Digging Deep

The Michigan Iron Ore Museum dovetailed nicely with our previous local museum visits throughout the UP. The themes of life in the UP and Marquette were all intertwined. Shipping across the Great Lakes, the story of the Edmund Fitzgerald and the increasingly huge freighters carrying taconite iron ore pellets, the great ore docks which still dominate the Marquette harbor, and the discovery by Burt of iron ore in the UP and the struggle to settle this harsh, but breathtaking wilderness and tame it—these themes all converged in the story this museum had to tell.

This museum was created and is run by the DNR as an ode to the iron resources which dominated the economy of the UP for a century from the mid-1800’s to after WWII. There is still some mining going on today, but only two mines remain active.

The museum features exhibits on the now familiar story of William A. Burt and Douglass Houghton’s discovery of the huge mountain of iron just west of Marquette on the shores of Teal Lake. This was the backbreaking four-day trek through woods so dense they had to leave their horses and pack their supplies on their backs as they slogged their way on foot. Suddenly their compasses went haywire and Burt enjoined his men to look around…what they found charted the course of history for the region.

 

We got to see Burt’s Solar Compass, invented to compensate for the iron ore’s magnetic field disrupting their ability to survey and which proved to be the most accurate surveying tool.

We learned about the Landlookers. These were men who were tasked with backpacking out in search of new iron ore deposits. Struggling through the dense brush and fighting the mosquitoes and black flies so thick they literally could and did drive men insane, the landlookers wrapped their faces in bandanas and flailed with handsfulls of brush to switch the voracious insects away.

 

The museum also gave a stark accounting of the hardships of mining the iron ore. Six days a week, twelve hours a day, the men hauled ore. At first it was all surface mining and the equipment was primitive and the work absolutely backbreaking.

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Later, as the easily reached iron ore gave out, pit mining brought its own set of dangers and hardships. One of my favorite photos was of a miner enjoying his mid-day pastie.

 

 

 

The building of the first locks at Sault Ste Marie to allow iron ore and cargo to be ferried through the dangerous, but beautiful rapids.

And once the locks existed, they needed to build bigger locks which could accommodate larger and larger freighters carrying ever greater cargoes to the insatiable iron ore smelters way down state.

They dug deeper and deeper into the earth to continue to mine the iron ore.

It was a compelling history of the economic imperative to exploit these rich resources and the toll it took on thousands of men over decades to do the backbreaking work which made extraction possible. The miners, the sailors, the men who built the locks and worked the docks, the landlookers who scouted new ore deposits, and the merchants who supplied the goods and food necessary to fuel so much activity–they all had a role to play in this terribly dramatic story.

The museum finished up with a mock mining tunnel. My short walk through the dark and grimy tunnel made me ever so glad not to have been a miner!

 

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