The Northwoods economy was focused on the logging industry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, mining was just as important to the economic growth of the region, and in the Northwoods of Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula mining for copper and iron brought economic prosperity to many communities. It also brought hardship and tragedy.
Logging has always been among the most dangerous jobs in America, but hard rock mining is not far behind it. To illustrate the danger, it is instructive to look at 32 days in one single mine in Michigan’s Gogebic range.
The Newport Iron Mine outside of Ironwood, Michigan, is part of the Michigan Gogebic Iron Mining District and today is part of the Ottawa National Forest. Mining operations began on the site in 1886 and the shaft was in nearly continuous operation until the early 1950s. The year 1898 was not exceptional for the Newport Mine, but the accidents that took place there in January and February of that year serve to illustrate both the dangers of mining and who was doing the mining.
On the morning January 13, 1898, Lauren Cler and Joseph Sinione, two immigrant miners from Italy, needed to go up several levels in the mine. Rather than wait for the lift, they decided to jump on a skip. A skip was a large bucket that carried ore and other materials up and down the main shaft. On that morning, the skip was filled with several large drills. It was against mine safety rules to ride a skip, but safety rules in those days were unenforced. The men balanced on the lip and held the rope. As the skip went up the shaft, one of the drills snagged in a roller which guided the rope pulling the skip. The skip was jarred, and Cler and Sinione lost their footing. They fell to the bottom of the shaft and were crushed on the rocks. In those days, the shaft was 600 feet deep.
On Saturday, February 12, three immigrant miners, Peter Biazza, Samuel Naimo, and Mike Zadia, were sent to the powder chests on the mine’s ninth level. They were under instructions to prepare two charges for a blast. They had just reached the end of the drift when the 150 pounds of powder in the two chests exploded in their face. Biazza and Naimo were closest and were both obliterated in the blast. Zadia was also killed but was further away, which meant that his body could be recovered for burial. Mine management asserted that the men blew themselves up when they adjusted a blasting cap.
On Monday afternoon, February 14, Anton Verbos, a miner from Austria, was cleaning up and collecting equipment on the mine’s fourth level. Spotting something inside a tight opening, he crawled in between two large timbers to retrieve the items. The timbers were not set well, and while between them the top one gave way and collapsed on top of Verbos, crushing his chest. Verbos was still conscious when other workers found him, but he died in the rubble before they could extract him.
Such accidents should never be categorized as commonplace occurrences, but they continued to happen on a regular basis. In retrospect we can see that immigrants were performing much of the hard labor in the mines, and that management was not prioritizing their safety.