Mining in Northern Wisconsin

Native Americans mined copper on the shores of Lake Superior in prehistoric times. Between 4,000 and 1,200 B.C., copper jewelry and implements from Wisconsin and Upper Michigan were part of a trade network that stretched from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf Coast, giving rise to the name "Old Copper Culture." You can see several of these artifacts here on the Turning Points site.

Easy access to copper deposits - - some of them literally lying on the shore in huge chunks - - was one the features of Lake Superior first noticed by early French travelers. It was mentioned by explorers such as Etienne Brule and Samuel Champlain as well as by missionaries such as Fathers Claude Allouez. In 1739 a French officer even attempted the first systematic mining of copper in northern Wisconsin. After French officials left about 1760, subsequent English-speaking travelers such as Jonathan Carver and Henry Schoolcraft also commented on the abundant mineral wealth of the region.

Nevertheless, for several more decades northern Wisconsin remained largely untouched by white settlement, with only a few fur trading posts, lumber camps, and fledgling ports dotting its landscape. But in the 1840s three forces converged to draw settlers into the region. First, the value of lead mined in the south decreased as the most easily extracted deposits were exhausted, and mining experts began to look for new resources to develop. Second, the discovery of gold in California in 1849 and the quick fortunes made in its gold fields fueled popular interest in mining. Third, the federal government's attempt to move all eastern Indian tribes west of the Mississippi made the Ojibwe lands of Lake Superior appear ripe for exploitation. Despite treaties negotiated in 1842 and 1854, and brutal coercion such as the 1850 Sandy Lake tragedy (see the Dictionary of Wis. History linked at left for details on these events), the Ojibwe successfully defended their homeland. Although they allowed white settlers to extract its minerals, they retained the right to dwell, hunt, and fish in northern Wisconsin.

So during the 1850s, Lake Superior's iron and copper mines began to seem 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." But mining in northern Wisconsin followed a different economic and cultural trajectory than did agricultural development in the southern part of the state. Northern settlement was shaped largely by and for the benefit of people outside Wisconsin, especially investors from Eastern cities who hoped to make a quick fortune through mining. Their interest in extracting and transporting ore from the western end of Lake Superior led to the founding of Superior, Ashland, and Bayfield.

Iron ore was initially smelted with locally produced charcoal, but companies soon found it more profitable to ship the ore east for refining. This required the construction of a canal at Sault Ste. Marie to connect Lake Superior to the other lakes (opened in 1855) and an intricate transportation system to extract ore from the ground, load it onto a specialized fleet of lake ships, and unload it in Chicago, Cleveland, or Pittsburgh where it was turned into iron and steel. This kind of multi-state interdependence was quite 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.

The initial development of the Lake Superior region was brief, however, as the Panic of 1857 and the Civil War diverted capital from northern mines. The desire for wealth that had brought capital into the Lake Superior region carried it away with equal speed. Highly touted cities such as Ashland almost vanished overnight in the late fifties as investors and local residents both sought greener pastures elsewhere.

After the Civil War, the discovery and mapping of high-grade Bessemer ore in the Gogebic Range of northern Wisconsin and Michigan in 1872 renewed interest in the region, and even led to a frenzy of speculation. Fortunes were made -- and lost -- overnight in northern Wisconsin during the 1880s. Palatial homes were constructed and wealthy investors from the East came to view the mines. Communities such as Ironwood and Hurley sprang up around them, and travel guides praised the natural beauty of the region's lakes, rivers, and forests. Although at times exuberant, 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 proved a far more sustainable and lucrative industry for towns in Michigan than for those in Wisconsin, as most of its profitable deposits lay across the state line. Dependence on eastern financiers and out-of-state consumers had left the region without the economic and political stability to determine its own destiny. As resources began to be exhausted or 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.

Those people were a distinct population attracted to work in the northern mines. Cornish miners, some of whom had already come to work the lead mines in southwestern Wisconsin, arrived early and brought their experiences in underground mining to the north. Swedes and Finns also migrated to the new towns around Lake Superior in large numbers, followed slightly later by Croats and Slovenes -- ethnic groups whose languages, religions and customs differed dramatically from the Yankee, German, and Norwegian populations in the south.

During the last decades of the 19th century, the timber industry remained an important part of the economy of northern Wisconsin and helped to offset the economic impact of the declining mines. But the northern forests were leveled by the disastrous practice of clear-cutting, and despite extensive efforts to settle new immigrants on the so-called cutover lands, small farms, poor soil, and a short growing season conspired to keep agricultural productivity low. Northern Wisconsin did not fully recover from the effects of the mining boom and bust until the rise of tourism in the 20th century.

[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 (online at]

Original Documents and Other Primary Sources

Link to article: A newspaper report on the Gogebic iron district (1886)A newspaper report on the Gogebic iron district (1886)
Link to article: Ancient copper mines are discovered in 1848Ancient copper mines are discovered in 1848
Link to article: Iron County booms in the mid-1880'sIron County booms in the mid-1880's
Link to article: A survey of mining activity in Northern Wisconsin, 1886A survey of mining activity in Northern Wisconsin, 1886
Link to article: A sketch of mining promoter John Burton and the potential of northern mining operationsA sketch of mining promoter John Burton and the potential of northern mining operations
Link to article: The eccentric poet who became Wisconsin's second state geologist.The eccentric poet who became Wisconsin's second state geologist.
Link to article: Increase Lapham explores the mineral region of northern Wisconsin in 1858.Increase Lapham explores the mineral region of northern Wisconsin in 1858.
Link to artifacts: Copper tools from Northern Wisconsin, 4000-1,200 B.C.Copper tools from Northern Wisconsin, 4000-1,200 B.C.
Link to book: Memoirs of an Interpreter among the Ojibwe, 1840-1900Memoirs of an Interpreter among the Ojibwe, 1840-1900
Link to book: An Early Archaeological Report on the Old Copper CultureAn Early Archaeological Report on the Old Copper Culture
Link to images: Increase Lapham examining a meteorite, ca. 1868Increase Lapham examining a meteorite, ca. 1868
Link to images: Outdoor group portrait of the Gogebic Range iron miners, 1886Outdoor group portrait of the Gogebic Range iron miners, 1886
Link to manuscript: Looking for copper near Lake Superior in 1846Looking for copper near Lake Superior in 1846
Link to map: Bird's-eye views of Ashland in the 1880'sBird's-eye views of Ashland in the 1880's