As integral and well-known as agriculture, logging and brewing were to the development of Wisconsin’s economy, culture and history, so too was mining. Mining was a driving factor and major component of the state’s economy during the late 19th and 20th centuries.
However, the roots of Wisconsin mining began as far back as 1,200 B.C., when Native Americans mined copper along the southern shores of Lake Superior for tools, jewelry and hunting utensils. In the 1680s Native American bands continued their mining heritage and traded Wisconsin-mined lead with French fur traders. A national increase in the demand for lead prompted an expansion of Wisconsin mining in the 1820s and 1830s, when miners from elsewhere in the country and from as far away as Cornwall, England flocked to Wisconsin to mine lead in the hills of what is now Grant, Crawford, Iowa and Lafayette counties in Southwestern Wisconsin. In fact, Wisconsin’s nickname — Badgers — is derived from the name of the simple hillside dwellings miners frequently constructed.
Lead mining continued in Southwestern Wisconsin during much of the first half of the nineteenth century. In fact at one time, Wisconsin lead mines yielded more than half of the national output of lead. To a lesser extent, zinc mining was also prevalent throughout the area. For a short time in the late nineteenth century, the largest zinc smelting facility in the world was located in Mineral Point, Wisconsin.
From these early beginnings of our state’s history, mining has continued to evolve and adapt with the people and technologies of the time. No more prevalent is the mining culture and history than it is in northern Wisconsin, especially surrounding one of the best and most defined iron deposits in North America, the Gogebic Range.
The Gogebic iron range extends from the west shore of Lake Gogebic in the upper peninsula of Michigan for approximately 80 miles westward into northern Wisconsin. It is one of six major iron ranges in the Lake Superior region, and it produced about 325 million tons of ore between 1887 and 1967. A significant resource of high-grade iron ore remains in the western and eastern parts of the range.
Mining of the Gogebic Range in Wisconsin began in 1885, and within six months of the development of the mining industry, the city of Hurley went from a population of 80 to more than 2,500 people. At the time, it was predicted that the mining industry alone would support and foster farming, retail, manufacturing, the lumber and logging industry and tourism throughout Northern Wisconsin.
This prediction came true as major companies, for their time, cropped up in all aspects of the state’s northern economy, fueled by the boon of mining, including lumber yards; furniture, paint, and product manufacturing; livestock dealers and meat packing plants; builders; mining equipment manufacturers; banks; hotels; and retail establishments among numerous others.
As iron mining surrounding the Gogebic range decreased in the mid-19th century due to foreign market competition, steel manufacturing and other influences, activities surrounding the mining of gold, copper and other metallics continued to hold prominence in Northern Wisconsin’s economy through the late 1960s into the late 1990s.
Out of many successfully operated and reclaimed metallic mines in Wisconsin’s history, one of the most notable and recent is the Flambeau Mine near Ladysmith in Rusk County. The Flambeau Mine is the only metallic mineral mine that was permitted, constructed, operated and reclaimed under Wisconsin’s current regulatory framework, which was adopted in the 1970s. The open-pit, copper-gold mine began operating in 1991 and reclamation activities were completed by the end of 1999. Over the course of its history, the mine operation produced about 1.9 million tons of ore; while today, the reclaimed site contains more than 170 seeded and installed species of plants, a trail system, and a diverse habitat, including wetlands and native grasslands.
Today, national and world demand for both metals has grown, stimulating exploration of potential future mining projects in Wisconsin. Exploratory drilling is underway in Marathon County to analyze an estimated nearly one-half million ton deposit of gold ore. Studies of potential deposits including gold, copper, silver and zinc are underway in Taylor and Oneida Counties. A potential metallic mine in Menominee County, Michigan will include joint project management between Wisconsin and Michigan because the nearby Menominee River is a shared resource between both states.
As the US attempts to lessen its dependence on foreign oil, new petroleum sources are being explored and new technologies developed. Oil shale, found in large quantities in the Northern Hemisphere, is a potentially abundant source of petroleum. Large quantities of quartz sand are needed for the extraction process called hydraulic fracturing or fracking. This fracking sand is plentiful in Chippewa County and elsewhere in the state, and is currently being mined for use by US oil producers.
But perhaps the greatest opportunity for future economic development from Wisconsin mining is to be found right back in the Gogebic Range of Northern Wisconsin. Our state is poised to see the same economic benefits and revitalization of northern Wisconsin jobs and industry as it was in 1885, thanks to new and more advanced mining technologies coupled with a significant taconite deposit in Iron and Ashland Counties. According to a recent study prepared by NorthStar economics — a nationally recognized economic consulting and research firm, specializing in analysis of the Wisconsin economy — one iron ore mine alone, proposed in the Gogebic range, would create thousands of jobs and generate billions in economic benefits and tax revenues.
Wisconsin is ready to revisit its history and deep roots in its mining culture, and the Wisconsin Mining Association stands ready to assist residents across the state to achieve the real economic benefits and job creation a revitalized mining industry would foster.