The 175 mile journey from Oshkosh to Marquette, Michigan was over roads not much different from those we had been experiencing for weeks. The results at the end, however, were outstanding. Dot and I already had Michigan covered on our sticky map, but not the Upper Peninsula. In April, 2005 our first long journey in our 30 foot tagalong was to Livonia for the national Schipperke Club of America Specialty. During that trip, we encountered 50 knot winds and about four inches of wet snow. So despite the bumpy roads, the current trip to the Upper Peninsula was a breeze.
We had booked a week at the City of Marquette Tourist Park. It was near the north edge of town, and, in fact, one of the facilities of sprawling Northern Michigan University was just across from the entrance. But Marquette is a city of open space, and so is the campground; you’d never know you were urbanized. We expected to see the 100 odd vehicle spaces and equal number of tent spaces crawling with people getting an early start for the Independence Day weekend, but the park was still less than 25% full by day’s end. And it was no more than 75% full by Friday night. But those who were there made up for it – rather than a pack of us seniors, there were extended families with kids galore setting up every kind of campsite you could imagine and then enjoying it them to the hilt. We enjoyed the change from most of the spots we’ve stopped, where we so often run into units with a pair of sexagenarians or better (oops, like us!). We got set up; the only drawback was that we expected 50 amp electrical service and only had 30 amps (as did all of the sites we surveyed). But we’ve learned to get around this by running only one A/C at a time and using propane to heat our water. Our site was paved and level, and the roads throughout the campground were, too. So my bike got a good workout, both inside the park and out in the community.
Exploring a bit by car, we needed only to leave the premises, turn right and travel about a quarter mile to get our first glimpse of the largest fresh water lake in the world. Here’s the wow factor: Lake Superior is so large that it would take the contents of all four of the other Great Lakes plus three extra Lake Eries to fill it. In another quarter mile, we were driving along Lakeshore Boulevard. Turning left (north) brought us quickly up to the Presque Isle area, and it requires considerable explanation. It is dominated by one of the city’s two mammoth ore docks – the only one still active. Trains carrying iron ore from nearby processing plants back their cars the full 1000+ foot length of the dock. The bottoms of the cars open, dumping the cargo into hoppers. Then, in a ballet-like sequence, chutes are lowered one at a time to transfer the cargo to an ore carrying ship (“bulker”). As chutes slowly lower, those that have dumped their load raise back up, and they continue in turn. This loading method prevents a concentration of weight in one location in the ship’s hold. Adjacent to the dock is an enclosed conveyor, nearly as long, that scoops up coal from the holds of colliers and transfers it to the power plant across the street.
Just north of the dock is a display of several vintage cars from the Lake Superior and Ishpeming (LS&I) Railroad. Since 1896, its sole purpose has been to transport ore from Marquette County’s mines along its 49 miles of tracks to the shipping port in Marquette. It was developed by Cleveland-Cliffs, Inc, a merger six years earlier of the powerful Cleveland Iron Mining Company and the Iron Cliffs Mining Company. Today, that company, now named Cliffs Natural Resources, produces over 25% of the iron ore pellets used in the manufacture of steel. (This isn’t idle chatter. You’ll find out the rest of the story very soon!)
Next is one of Marquette’s many parks. Presque Isle Park hosts a long stone breakwater ending with the Upper Harbor Lighthouse. You can walk out the breakwater, but a memorial plaque at the stairs warns you that if the weather is stormy, you may meet the fate of two young university students who were washed into the sea in 1988. The breakwater and ore dock combine to create a sheltered harbor, where the city operates a marina. The land side of the 300 acre park is rife with trails and wildlife – and the best ice cream stand in town.
The next day we turned right on Lakeshore and headed down the coast. The road was dotted not only with parks and turnouts but almost constant access to the water. Swimmers, boaters and especially bicyclists were everywhere. There is an eight mile dedicated bike path right through town.
At the upper fringe of the metropolitan area, we came upon the Marquette Maritime Museum in the old water works building. It features two discrete collections. The main section expends most of its effort chronicling the hundreds (thousands?) of shipwrecks throughout the lake and the efforts that were made to prevent or allay them. One diorama shows the working of a breeches buoy for ferrying stranded mariners off wreckage, while another shows the business end of a lighthouse tower. The Darter-Dace Annex contains considerable paraphernalia from World War II, focused specifically on the battle of Leyte Gulf. Native son David McClintock commanded the wolfpack of Darter and Dace; he was captain of Darter. The two subs spotted and located the incoming Japanese fleet and made 2 ½ kills themselves. Darter ran aground during the chase through a narrow channel, and after her crew was transferred to the Dace, she was destroyed. Upon returning to shore, the heroic Darter crew was immediately given another command. In the center of the exhibit is a working periscope! We were not done yet, however. A slight extra fee (and a tip) bought us an hour-long guided tour of the main Marquette Lighthouse led by Ty, a well-informed local college student. The oldest significant structure in town, the lighthouse was first was erected in 1853 and the present lighthouse was constructed in 1866. It’s been extensively modified over its many years. Owned by the Coast Guard, it is leased, along with its beautiful grounds, to the Museum. The USCG still maintains the light, which has matured from seven “Lewis” lamps to a fourth order Fresnel to an aerobeacon to the current Lexan optic. In the basement is a curious exhibit of old Evinrude outboard motors, one of which, a “Lightwin,” matched my own 60 years ago.
Leaving the museum, the road curved right to form the main harbor. It, too, was home to a massive ore dock, but this one was dormant and disconnected from the land. The large park on the north side of the harbor was hosting an International Food Festival; we took advantage of it on Sunday (July 4). There were no moorings as in the Presque Isle Harbor, but the docks and slips were extensive. Beyond the harbor, the shore road took on a distinct commercial flavor.
Saturday found us at the Chamber of Commerce building, where we had signed up for a tour of an iron mine and processing plant owned by the above-mentioned Cliffs Natural Resources. The bus ride departed at noon and took us 20 miles or so west to Ishpeming. We were greeted at the host building by Claire, a slip of a thing who had spent the night on the beach and, though a university graduate, was a certified ski instructor (read: bum). Daughter and niece of mine employees, her diminutive size belied her ability to both keep us in line and teach us everything we needed to know about the mine and the process of turning raw, low grade ore into the premium pellets required by steelmakers. After showing us an intro movie, she outfitted us with hard hats, fluorescent vests and safety glasses, all of which she mandated use at the appropriate times. She also declared that cameras were verboten. Somehow, despite her diminutive size, your intuition was not to test her. (Note: Mining pictures shown here were taken in museum displays but show the actual Cliffs properties.)
Back on the bus, it took about fifteen minutes to arrive at the Tilden complex, one of two currently in continuous operation by the company. Vast is an inadequate word. Weaving our way up a series of drives, we arrived at the edge of the pit, where the raw ore is obtained. The huge trucks, whose tires were 12 feet in diameter, looked like Tonka toys in the mine. An electric shovel was scooping, and a water truck was keeping the dust down. While the mine works 24/7, the weekend shifts are light. Nevertheless, on the other side, hopper cars on the LS&I railroad were being loaded with ready-for-market pellets for their trip to the Presque Isle ore dock. Claire gave us the story of the mining process through a bullhorn; she said that blasting occurred once or twice a week, always at exactly 12:15 pm.
Iron ore wasn’t always mined in these gigantic pits. In the mid19th century, when the source was first discovered, it was mined on the surface where a rich lode was available. Subsequently, it was mined below grounds in deep shafts and loaded to the surface by block and tackle. Several factors brought about the pit mining process. First, shaft mining was incredibly labor and machinery intensive. Second, Andrew Carnegie bet his fortune on the refining and steelmaking process known as Bessemer and revolutionized the industry. And Minnesota’s Mesabi Range, an enormous surface source, was discovered in the 1890s.
But we are getting ahead of our story. In the 1840’s, a search party of landlookers (surveyors), led by Douglas Houghton, first Michigan State Geologist, and William Burt, a U.S. Deputy Geologist, identified and began mapping the Marquette Range. Burt was an inventor who had created the typographer, a forerunner of the typewriter, in 1829. He also invented the solar compass, and it was a critical element in iron discovery because it wasn’t influenced by the ore in the ground. (He later invented an equatorial compass, equally critical to navigation.) Their efforts led to the Jackson Mining Company in 1845, and in 1848 a forge was set up on the Carp River in Negaunee. At this time, the ore was cooked in giant furnaces (bloomeries) to create pig iron. In fact, mining companies also created timber companies to provide fuel for the bloomeries.
This travelogue is not a dissertation on the iron/steel industry, so let’s morph back to the twentieth century. The quality of ore removed from the ground slowly waned, until it became inadequate for the conversion to steel. The solution: development of the process that could convert this impure taconite ore to uniform pellets that raised the iron concentration form 35 to 65%. Claire led us through the process following our view of the pit. The plant tour required ear plugs in addition to the rest of the safety kit – I just turned off my hearing aids! Everything is reddish brown. Everything makes you feel Lilliputian.
You start at the crusher, where the chunks are reduced to approximately 6 inches cubed. Then off to the grinder, where the crushed rock is pulverized. Then to the separator, where the granules are converted to a slurry and the iron is separated from the other components (mostly sand and silica) with magnets. The water is extracted (and recycled) and the rich mixture is formed into pellets approximately 3/8 inches in diameter. The pellets are then baked at 2500 – 32oo degrees until solidified. Every machine is four stories or more tall, above and below the walkway. Claire lets you feel some slurry and view inside the ovens. When the awe is almost overcome by the thick air and heat, she leads you into air conditioned office space where she manipulates the NASA-like monitor that keeps tabs on what’s happening everywhere. And once back on the bus, it’s candy for everybody.
As an indication of scale: trucks hold 240 tons; up to 6,000 tons of ore can be crushed in an hour; stockpiles of finished pellets; stockpiles of pellets awaiting train loading contain about 30,000 tons. Cliffs process over 8 million tons of ore (output) per year.
Though we spent over three hours in the hands of the Cliffs people, the iron industry remained a compulsion. A couple of days later found us at the Michigan Iron Industry Museum, where we learned much more about the early years, the early processes, and the culture of the people who dared the wilderness to grow this industry. It was at the site of the original Carp River forge.
Also covered in detail was the development of the locks at Sault Ste. Marie, first built by the U.S. in 1855, that facilitated the movement of ore from Lake Superior.
We have neglected to mention that the region is not only known for its rich iron deposits but for its abundance of copper. The primary copper industry is on the Keweenaw Peninsula that is just west of Marquette and extends northeast into the Lake. We didn’t get up there; it was about 150 miles away. But wait until next time!
We weaned off by going to the Marquette County History Museum. The county history society, founded in 1918, moved into its current building in 1949. The building has become inadequate, and the museum is packing up now to move to its new $5 million site about half a mile away. After viewing in depth the character of the region – down to the earliest of snowmobiles – we took a walking tour in town. Its present location is behind the Peter White Library and on the edge of the estate section of town. The homes were owned in large part by those related to the iron industry, but others included journalists, land speculators, authors, railroad men, attorneys and shipping magnates. The keystone is a square block which once contained the 66 room mansion of J.M Longyear, late 19th century landlooker and subsequently a real estate baron specializing in timber lands. The home was transported brick by brick to Brookline, Massachusetts, where it remains standing today. Mrs. Longyear bequeathed the current museum building to the society in 1937.
On our final day, we consumed a sumptuous breakfast where everything was home made at Sweet Water Café. Then we traveled the short distance to Northern Michigan University’s Superior Dome, the largest wood dome in the world. The football field in its core gives way to a host of other sports, as well as trade shows, exhibitions and, the building also contains several dioramas of the region’s legends and history. A visit to www.dynamiteinc.com/images/panorama/superior-dome.html will get you a worthwhile 360 degree tour.
In retrospect, we regret planning only a week there. But it is also the first place on our tour to which we’ve said we’ll definitely return.