Ironwood & the Gogebic Range
|Photography by James Marvin Phelps|
|Great Conglomerate Falls|
SKIING AND WATERFALLS lead the attractions of the U.P.'s rugged, far western county on Lake Superior's south shore. People refer to the region as the "Gogebic Range" (pronounced "go-GIB-ick" or, sometimes, "go-GEEB-ick"). That's Ojibwa for "where trout rising to the surface make rings in the water."
The ancient, iron-rich fault line leading from Ironwood to Wakefield, once marked by shafthouses and smoke, is now a scenic drive. The rural landscape is again beguilingly serene. Rivers rushing down to Lake Superior create many waterfalls. The expansive sky adds to the region's allure. Often there are wonderful cloud and light effects enhanced by nearby Lake Superior.
The string of old mining towns form what's basically a long linear population center. Two important towns, Ironwood, Michigan, and the county seat of Hurley, Wisconsin, meet at the Montreal River, the state line. East and north of the mining range, most of Gogebic County's land is now part of the million-acre Ottawa National Forest. It extends to Lake Gogebic and all along U.S. 2 to Iron River. The Gogebic County Forest protects another 50,000 acres. This vast epanse of public land was abandoned in the 1920s and 1930s by logging companies for nonpayment of taxes. Today these giant forests contain good fishing rivers and lakes, miles and miles of hiking and snowmobile trails, and an extensive network of mountain bike trails in Michigan and neighboring Wisconsin on old logging roads.
In the 1960s, as the closing iron mines brought widespread economic devastation, the area worked to develop tourism and skiing. To promote the area, rustic Gogebic County road signs were carved, depicting stereotypical Indian chiefs in headdress. One tourist magnet was the creation of the "World's Tallest Indian." It surveys downtown Ironwood from the Norrie location, a miners' community built around Andrew Carnegie's fabulously productive Norrie Mine.
The world's highest man-made ski jump, Copper Peak Ski Flying Hill, is a local landmark and point of pride, visible for miles around. Gogebic County's three ski resorts, Indianhead, Blackjack and Big Powderhorn are heavily promoted as Big Snow Country. Counting Whitecap (near Upson, Wisconsin) and the area around the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park to the north, the area has some 10,000 rooms and condos.
Downhill skiing here goes back to the late 1950s, when Jack English, an amateur pilot from Chicago, flew over north-facing Indianhead Mountain. He realized the abundant snow there would make an excellent ski hill, and proceeded to develop Indianhead Mountain Resort. Skiing has become so important to the area that Gogebic Community College has a college program in ski management, one of the few in the country.
Dramatic waterfalls are the area's other major visitor draw. Gogebic County has 16 easily visited falls. Across the Montreal River in neighboring Iron County, Wisconsin, are twelve more waterfalls. With so many waterfalls to choose from, visitors aren't as concentrated as in the Upper Peninsula's Munising/Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore area, also known for waterfalls. Visit most waterfalls before 11 a.m. or after 5 p.m. for best light effects and fewer fellow visitors. Of course, heaviest flows of water are in spring (April is best of all) and June (despite its bugs), not late summer.
Here falls tumble quickly down to Lake Superior from the ancient, eroded mountains of the Gogebic Range. Millions of years go their peaks were as high as the Rockies. The river water tends to be stained golden or brown by hemlock roots. The best-known waterfalls are on the Superior Falls, bordered by hundred-foot cliffs on the Montreal River forming the Michigan-Wisconsin border northwest of Ironwood. Farther east in the Ottawa National Forest, near Marenisco, are two beautiful waterfalls you'll likely have all to yourself: Yondota Falls and Kakabika Falls.
|Ironwood in 1886, just before it was incorporated as a village. The next year a fire burned down half the downtown, which was soon rebuilt. By 1900 it would have over 10,000 residents, almost twice today's population.|
The Gogebic's best-known towns are the twin county seats of Ironwood, Michigan, and its sister city across the Montreal River, the once-rowdy Hurley, Wisconsin. Ironwood and vicinity is an interesting place to vacation because it's not just a tourist area. As in much of the Upper Peninsula, the mix of people and cultures adds to a visitor's experience. The population is composed largely of Finns and Italians who came to work in the iron mines, along with Croatians, Poles, and other Slavic speakers from coal-mining regions of Eastern Europe. Many Slavs had first come to mine what little coal was here.
Gogebic County mining towns like Ironwood, Bessemer, and Wakefield began as company towns where ethnic groups with no common culture were thrown together. Yet they have become enduring communities that keep drawing their departed residents and their progeny back. The natural beauty of the countryside and cheap real estate help, no doubt.
|The far western Upper Peninsula has some of the Midwest's most dramatic scenery — some famous, like the waterfalls on the Black River and Presque Isle River, and some completely surprising, like this knob just north of Bessemer.|
In these plain Gogebic towns, wealth from the iron didn't stay around and help build many cultural institutions as happened in Marquette. Mining families experienced booms and busts. Legions of their children were forced to move away to find jobs. The region's population has steadily decreased over the decades. Gogebic County dropped almost a thousand since 2000 to 16,427 in the 2010 census. Those who measure the appeal of communities by growth may find the Gogebic region rather depressing. But the up side of such stagnation is central to the U.P.'s allure: free from developmental booms, the land is returning to its natural beauty, and the towns have a faded dignity, for they haven't become slums.
Compared to the rest of America, the Gogebic Range is a remarkably rooted place. Stories are passed down, and old friends gather. To be in Wakefield or Bessemer or Ironwood at homecoming or July 4 is to witness a sense of community that few suburbs match.
For forty years mining in Gogebic County has been absent. But in the last few years, increased metal prices has led to active mineral exploration in the western and central Upper Peninsula. Mining companies are seaching for deposits of nickel, copper, gold, silver, and zinc. A small copper mine is scheduled to open in 2013. But the days when the Gogebic Range supplied the nation's foundries and steel mills is long gone and almost certainly won't return.
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