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 be found on her Cannondale mountain bike, framed against the 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 along 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, cyclists take in the Upper Peninsula’s natural beauty that conceals historic wealth.
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 has lost some stature.
“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 exhibits and plaques. Along the route, not only do riders—of snowmobiles or bicycles, depending on the season—see the lakeshore, downtown Marquette, and the awestriking surrounding hills and nature, but they also take in the ride that used to fuel the economy of the Upper Peninsula.
Riders will notice a newly restored kiln that previously baked iron ore. They’ll also see a representation of a double jack, where two workers hammer away at a large wedge, attempting to break free raw iron ore.
Nowadays, Marquette is known in part as a college town and tourist destination, but locals bristle at the suggestion that the Upper Peninsula’s biggest city is defined by intransigent 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 nowadays.
“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 Upper Peninsula homes have saunas in their backyard for comfort now, 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 didn’t just crank out vehicles but spawned a whole demand for the “guts” of those cars—as Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm has called car parts—the mining industry radiated its own business as well. From the iron and copper the mines yielded, they created pins, signs, ships, and buildings, all made in Michigan.
But as iron and copper deposits have been depleted through underground mining, so have the numbers of mine workers and the prevailing culture in the Upper Peninsula. While Yoopers are still quite familiar with the legacy that mining has deposited in their territory, they’re crafting their own, sustainable future that will last longer than the deposits.
First, A Look Back on the History
Another important note about Michigan mining is that it isn’t just one material: Iron mines encompass the Upper Peninsula, but along the northernmost Keweenaw Peninsula, which is a branch of the larger region, copper ruled. Michigan has significant nickel deposits as well.
It would be easy to say Michigan mining goes back centuries, but really, the first evidence tracks back millenia.
According to the National Park Service and the state of Michigan, Native Americans first mined copper between 3000 and 5000 BC. 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, all that chipping started to leave a dent in northern hills, however, and by the late 1800s, miners 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,” James said.
As miners blasted and picked further and further into the ground, however, they noticed that deposits were shriveling up. As opposed to the high-grade iron they once found, in 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 copper industry in the Keweenaw Peninsula began to diminish, and its decline was relatively rapid. The copper price slumped, and following safety strikes and the allure of other well-paying factory jobs downstate—thanks to Henry Ford offering a $5 minimum wage—business wobbled.
Despite the two World Wars, copper production remained unprofitable thanks to price controls and the lack of supply. Eventually, the prevailing company in the Calumet area closed, completing a chapter of 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 constructed, the country once again turned toward Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for its iron needs.
After World War II, production continued, but it slowed. Population declines in cities and economic conditions forced some mines to shut and by the late 1900s, Michigan’s mining scene in no way resembled the behemoth it once was.
Population loss in the Upper Peninsula has continued since.
“We can’t keep losing population,” Fulsher said. “It’s not a good trajectory.”
In 2016, the Empire Mine shut, 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. Michigan still has a nickel mine in operation.
A City Stuck in Time
Calumet, Michigan, 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 ran by the 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.
Reflecting on the Mining Past, Looking Ahead to a New Future
With the exhaustion of raw materials in the Upper Peninsula, locals found other ways to make a living. They had to, or else they’d have to move.
The reality of an Upper Peninsula without mining is no longer unimaginable, as it once was when Michigan mining controlled the entire supply chain and schedule of projects in the US. 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 several premier universities, like Michigan Tech and Northern Michigan, helps.
But for inspiration, locals are reflecting on the legacy that miners left behind and that many families carry on.
Miners from Cornwall, the first place companies went to recruit workers, brought Cornish pasties to Michigan. 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.
Now, pasties are a UP tradition, and you can find them offered across the peninsula at favorite roadside shacks. Calumet, in honor of its history, has a yearly pasty festival where people travel to declare a victor. There, great debate arises over what belongs in a pasty, and what doesn’t.
Like with the pasty festival, Calumet has unlocked a secret to the Upper Peninsula’s future—tourism. And much of that is based on the cultural foundations laid by Michigan miners.
“Copper still brings people here today, even though they’re not here to work in the copper mine,” Webber said.
Miners, James said, also portaged downhill and cross-country skiing to Michigan. And now, Michiganders travel to ski at many Upper Peninsula sites throughout the winter.
The Upper Peninsula has always been an escape from the sprawling suburbs of southern Michigan, but during the pandemic, it has seen an uptick in tourists.
They’re not just staying in short-term rentals either. Many people, with the advent of telework, are moving to less expensive, less crowded areas known for the outdoors. And of course, the Upper Peninsula is replete with natural splendor.
“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, the CEO, said. “Ideally it’s not just an outdoor recreation destination; it’s a great place to live.”
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, educating people like Fulsher about mining’s storied impact on the region.
But in addition to history, it’s paving the way forward to the future of the Upper Peninsula, lining the community with a quality of life that will keep residents and attract businesses—no matter whether the mines are open or not.
“When you think about the auto industry in the last recession, I think that a lot of communities were maybe not surprised, but there hadn’t been that same conversation about transitioning away from some of those jobs that were lost,” Lucas said. “And that’s something that we do have the advantage of here.”