Hunts' Guide to The Upper Peninsula

 
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NEGAUNEE

Region: Marquette Range

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This old iron mining city of 4,500 residents has a seal that prominently displays a tree stump. In a momentous discovery in 1844, Ojibwa guides led surveyors to a tree stump with bits of iron clinging to its roots. The spot became the Jackson Mine in 1847, the first mine of over 200 in the Marquette Range. Today the discovery, but not the actual place, is marked by a stone obelisk at Miners' Park, on U.S. 41 at Mass Street at the east entrance to Negaunee. The Jackson Mine itself was due south of downtown Negaunee and about half a mile south of Business Route 28.
Negaunee city hall
Negaunee's unusual city hall from 1914-1915. Few Michigan towns of this size could afford a building of this quality. One thing paid for it: iron.

The amount of iron in the Marquette Range turned out to be huge, enough to make up half the supply for the nation's burgeoning iron foundries and steel industry between 1850 and 1900. Today Negaunee continues to live off iron. More of its residents work at the nearby Empire and Tilden mines than anywhere else.

A blast furnace to make iron ingots was built in Negaunee in 1858. Eventually 25 were built in the Upper Peninsula. But the lion's share of raw ore was shipped to furnaces in the lower Great Lakes. Even with the new locks at Sault Ste. Marie, shipping the ore was no small feat. The path from Negaunee to Marquette's harbor 12 miles away was over high, densely forested hills. It took six years to build a railway. And the shallow Marquette harbor required a long dock, not finished until 1859, to reach water deep enough for larger vessels. When all this was completed, the iron boom took off like a shot. In 1860 over 100,000 tons a year of iron ore were being shipped from the Marquette Range.

Like Keweenaw copper, Marquette Range iron eventually became increasingly expensive to extract. All but two of the once numerous mines eventually closed. These two big surface iron mines are near Palmer, about five miles south of Negaunee.

At one time Negaunee had over half a dozen mines operating within its city limits alone. Whole neighborhoods caved in because of poorly supported tunnels. Areas in town have had to be vacated and cordoned off because of the danger of collapsing tunnels under developed streets. The unbuildable caving grounds limited development on either side of the central core. A good deal of contemporary Negaunee consists of post World War II homes built north of U.S. 41 at a time when miners enjoyed high union wages. The home of Dominic Jacobetti, Neguanee's colorful state representative and one of Michigan's most powerful politicians in the 1970s and 1980s, was on the north side overlooking Teal Lake. "The patron saint of the U.P." lavished public works projects on the Upper Peninsula during his 20-year tenure as chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

The dramatic decline in iron mining over the decades has had a visible effect on Negaunee. Its population, over 8,000 early in this century, is now under 5,000. As the mines closed one by one, little in the way of industry has replaced them. Most Negaunee workers commute to workplaces elsewhere, chiefly the county hospital, Northern Michigan University, and, of course, the two remaining out-of-town iron mines.

Negaunee and Ishpeming are at once plain and stately, the results of booms and busts endured through a large measure of simple living. Mine managers and miners had to live close to the mines, so mining towns have many housing types. For people who like distinctive places, it's fun to explore Negaunee and nearby Ishpeming. Ornate Queen Anne mansions can always be found, and red sandstone downtown buildings and churches with character. Shops and bars can have a lot of character, too. For a scenic drive through the old towns and environs, follow Business Route 28 along Suicide Hill Road and enter southeast Ishpeming at Jasper Knob.

It's also interesting to see the outlying "locations" - a term much used in mining regions, referring to the unincorporated neighborhoods of miners' houses around mine shafts. Locations are typically in hilly, tucked-away areas that have become green and bucolic with the cessation of mining operations. They can be amazingly picturesque. "Locations have tremendous social cohesion," comments one newcomer who loves the area's character. "They're the equivalent of hollows in West Virginia. People are born and die in the same location. It's sorta neat, and wild, and sorta scary all at the same time." A good local map indicates locations and often their names as well. Ishpeming has "Frenchtown," "Lake Angeline," Salisbury," "Cleveland Location," and heading southwest about 10 miles out of town on County Road 581, "National Mine," the epitome of an isolated mining location. Getting to the Lucy Hill Luge in Negaunee is another good backroads adventure. The most helpful backroads maps are the ones in the front of most Upper Peninsula phone books, or AAA's "West and Central Upper Peninsula Communities" map, or a good county road map. The DeLorme Michigan Atlas & Gazetteer indicates the roads but not the road names or numbers, or the location names either.

Unfortunately, from U.S. 41, motorists would never suspect that there was anything interesting to Negaunee or Ishpeming as they drive by. The railroad embankment created by Cleveland Cliffs Iron functions as a wall, making the downtowns and historic residential areas invisible from the highway. Only two roads lead south beneath the tracks to reach downtown Negaunee. The most obvious is Business Route M-28. It goes under the viaduct at the east end of Teal Lake by the Holiday station.

Today things are looking up a bit in downtown Negaunee. Retail space is inexpensive, especially in comparison with nearby Marquette, where real estate prices are the highest in the Upper Peninsula. The city of Ishpeming has more adroitly taken advantage of historic revitalization programs like Main Street, but Negaunee has one slight advantage in being closer to Marquette. More people moving into the Marquette area are opting to buy in Negaunee and Ishpeming, where they get far more house for their dollar while remaining only 10 or 15 miles from Marquette.

Now Negaunee's caving grounds are thought to be only perhaps 10% undermined and developable in most places. The city of Negaunee has first option to buy caving grounds at the west end of Iron Street downtown. There's talk of having a miners' park with a campground for tourists west of downtown, and a possible upscale development east of town.

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