Note: A proposal to resume iron ore mining in Wisconsin, after a lag of four decades, means we’re likely to hear more than usual about Iron and Ashland counties during the next few years. Gogebic Taconite wants to spend $1 billion on open-pit mining on 22,000 acres of the Penokee Range, between Upson and Mellon. This is the second of a three-part series about what defines the heritage and tourism of the area.
In Iron County are 214 lakes, and about 80 percent of the land is forest. The result: pretty scenery but not an overflow of jobs. The area lost 11 percent of its population since 2000, and unemployment hovers around 10 percent – the sixth worst rate in Wisconsin.
So when talk turns to the possible revival of iron ore mining, which ended in 1965, even local tourism ambassadors talk positively. The area’s 1,000 miles of snowmobile trails (including routes in adjacent Upper Michigan), downhill ski areas (Porcupine, Indianhead, Powderhorn, Blackjack and Whitecap mountains), dozens of groomed cross-country trails and a new snowshoe outlet (at Schomberg County Park, 10 miles south of Hurley) appeal to visitors, but tourism strength is at the mercy of weather and season of year.
“You cannot be bored here, but you have to love the outdoors,” says Jessica Bolich, director of the Hurley Area Chamber of Commerce.
A proposal to mine up to 22 miles of the Penokee Range, home to about 20 percent of the nation’s iron ore deposits, brings the promise of hundreds of jobs that could pay $50,000 per year for work that might last a century.
Would mining make the area less attractive to lovers of winter sports, biking, hiking, hunting and fishing? That’s to be determined, but count Jessica among the mine proposal’s cheerleaders.
“It’s not controversial,” she insists, “because they’d use magnets to pull the iron out, not chemical solutions to separate it” in county-owned forests. Jessica grew up in the area, one of 12 children in a family whose father worked underground at the area’s last mine, White Pine, which closed in 1978 near Ontonagon, Mich.
Although mines closed decades ago, the area remains proud of its mining history. Even beer cans provide evidence.
Consider Pick Axe Blonde Ale, brewed in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, whose labels include a buxom young woman in pigtails, slinging a long-ago mining tool over her shoulder. Keweenaw Brewing Company, Houghton, also produces Red Jacket Amber Ale, a nod to the area’s copper mining heritage.
When ground thaws and turns dry enough to kick up dust, drivers of all-terrain vehicles and mountain bikes take to the recreation trails, sometimes tying bandanas around their nose to avoid inhaling “red gold” – still a nickname for the ore-tinged dirt.
One of Iron County’s more popular cross-country ski spots is 15 kilometers of trails near Montreal, just southwest of Hurley and the nearly 3,400 acres of Gile Flowage, where wicked winds are capable of whipping up quick and stinging cases of windburn.
Trails pass long-vacant mining structures, sturdy stone and mortar buildings that used to process and store tons of ore daily. Also in the neighborhood is the Plummer Mine head frame, erected 80 feet high in 1904 and the last to still stand in Wisconsin.
Montreal, population 838, began as a company town and remains the only city in Wisconsin specifically designed to house iron ore miners and their families. That was in the 1920s, when immigrants endured rough oceanic travel and separation from homeland to escape extreme poverty and the threat of Russian rule.
It was that way for Elsie Nevala’s parents, Finnish immigrants who fled their homeland in the early 1900s. Her father began his new life as a miner, saved enough money to buy farmland, then died in a freak accident while working for a railroad company.
Elsie was 18 months old and the youngest of eight siblings when her father died, but single-parent households weren’t unusual for the times. The hard labor of mines and logging camps was often dangerous and sometimes fatal.
“When I was 14, I got an accordion for Christmas – but I didn’t ask for one,” she recalls. The teenager soon learned that she could earn $3 per night by playing the squeezebox, “and that kept me in clothes and shoes.”
Elsie manages the gift shop at Hurley’s National Finnish American Cultural Center, which sells delicate Oiva Toikka glass birds, rag rugs woven by local women, traditional Finnish sauna buckets and scrubbing brushes, linens, handicrafts and kitsch.
On the weekend before Ash Wednesday, Finns serve a traditional meal of hernekeitto (pea soup), majakka (stew) and pannukakku (oven-baked pancakes) to the public. Every other Monday, Finnish languages classes begin at 5 p.m., for whoever wants to learn. Monthly events include Finnish movies.
But the area’s once-proud ethnic heritage appears endangered. Elsie, in her 80s, is one of only nine members of the Finnish Women’s Auxiliary. The youngest is 60.
Thick logs from ore docks in Ashland built the cultural center, nicknamed “Little Finland,” but it only is open four hours on Wednesdays and Saturdays, April through December.
That’s because the attraction relies on volunteers, similar to the Iron County Historical Museum, whose three floors of artifacts and exhibits in Hurley are open four days per week, if volunteers are available.
Wednesday night tours via snowshoe of Ironwood, Mich., caves – former mining sites – begin at 6:30. Participants carry lanterns; contact Hobby Wheel at 906-224-3332 for details.
Other winter trivia: Nearby Gogebic Community College offers associate degrees in ski area management (how to run and maintain downhill ski operations). The 10-slope Mt. Zion Ski Complex, on campus, is the students’ training area, although internships also take them to some of the nation’s major ski resorts.
Mt. Zion offers ski lessons, $20 per day lift tickets, a snow tubing park and groomed cross-country trails. See www.gogebic.cc.mi.us, 9906-932-4231.
“Roads Traveled” is the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.