Photos by: NPS, Iron Ore Heritage Trail Photos by: NPS, Iron Ore Heritage Trail

As natural deposits run low, Yoopers are still turning to their mining past for inspiration for what the region’s future could look like.

MARQUETTE, Mich.—On these autumn days, Carol Fulsher can often be found on her Cannondale mountain bike, framed against a backdrop of orange, red, and yellow speckled trees that crowd the banks of Lake Superior. 

The 47-mile trail she rides, paved at parts and packed in at others, follows the route that used to transport iron by rail from the hills of Marquette County to the Lake Superior harbor, where it would be processed and shipped. On this now-defunct industrial excursion—named the Iron Ore Heritage Trail—cyclists take in the Upper Peninsula’s natural beauty. Behind the dazzling colors, however, lies a past more storied than they perhaps know.

Fulsher has spent her life around the Marquette region. She grew up here, and her daughter has followed her wheel-tracks. But despite being a proud Marquette native, biking was Fulsher’s first real introduction to Michigan mining—a sign that the industry that ruled the region as prominently as steel ruled Pittsburgh lost some stature over the years.

“The importance of Michigan’s iron range has really built America, and provided the raw material for bridges and cities and roads and interstate highways,” said Barry James, a historian at the Michigan Iron Industry Museum.

Now, Fulsher is the administrator of the Iron Ore Heritage Trail, which recalls the seismic significance of mining life in the Marquette iron range with plaques to help guide the story, and exhibits of restored mining relics for visitors to see up-close. An enormous beehive kiln that previously baked iron ore. Mine shafts and rail cars. A double-jack recreation—two workers hammering away at a large wedge, attempting to break the raw iron ore free. Along the route, not only do riders—on snowmobiles or bicycles, depending on the season—see the lakeshore, downtown Marquette, and the awe-inducing surrounding hills and nature, they also take part in the ride that used to fuel the economy of the Upper Peninsula.

These days, Marquette is known by outsiders as part college town, part tourist destination. Locals, though, quietly bristle at the suggestion that the Upper Peninsula’s biggest city is defined by transient students and “troll” visitors from beneath the bridge—with no disrespect to either, for both are major parts of Marquette’s balance sheet and culture.

“We just want to make a good community for people to live,” Fulsher said. “We don’t want to build things just for tourists. We want to make a nice place that people want to live first, but then because it’s such a nice place, tourists like us.”

Here, history is deeply rooted in the Eastern European and Scandinavian immigrants that occupied the lands and moved to the most frigid part of Michigan to work lucrative, secure jobs in the mines. With them, they brought the sauna, a word that’s a dead giveaway to tell tourists from locals. (Hint: Don’t say “sawna,” pronounce it “sowna” to honor its Finnish heritage.) Many modern Upper Peninsula homes have relaxation saunas in their backyards, but back in the day, these enclosed structures were used for cooking and heating, too.

It’s crucial to note that Michigan’s mining economy is not dead. Rather, 900 employees still work at Tilden Mine, the state’s only remaining operating iron mine, following the closure of the Empire Mine in 2016. 

And much like the auto industry went beyond churning out cars to build an economy around their “guts”—as Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm calls car parts—the mining industry radiated its own spinoff businesses as well. From their iron and copper came pins, signs, ships, and buildings, all made in Michigan.

But as iron and copper deposits have been depleted by mining, so have the numbers of mine workers and their prevailing culture in the Upper Peninsula. Yoopers, however, are carrying on the legacy that mining has deposited in their territory by crafting a special, sustainable future—that’s meant to last longer than any elements or minerals.

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First, A Look Back on the History

It would be easy to say Michigan mining goes back centuries, but really, the first evidence tracks back thousands of years in time. 

According to the National Park Service and the state of Michigan, Native Americans first mined copper between 3000 and 5000 BCE. Many years later, settlers discovered a big chunk of iron in what’s now known as the Marquette iron range. In 1846, the Jackson iron mine opened in Negaunee. 

Back then, ore was so rich and plentiful that miners could chip it directly from the surface. Quickly, however, all that chipping started to leave a dent in northern hills, and by the late 1800s, workers were descending 3,000 feet down dangerous mine shafts.

By this time, the copper rush was in full effect, and not only was the Marquette iron range pumping out material, but so were the Gogebic range, which sprawls west over the Wisconsin border, and the Menominee range, which lies in the southern part of the Upper Peninsula.

“Mining jobs were the jobs you wanted,” Fulsher said.

At its peak around 1900, Michigan had competition by way of Butte, Montana, for its copper. But the Upper Peninsula still was the kingpin of US iron mining.

“Michigan is really the only state that mines it, ships it, and makes something out of it,” said Barry James, a historian at the Michigan Iron Industry Museum.

As miners blasted and picked further and further into the ground, however, they noticed that deposits were drying up. As opposed to the high-grade iron they once found, by the mid-1900s they were farming low-grade deposits. Instead of fielding chunks of ore, they would smash their returns into iron pellets, which they’d then separate from regular rock through density tests to be sent for processing.

This process continues today.

After peaking in 1916, the decline of the copper industry in the Keweenaw Peninsula was relatively rapid. The price of copper slumped, and safety strikes combined with the allure of other well-paying factory jobs downstate—thanks to Henry Ford offering a $5 minimum wage—to put the mining business on shaky ground. 

Despite the two World Wars, copper production stayed unprofitable thanks to price controls and the lack of supply. Eventually, the prevailing company in the Calumet area closed, effectively closing the book on copper mining in the state.

Contrary to the copper mines in the Keweenaw Peninsula, however, Michigan iron mines were able to stave off competition and remain on top during the first and second World Wars. With battleships and airplanes all needing to be made, the country once again turned toward Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for its metal. 

After World War II, production continued, but slowly. Population declines and economic conditions forced some mines to close, and by the late 1900s, Michigan’s mining scene in no way resembled the behemoth it once was. 

“We can’t keep losing population,” Fulsher said. “It’s not a good trajectory.”

In 2016, the Empire Mine shuttered its doors, and while most employees were taken on at the nearby Tilden Mine in the Marquette range, it left Michigan with just one operating iron mine. Currently, Michigan also still has a nickel mine—the Eagle Mine, in Big Bay—in operation.

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A City Stuck in Time

Calumet is a black-and-white photo of a city, even today. Once known as Coppertown USA, Calumet’s swift descent from the raw material throne left many of its old homes and structures unoccupied and others demolished. 

At its peak, Calumet had the population density of Manhattan, according to Lynette Webber with the Keweenaw National Historical Park. A city run by a copper company, Calumet also had Michigan’s first paved road, beating out Woodward Avenue in Detroit for that honor, so that it could move materials from mine to rail more easily, Webber said.

In part, how crowded Calumet was led to one of the nation’s most horrific trampling massacres, when at a union Christmas party a false alarm of “fire” was yelled and 59 children and 14 others died in the historic Italian Hall. Now, all that’s left there is an archway.

After the closure of the copper mines, the locals who remained were few and far between. The city, having stagnated since the early 1900s, still retained many of its original facades and buildings, giving it the allure of an old-timey village that went from boom to bust.  

To preserve the city’s heritage and protect the surrounding natural beauty from expansion, local interests joined forces with the national government to establish the Keweenaw National Historical Park. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush penned the order.

“It was a grassroots movement,” Webber said.

In 1997, the last copper mine on the Keweenaw Peninsula closed.

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Reflecting on the Mining Past, Looking Ahead to a New Future

The reality of an Upper Peninsula without mining is no longer unimaginable. But that doesn’t mean the next step is easy.

“We have to diversify our economy, because you can’t depend on one operating iron mine, and you don’t know when those deposits will be gone,” Fulsher said.

Having premier universities like Michigan Tech and Northern Michigan University helps bring students, their families, and economic assets to the area. But for personal inspiration, locals are reflecting on the legacy that miners left behind.

Like meat and potatoes. Mining companies recruited workers from overseas, starting with Cornwall. Those immigrants brought Cornish pasties with them, and no Michigan history is complete without their mention. Filled with meat and potatoes, these flour-cased envelopes of cheap food were ideally suited for the mines. Some say miners would hold pasties by their ridged crust, so as to not mix dirt and soot inside their meal. 

In honor of the pasty, Calumet throws an annual pasty festival. There, great debates arise over what truly belongs in a pasty, and it’s where you’ll find the secret ingredient to the Upper Peninsula’s economic future: tourism.

“Copper still brings people here today, even though they’re not here to work in the copper mine,” Webber said.

Miners, said historian Barry James, also brought downhill and cross-country skiing to Michigan. Add ski destinations to northern delicacies and sownas, and you’ve got a tourist trap.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Upper Peninsula has reached new-visitor heights. They’re not just staying in short-term rentals, either. Many people have packed up their mobile desktops and are moving to less expensive, less crowded areas up north.

“There’s definitely positivity going on. We have a strong community,” said Bob Hendrickson, executive director of the Ishpeming-Negaunee Chamber of Commerce.

Local leaders know what they’re working with is as rich at the surface as it has been thousands of feet below. Between skiing, boating, biking, and hiking, they have an opportunity to become an outdoor recreation capital for the country—not just in tourism, but in related industries.

The Lake Superior Community Partnership, which has engaged in conversation with the mines and local businesses on what they need, is planning for significant workforce transitions to accompany this development.

“Marquette will be branded as an outdoor recreation destination at some level, and will be building off its reputation of trails and water access to attract new interest,” Sarah Lucas, Lake Superior Community Partnership’s CEO, said.

That’s what the Iron Ore Heritage Trail is all about. A partnership of governments and grants, the trail honors the Upper Peninsula’s mining past, while educating local decedents like Fulsher about the industry’s storied impact on the region. That’s a reminder, Lucas said, that helps strong communities invest in their future.

“Ideally it’s not just an outdoor recreation destination; it’s a great place to live.”