The Significance of Ironwood’s Carnegie Library 100 Years After Carnegie’s Death

Aug 9, 2019

We’re continuing our series on the historical influence of mining in the Upper Peninsula today, specifically in the Ironwood area, with the story of the Ironwood Carnegie Library. (Listen to Part One about how neighborhoods in the Upper Peninsula got their names here.)

There are Carnegie libraries all over the country, including in Merrill and Rhinelander. While Andrew Carnegie did a lot of good for libraries though, he was a controversial figure.

Larry Lapachin continues our We Live Up Here series with the story.

This Sunday, August 11, will mark the 100 year anniversary of the death of Andrew Carnegie. The Scottish-born American, who grew up poor, became one of the most successful businessmen by revolutionizing the steel industry in the United States.

When Carnegie sold his steel company to JP Morgan in 1901, he became one of the richest men in the world. Carnegie then gave away most of his fortune to fund philanthropic endeavors, such as education, international peace, and public libraries.

The public library in the City of Ironwood, Michigan became one of Carnegie’s earliest recipients. Andrew Carnegie had keen interest and historical ties to Ironwood area.

Andrew Carnegie, 1896
Credit Library of Congress

According to Ironwood Library Director, Lynne Wiercinski, “Carnegie was approached in the form of a letter from James Gayley, who was Vice President of Carnegie Steel Company at the time. He asked Carnegie for the funding to begin a small library here and he asked for it in our principle mining operation town in the Lake Superior region.”

The Lake Superior region contained high-grade iron ore, a main ingredient in manufactured iron and steel. To help ensure an abundant supply of this crucial raw material, Andrew Carnegie, in 1892, bought controlling interest of the Norrie and Pabst mines in Ironwood. He also invested in Great Lake freighters and railroads to secure the complete transportation of this iron ore to his steel factories around Pittsburgh.

Carnegie never had to purchase iron ore on the open market again, so he decided to repay the area that provided him with iron ore.

“So Carnegie very willingly sent $12,000 to begin the library,” said Wiercinski. “Later, he was asked for $5,000 more and there was no hesitation in him giving that $5,000. The library itself was built in 1901, and it was actually the first library in Michigan to receive a grant for a public library from Andrew Carnegie. We’re actually the oldest continually operating Carnegie in the state of Michigan, so we’re very proud of that.”

Once the library opened its doors in 1902, the Ironwood community was then entirely responsible for all future library costs, including staffing, buying books, and maintaining the building. In 2011, with the Library in desperate need of repairs, it became part of the National Register of Historic Places. The Library could now apply for grant money to help restore the library to its original architectural character and charm. 

“When you look around the building, much of the woodwork, almost all of it, is still the original woodwork,” Wiercinski explains. “The radiators and the grills that you see are all original from the building. The high ceilings upstairs, and the archway above our front desk is original. When you look at the outside architecture, the sandstone sills, the cornices, the corbals, the whole building is so beautiful... What you see in our library, much of it is what you would have seen when you walked in the day we opened.”

Despite Carnegie’s enormous charitable donations, however, some people remain critical for his harsh treatment toward the workingman. For example, Carnegie continually broke labor unions, forcing his employees to work longer hours for reduced or stagnant wages.

Wiercinski experienced this point of view firsthand when the Library hosted a program called “Andrew Carnegie Day,” in conjunction with the Smithsonian’s “The Way We Worked” exhibit.

“We celebrated being a Carnegie Library,” Wiercinski explains. “I had bought a large life-size cardboard cutout of Andrew Carnegie and had it in the front of the library, and a tourist came in or someone who was visiting the area one morning and when he saw it, he in no uncertain terms, told me what he thought of Andrew Carnegie and what Andrew Carnegie did to the workingman. And what a horrible man he actually was. I was a little taken aback but I just gently told him that we all recognize that but we also knew that he did give money to libraries. And did have the good of people in his heart when it came to that, so we prefer to just kind of remember him here as being the man who funded libraries.”

Reflecting on the nearly 100 years after his death, Lynne Wiercinski believes Andrew Carnegie would be pleased with the public library in Ironwood that still bears his name.

“I think he would be proud,” Wiercinski explains. “We’re still here. We’ve done everything that we can in this community to make sure this library still is operating and I think he would be very proud to see that we are still here and still doing exactly what he set out to do: to educate our community. We’re a place that believes in not only learning but also in being a place where people feel they can come and relax. We call ourselves the community’s living room, a place to provide entertainment, recreation, and just to feel safe and at home.”

This is one of two murals in Ironwood, Michigan, that pay tribute to miners. Each miner is identified with his name and the mine or mines he worked at. Some of the donor plaques at the bottom are in memory of men who died in mining accidents.
Credit flickr.com/photos/yooperann

There are two murals in downtown Ironwood that depict and honor local miners. Often working long hours in dangerous environments, many of these miners were first generation immigrants from Italy, Finland, and Eastern Europe. They left their country of origin looking and hoping for a better life and a promising future.

It’s these miners who extracted the iron ore that helped build Andrew Carnegie’s empire and fortune. It’s these miners, along with Andrew Carnegie, who helped build the Ironwood Carnegie Library, that for over a century has been a bedrock for the community.

This story was written by Larry Lapachin and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Music for this story came from Blue Dot Sessions: Gaddy by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue). Other sound for this story came from Michigan University's G. Robert Vincent Voice Library and Freesound/eliasheuninck and can be heard here and here. The above photos do not belong to WXPR and are avaible for us to use because they are in the Public Domain or because of Creative Commons. They can be found online here, here, here, and here.