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In addition to the local news, WXPR Public Radio also likes to find stories that are outside the general news cycle... Listen below to stories about history, people, culture, art, and the environment in the Northwoods that go a little deeper than a traditional news story allows us to do. Here are all of the series we include in this podcast: Curious North, We Live Up Here, A Northwoods Moment in History, Field Notes, and Wildlife Matters.These features are also available as a podcast by searching "WXPR Local Features" wherever you get your podcasts.

How Did Neighborhoods in the Upper Peninsula Get Their Names?

Library of Congress
Norrie group no. 3, Ironwood, Mich.

We're spending today and tomorrow looking at some aspects of the historical influence of mining in the Upper Peninsula, specifically in the Ironwood area.

Today we'll be answering a listener question. Tomorrow, we'll be remembering Andrew Carnegie and his influence in Ironwood ahead of the 100th anniversary of his death. (Listen to Part Two about the significance of Andrew Carnegie in the Ironwood area here.)

The question we're answering today was submitted during our Curious North road trip stop in June: Why are there so many neighborhoods with their own names located in Ironwood and the surrounding areas?

WXPR’s contributor Jim Skibo continues our We Live Up Here series with the answer.

I grew up in the U.P., and like the listener, I have noticed that many towns have named neighborhoods, sometimes called “locations.” There are many reasons that a neighborhood could get a name, but if the town’s origin was mining it is likely that the neighborhood took the name of the nearby mine.

The history of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and its cultural landscapes are dominated by mining. Native Americans were the first to mine copper from the Keweenaw Peninsula, which they fashioned into tools that they used or traded throughout eastern North America. This practice dates back to at least 5,000 B.C.  In 1841, soon after Michigan became a state, an extensive 100-mile long copper deposit was mapped that extended through Douglas, Houghton, and Keweenaw Counties. This led to a great copper boom and most of the communities in this region were the result of the extraction, processing, or transportation of copper. By 1869, the Copper Country produced 95% of the nation’s copper. Much of the copper rush was over by the early 20th century though the White Pine mine continued until 1995.

Just as the copper boom started to fizzle out, three iron ranges were discovered. These are the Marquette and Menominee ranges in the central U.P., and the Gogebic in the western U.P. and northern Wisconsin.

The city of Ironwood was one of the most prominent mining communities in the Gogebic region and by the 1920s the community had over 15,000 people. In 1891, Ironwood had six operating mines including the Norrie and the Aurora, which are also neighborhoods in today’s Ironwood. Perhaps these neighborhoods inspired the listener’s question. In many cases, these mines were operating before towns like Ironwood were established. Small communities would spring up around each mine. When towns like Ironwood were incorporated, they extended the boundaries to include these small mining towns. In many cases, as the listener notes, these names have continued to the present even though the mine closed long ago.  

Although the environment has slowly reclaimed the evidence of mining, keen observers can often see the remnants. Towns often have open pits, now filled with water, and tailings piles, which is what was left over after the ore was extracted. Some towns in the U.P. even have standing structures associated with mines.

The community architecture can also show traces of the mining companies. To attract workers, companies often built homes, which you can identify by their uniform shape even after 100 years of remodeling. The mines often built schools, hospitals, stores, and movie theaters, so many mining communities will have lasting evidence of their former mining days.

We should be proud of our mining heritage, but it is important that we not overly romanticize the period. These mines have a complex social history. It is true that they provided employment for immigrants who fled worn-torn and economically depressed Europe, but the mines, especially in the early days, had little concern for worker safety. Serious injury occurred daily and death was commonplace. In 1909, the Norrie Mine was considered “the greatest iron mine in the world,” in terms of ore production. Yet, on May 13th, 1912, seven men were killed in a cave-in at this very mine right in Ironwood. Appreciating our mining history does not mean we cannot also understand this period in its fuller context.

The above photo can be found online here: https://www.loc.gov/item/2016797757/

James M. Skibo is Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at Illinois State University. He is the author of five books, including two written for the general audience, Ants for Breakfast, and Bear Cave Hill. In 2021 James moved to the Madison area and is now the State Archeologist.
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