Mining in Northern Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Mining in Northern Wisconsin

The Boom and Bust of the 19th Century

Mining in Northern Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeWoodcut of Indian mining copper on Superior

Mining on Lake Superior

"Ancient copper mining on Lake Superior" and "White fish sustenance of ancient miners" Figures 1 and 2 following page 116 Vol. 5 Plate 16, "The Indian Tribes of the United States" by Henry Schoolcraft, 1855. View the original source document: WHI 34038

Native Americans mined copper on the shores of Lake Superior between 4,000 and 1,200 B.C.E. They even developed a trade network to carry copper jewelry and tools. It stretched from Northern Wisconsin and Upper Michigan to the Rocky Mountains and the Gulf Coast. One of the first features of Lake Superior that early French travelers noticed was the easy access to copper deposits. Sometimes copper was found lying on the shore in huge chunks.

Mining in Northern Wisconsin

However, northern Wisconsin remained largely untouched by white settlement for several more decades. There were only a few fur trading posts, lumber camps and small ports throughout the region. But in the 1840s three forces drew settlers into Northern Wisconsin. First, lead mining in the south decreased. Deposits were exhausted and mining experts began to look elsewhere for new resources. Second, the discovery of gold in California in 1849 increased popular interest in mining. Third, the federal government attempted to move all eastern Indian tribes west of the Mississippi. This exodus made the Ojibwe lands of Lake Superior ripe for exploitation.

Shipping and the Mining Economy

During the 1850s, Lake Superior's iron and copper mines seemed ever more appealing. Writing in 1855, James Gregory declared, "Iron ore of unlimited extent and of great purity may be found at Lake Superior, in the Baraboo district, and at the Iron Ridge in Dodge and Washington counties."

Mining in northern Wisconsin served a different purpose than the agricultural development in the southern part of the state. Northern settlement was shaped for the benefit of people outside Wisconsin. Investors from Eastern cities hoped to make a quick fortune through mining. Superior, Ashland and Bayfield were founded to help extract and transport ore from the western end of Lake Superior.

Iron ore was initially smelted with locally produced charcoal, but companies soon found it more profitable to ship the ore east for refining. Shipping required an intricate transportation system and the construction of a canal in 1855 at Sault Ste. Marie to connect Lake Superior to the other lakes. This kind of inter-state dependence was different from the decentralized farming economy of southern Wisconsin, where self-sufficient homesteaders supplied produce to their own families, local markets and nearby urban centers.

Wane and Return of Mining

EnlargeBlack and White photograph of well-dressed men and women visiting the Iron Ridge mine.

Visitors to the Iron Ridge Mine

Visitors, dressed in their Sunday best, contrast with the rough garb of the miners, ca. 1900. View the original source document: WHI 3793

The development of the Lake Superior region was brief as the Panic of 1857 and the Civil War diverted capital from northern mines. Cities such as Ashland vanished overnight in the late 1850s as investors and local residents exhausted the most accessible deposits.

After the Civil War, the discovery of ore in the Gogebic Range of northern Wisconsin and Michigan in 1872 renewed interest in the region and led to a frenzy of speculation. Palatial homes were constructed and wealthy investors from the East came to view the mines. Communities such as Ironwood and Hurley sprang up. But the 1880s boom on the Gogebic was not based entirely on speculation  tremendous deposits of high-grade ore were actually uncovered and successfully brought to market. But the investment in northern mining that peaked in 1886 and 1887 was soon followed by a crash that eliminated most of the smaller companies.

The riches of the Gogebic Range were more sustainable and lucrative for towns in Michigan than Wisconsin, as most of its profitable deposits lay across the state line. Dependence on eastern financiers and out-of-state consumers had left northern Wisconsin without economic and political stability. As resources were exhausted and out-of-state investors shifted their interest to more lucrative possibilities, capital and leadership departed from Wisconsin's northern mining towns, leaving the people who remained to survive as best they could.

New Residents and New Work

The miners who remained behind with their families were Cornish, Swedes, Finns, Croats and Slovenes.   Their languages, religions and customs differed dramatically from the Yankee, German and Norwegian populations in the south.

Late in the 19th century, the timber industry helped offset the economic impact of the declining mines. But the northern forests were soon destroyed by clear-cutting. New immigrants tried to settle on the lands that had been clear-cut, but small farms, poor soil and a short growing season kept agricultural productivity low. Northern Wisconsin did not recover from the mining boom and bust until the rise of tourism in the 20th century.

Learn More

[Source: The History of Wisconsin vol. 3 and 4 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Kasparek, Jon, Bobbie Malone and Erica Schock. Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004); Wagner, Herbert "Wisconsin's Ancient Copper Miners" Wisconsin Outdoor Journal]