raphael Pumpelly in 1871, who named Newport Hill after his hometown in Rhode Island. The state historic marker (which I somehow didn't see when I was here) also claims the dates of operation for the mine were different than those quoted by HAER: 1884 to 1966. Gogebic County had produced over 255 million tons of iron ore by that time.

The cold today was significantly worse than yesterday, a mere 7F, and the winds were ripping pretty good. As a matter of fact, when I stumbled laboriously around the main Newport building here, I could see that it was indeed forming dunes…snow dunes:

A c.1919 article in the Ironwood News Record indicates that the Bonnie Shaft of the Newport Mine (also known as the "K" Shaft) had reached a depth of 2,650 feet and would be connected at that depth to the bottom level of the nearby Woodbury shaft of the Newport Mine.

The same article went on to say that the Newport company "provided ideal living conditions" for their employees, and that the courtesy and comfort extended to them by the company was "second to none." At that time the Newport also owned and operated two diamond drills, the article reported.

I am not quite sure of what precise function this building used to serve in its mining days, but today it was being pretty boring. I snapped my obligatory picture without even going inside…my hip muscles were absolutely fatigued from lifting and dragging my legs through the inanely copious amounts of snow here. Needless to say, I now own my own snowshoes.

Looks like it had a craneway:

Daylight was definitely fading on me, so I made for the next target with all haste. It was snowing. The Peterson Mine supposedly lay very nearby, on the edge of the village of Yale, which lay on the outskirts of the town of Bessemer. There was a little more left of that one, from what I remembered.

However, after several passes of the area (and the attendant subsidence zones) in which I was supposed to find it, I was forced to admit defeat. A gate that I suspected led into the property (I could see a smokestack peeking up in the distance) was stoutly barring my entry, and the other possible methods of ingress were simply buried under snow. Screw this; it was basically dark now. I did find the abandoned Yale School, but it literally sat in someone’s backyard:

A nice little abandoned rail trestle also complimented the occasionally sweeping vistas here in Iron Country.

My next targets were near the town of Iron River, which was at least an hour east of here, along US-2, but they would have to wait until tomorrow morning. I was now essentially moving from the Gogebic Range to the West Menominee Range, the next major outcropping of iron-rich mineral along the Michigan-Wisconsin border.

Another fascinating factoid: the border between these two states is still technically under legal dispute to this day. I think Michigan has had more boundary conflicts than perhaps any other state--and certainly the feistiest. First came the “Toledo War” against Ohio, which actually resulted in Michigan being awarded the Upper Peninsula--a piece of land that would’ve eventually belonged to Wisconsin otherwise. The border with Indiana is still being argued about as well, which originally reached as far south as Gary. A sliver of Lake Superior bottomland was given over to Minnesota at Pigeon Point. Finally, the Wisconsin border was bandied over during the early 20th century, at a time when mining was certainly in full swing, and I would almost have to imagine some of the contention that arose from that conflict was no doubt driven by speculation as to the mineral riches that lay beneath that very boundary soil.

The next morning I burned rubber over to the Homer Mine and beached my car in the unplowed parking lot behind the seemingly closed business which I now realized was a porta-potty service. Another entertaining thing that immediately presented itself was the sudden appearance of a herd of about 30 deer all milling about in the area of the buildings, who began darting away once they realized their strolling breakfast had been interrupted.

Just when I thought they were done scurrying off, another two, three, or six of them would bound from cover. I could’ve actually walked up to any of them and knocked ‘em out with a brick and called it a car-deer collision and a free hunk of meat, but alas there were no sizeable bricks at hand.

I eyed the houses across the street with some nervousness, and made quick work of these mostly empty buildings. A couple were sealed tightly, and I did not try to coax them.

According to the HAER, the Homer Mine opened in 1914 and was fairly productive and long-lived, shipping more than 6.7 million tons of ore between 1915 and 1950.

It was first owned by the Buffalo Iron Mining Co., then later the Hanna Iron Ore Co., and the Homer Ore Co.

I jumped back in my car and headed over to the Cardiff Mine, a mere 200 yards away. I assume the Cardiff namesake is a product of the Welsh predilection for the mining trades; many immigrants came to Michigan’s mineral ranges and engaged in work here, but the best and most sought-after miners were the Cornish, and they along with the Welsh and Scandinavians most often became foremen, engineers, and captains, whereas the Italians, Poles, Irish, Slavs, and Mexicans were used as grunts to do the mucking and tramming.

The headframe of this mine looked different than those I was accustomed to seeing in Copper Country; it was markedly stubbier, and suggested a vertical mineshaft. As I would later learn, this seems to be the norm in the Iron Range.

The HAER says that the Wickwire Mining Co., a subsidiary of the Wickwire Steel Co. started this mine in 1919, though it was not destined to be an exceedingly good producer, and was closed by the late 1920s. From 1922-1923 it shipped 144,000 tons of high phosphorus hematite ore.

The surviving buildings besides the headframe include the engine house and the dry house.

This one was fenced, so I merely parked my car on the shoulder of the road, left it idling, and slammed through the crotch-deep snow as expeditiously as possible to snap my hard-bought photographs. There was what looked to be a two-man lift chilling out on the lawn here…if my hunch is correct, this carried two men at a time down into the mine via the cable:

The quotation-mark-shaped cleats near the top look to be some sort of safety brake.

As I was circling the perimeter what did I see, but a cute little weakness in the fence. I helped myself with aplomb and conducted a lightning raid on the bare interior of the brick buildings.

Inside I saw this brilliant piece of antiquarian hardware which actually made my day:

The Monitor Furnace Co.; even if was made in Ohio, it's still kinda cool.

The rest of the insides were pretty spartan however.

What the hell is going on with the structure of this building…? It looks totally patchworked:

The footings to a monster compressor or electric motor, perhaps? One thing's for sure, it definitely could not have been the dry house, it must be the engine house.

This wouldn’t have been the hoist house either, because it is situated perpendicular to the headframe. Though judging by intactness, this site looks like it was in use up until fairly recently, so it most likely had an electric hoist engine, as opposed to the archaic steam powered ones of the ruins I had been chasing in the Keweenaw.

A pit of unknown function out back next to the headframe:

This sign out front indicates that the Cardiff Mine may have been reopened again at some point after the c.1978 HAER report was written, since ownership by National Steel is indicated: corroborates this, stating that sometime after 1941 this mine was incorporated into the M.A. Hanna Company's Homer-Wauseca Group, and continued to operate through 1969. The Cardiff originally had just this one shaft with a depth of 530 feet, but as part of the Homer-Wauseca Group its workings were "extended from the Homer Mine" to a depth of 1,130 feet.

Unfortunately the headframe was well sealed, so I made my way back to the car.

The sign indicates that the small fenced area encloses an old air shaft for the mine.

I traveled onward southeasterly along US-2, inexorably winding my way back homeward. My next target would be in Norway-Vulcan, another pair of twin towns on the meandering Wisconsin border, on what would be the East Menominee Range.

I had to stop in the city of Iron Mountain in Dickinson County for gas and more coffee. While there I got held up by a very long freight train hauling lumber out from Channing, so I stopped at a familiar abandoned building. The first time I had seen this building was way back in summer of 2006 on my way back from the Paulding Light, but at the time I wasn’t sure what it was, and it was not accessible:

It looks to be the added-onto remnants of perhaps the Chapin Mine’s machine shop or blacksmith shop (my colleague Marty Hogan tells me that it was part of the Penn Mine). There were several major iron mines in Iron Mountain; indeed the city is famous for the Chapin Mine’s “Cornish Pump,” the largest steam engine in North America, which happens to be on display in the Iron Mining Museum a few blocks from here. Read more about the Chapin HERE.

Unfortunately while I was taking my pee I realized that there were only two small rooms explorable here. The rest was blocked off.

The lone smokestack not far away:

Something that was also very nearby were the ruins of the Ardis Furnace, on the north end of town. It was an experimental type of blast furnace that was built in 1908 by inventor John Tyler Jones to extract iron from low-grade ore. He named it after his daughter, Ardis.

I had visited this ruin in summer of 2006, but never featured my photo of it anywhere:

The furnace was a huge success at first, and apparently Jones was the recipient of several multi-million-dollar offers for his patent, but turned them down. Additional furnaces of this type were erected in Marquette and Republic, under the belief that on-site refining would equate to a huge savings in shipping ore. Read more HERE.

Unfortunately the rotating tubular design of his furnace developed problems, and Jones began dumping money into trying to correct it with the help of consulting engineers. By the end of two years, he had exhausted his personal fortune, and ended up losing his house without ever perfecting the invention. The Ardis Furnace was dismantled and sold for scrap, and Jones moved on to other projects. Some elements of his furnace design were however successfully employed in later technologies by others.

It was time to forge ahead to the twin towns of Norway-Vulcan. I was very grateful when I crossed back into the Eastern Time Zone.

Based on the fact that I knew there to have once been another Ford plant here in Norway that was subsequently demolished, I figured that to be part of the explanation for this odd ruin. However, upon closer inspection I realized that it was part of yet another iron mine:

Upon even closer inspection, I realized that it was the actual headframe of a mine, minus its black sheetmetal cladding. How odd it would have a concrete frame. At any rate, it was in the parking lot of an active business and was heavily fenced off, so I split. The shaft turned out to belong to the Curry Mine. An article in the Kalamazoo Gazette in 1916 tells a story of how the 18th level of this mine collapsed in July of that year killing three men. A fourth man, James Binanzetti, "is caught between two timbers, still alive, but out of the reach of rescuers." The names of the dead were: Dick Cooper, Thomas Jones, and Grederic Vercauten.

By this point in the mission I was very weary, and ready to be amongst my friends again, having been up here in the northern wastes for almost a week straight. It was time to head home. The road that still lay ahead would take about 10 hours to conquer.

Just before reaching the Bridge, I got a few good shots of the forbidding ice desert of northern Lake Michigan. But who is to say this is not actually the surface of the planet Neptune…?

The next night while I was at home writing this, I got word that Norwich Brad had been snowed-in. They received two more feet, piled on top of the approximately three feet they already had standing. The temperature reported at Bruce Crossing was -27F, and the plow wouldn’t be able to come through for three days. I had escaped the Yoopee just in time.

Traveling Through Time: A Guide to Michigan's Historical Markers, by Laura R. Ashlee, pg. 140
The Upper Peninsula of Michigan, An Inventory of Historic Engineering and Industrial Sites, HAER (1978)


  1. The visit you made to the old Bonnie School across from the Newport Mine in Ironwood, Michigan do you have any other photos? I know you said you were in and out because of the boards and debris everywhere? Also curious while you were inside if you saw any old signs that would hang outside the building or see a room that had a girl painted across the entire length of a chalk board? Thanks for your input

  2. Come back to Iron Mountain sometime other than winter.... the Cornish Pump Museum is well worth the visit!


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