Click to zoom photo

Highlights I wanted to share, 

    the next stories, those I want to tell

Chris Claremont, a Brit by birth, is an American comic book writer and novelist, who worked for Marvel Comics. He once wrote, “The more stories I told, the more I found I wanted to tell. There was always something left unsaid. I got hooked by my own impulse of 'Well, what's gonna happen next?’”

That’s the way I feel about highlighting stuff about Wisconsin for you that cannot be left unsaid.

Claremont expresses my feeling perfectly: “What excites me, what attracts me, what gets me up in the morning is telling the next story and getting it out in front of readers and hoping they'll love it too.”

 There is no end to the stories I could tell. I hope you enjoy these.

Ashland Ore Docks - and then there was none

The Gogebic Iron Range Mines, from Montreal, Wisconsin to Wakefield, Michigan, 1912. Created for Bessemer Area Historical Society, copyrighted by Mattsonworks.

Map of the Milwaukee, Lake Shore & Western Railway, 1887, extracted from an advertisement in the Industrial West Magazine of that year. Presented by Fox City Online.

Three Ashland Ore Docks, courtesy of Jeff Cate, Towns and Nature

Ore dock of the Milwaukee, Lake Shore and Western Railway. Presented by the Wisconsin Historical Society.

I visited Ashland. Wisconsin in 2007 and saw the last Ashland Ore Dock, and photographed it in all its splendor. This is a photo I took back then. She was a beauty.

I learned that there was an effort afoot to destroy this ore dock because it presented a safety danger to the public. A group formed to advocate converting the dock into a historical site instead. It was the last remaining ore dock in Ashland. That group did not prevail. The dock was destroyed in 2012-2013.

I want to acquaint you with the history here, show you the dock as I saw it in 2007, and then show you when it was being destroyed.

Let’s start with some history.

The Iron Ore trade became the dominant trade of the Great Lakes in 1888. Soon after it started, the United States became the world's top source of iron and steel. The Lake Superior region was at the center of this trade, with its plentiful ores and low-cost transportation. The development of the iron ore trade was not easy. To bring that point home, I commend to you a piece drawn from the 1910 Annual Report of the Lake Carriers' Association entitled, "History of the Iron Ore Trade".

There were six principal iron ranges in the US, and three of them are primarily in Michigan. The main sources of iron ore in Michigan included the Marquette Iron Range of Marquette and Baraga counties, the Menominee Iron Range of Dickinson and Iron counties, and the Gogebic Iron Range of Gogebic county. This latter range extended into Wisconsin all the way to the Ashland area. This is where I want to focus.

Iron ore was discovered in the Upper Michigan Peninsula's Marquette Range in 1844. Michigan's Upper Peninsula, known as the "UP," dominated the iron ore mining industry in this area for many, many years. Much of the ore was shipped out from the Marquette and Menominee ranges to Lake Michigan and Lake Huron and then to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Gary, Indiana, and Lake Erie ports at Cleveland, Ohio and Erie, Pennsylvania.

Note that the Gogebic Range, occupied the western section of Michigan's UP and the northeastern section of Wisconsin.

Let's look at three views of the area I want to study.

This aerial image provides a nice overview. Transporting the ore was arguably more challenging than mining it; if the mining companies could not get the ore to places where iron and steel could be manufactured, then they were in trouble. You can see that there would be enormous appeal to getting the ore to the Great Lakes and ship it to customers on the Great Lakes by large ships designed to carry large loads. That was one challenge.

A second challenge was to get the ore from the mines to the ports on the Great Lakes. The Marquette Range used the port of Marquette (pink dot), and Menominee Ranges used the port of Escanaba, Michigan (green dot). Transportation to the port from the Gogebic Range was a special problem. 

At the outset, there were almost no roads or passable trails. The landscape was tough. So was the weather. In the early days, they had to move their ore to Ontonagon, Michigan (yellow dot), then by boat to Ashland, Wisconsin (red dot), a very inefficient means given the boats they were using. 

Miners had to put the ore on sleighs in the winter and drag them to Ontonagon. They could carry only about 3,000 lbs. of ore, and a team could only make the trip once per day. 

This is an old photo of the Schooner Lucerne, obtained from Wisconsin Shipwrecks. She was a 195 ft. long three-masted clipper-bowed schooner built to haul bulk grain, coal, and iron ore on the Great Lakes. She routinely carried grain to Buffalo, and brought back coal, unloading at Washburn, Wisconsin. She would then go to Ashland, get a load of iron ore, and then sail to Cleveland. 

She sank with a load of iron ore in a winter storm in Lake Superior in 1886. 

Ships of the day, mostly steamers and schooners, could not carry much. They were not built for bulk freight. Loading and unloading the ships was as cumbersome as could be. Machines had not been designed for this kind of work.

So, there were multiple transportation challenges to be faced if the iron ore industry here were to grow, prosper, and be competitive.

To make describing all this manageable, and to give it a Wisconsin flavor, let’s look at the Gogebic Iron Range, the introduction of railroads in the area, and the loading process for bulk freighters from ore docks built in Ashland, on the western edge of the Gogebic range.

This graphic map shows the line of iron ore mines that existed in 1912 in the Gogebic Range, extending from Montreal, Wisconsin (not Quebec) in the west to Wakefield, Michigan in the east. 

Iron ore was first recorded officially for this range in 1848. By 1886, iron manufacturers had taken a deep interest in it, seeing it as one of the best in the country. It was rich in Bessemer ore. This is an ore that contains very little phosphorous and was very suitable for the Bessemer process of steelmaking, at the time, a historically important production process. 

Furthermore, the range was cheap to mine, in part because the ore was close to the surface, not buried under or mixed with very much rock. I  have seen reports that men could shovel it like gravel. As a result, mining was not the problem. Transportation to steel and iron manufacturing centers along the Great Lakes was.

From the outset, Ashland, denoted by the left red arrow, was the port of choice for the Gogebic mines, denoted by the right red arrow. Much of the Gogebic ore came from the area I have bounded with red arrows. 

The first challenge was to move the ore from the mines to Ashland. Rail was the mode of choice. At least 11 rail lines fought for this iron ore and logging-rich region.

There was tremendous competition among the rail lines and a lot of demand. The miners and loggers both needed the rail service. Shipping iron ore to Ashland was a relatively new requirement; logging in Wisconsin's northern regions was starting to grow as loggers left Michigan's depleting forests to Wisconsin's largely virgin forests.

The Wisconsin Central completed tracks to Ashland by 1877, connecting her with Milwaukee, Chicago, and points beyond. However, the railway ended up in economic upheaval. It went over to the Soo Line in 1908.

The Milwaukee, Lake Shore and Western Railroad (MLS&W), known as the Lake Shore, had its base on the route from Chicago-Milwaukee along the Lake Michigan coastline. Wisconsin had just become a state in 1848, and opportunities were everywhere, so the MLS&W worked hard to attract hunters, fishermen, tourists, speculators, settlers, capitalists, and entrepreneurs, and then turned its attention to logging and mining.

Ashland, located on the Chequamegon Bay, was identified early on as the port of choice for the Ashland. The rail line tied it to  the main Gogebic Range cities of Montreal, Hurley, Ironwood, and Bessemer. Ashland's development was far ahead of Duluth and Superior to the west for years to come. 

The Lake Shore line took a leadership role in developing the Ashland port. Ore dock of the Milwaukee, Lake Shore and Western Railway. Presented by the Wisconsin Historical Society.

This photo shows you what an old-time ore dock built by the Lake Shore looked like. I do not know where it was located.

This photo to the left shows you the remnants of the central ore dock in Ashland when I visited in 2007. I’m going to take a much closer look at this old central dock in a moment. It was quite a structure.

The photo to the right  is an aerial view of that central ore dock in Ashland, taken in 1992. The lower yellow arrow points to it. The upper arrow points to the wood pile basin for a second ore dock that was once located there.

Ashland once had three ore docks.

The first ore dock in Ashland was built by the MLS&W in 1884-1885. Specifications were 1405 ft. long, 46 ft. wide, 40 ft. high, trestle approach 950 ft., 234 pockets, 117 on each side, 4 tracks on the dock, and a capacity of 25,000 tons of ore. It took 7,000 wood piles to form the dock basin. Another dock was built in 1888, but succumbed to fire in 1924 and was dismantled in 1948.

Iron ore was stockpiled all the way along the line from Michigan to Ashland as this first iron ore dock was being built. Once completed, ore could be moved by train from the Gogebic Range to Ashland. The ore-laden train cars could be driven onto the ore dock. Then the ore would be sent down chutes into the holds of waiting ships. The ships could head off to their markets at any or all of the Great Lake's many steel production centers.

The  Ashland dock I saw on my visit was built in 1916. It had 150 pockets, and the expansion grew to 314 pockets. I’ll talk more about "pockets" in a moment.

Another dock was built in 1916-1917. With the dismantling of dock number two, Ashland was down to three working docks. A fourth was planned but never happened. The last shipment of ore from Ashland was in 1965.

I am not sure why shipping ore from Ashland ended in 1965. I do know that in 1893, over 7,000 ships departed Ashland port. At that time, Ashland was the second busiest port on the Great Lakes behind Chicago. 

I have read technical reports saying there was so much dumping in the Chequamegon Bay that the shoreline actually changed. I have also learned that mining in Minnesota grew to the point where Minnesota mining accounted for 82 percent of all production in the US in 1951. As a result, Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin grew in importance as ports. That said, mining in Minnesota started to hit the skids in the 1980s. I suspect foreign competition also entered the picture.

These are the wood pilings that formed the basin for an ore dock. It took some 7,000 piles to form a dock basin for Dock Nr. 1 built in 1884-85. That comes to 576,000 cu. ft. or 4,500 cords of wood along with 10 million pounds of rock for filler. 

The wood was harvested around Chequamegon Bay and sawn at the old Union Mill in Ashland.

This is a photo of the only dock left standing, known as the central dock. You can see the piling dock basin upon which the entire ore dock rested and which had to withstand the weight of numerous train cars laden with iron ore.

This is a terrific photo of imen unloading iron ore from the rail car into the ore dock. ron ore train cars at Conneaut, Ohio, taken in about 1920, photographer Hugh Mckenzie, presented by the University of Wisocnsin-Madison

In this case, the trains loaded with ore were brought in and driven to the top of the ore dock. Then men, working high atop the ore dock, climbed aboard the cars carrying the ore and facilitated it so that the ore slid down the chute into the hold of a waiting ship freighter sitting aside the ore dock below.

This is a view of that portion of the central ore dock that stood in Ashland in 2007 when I visited. 

It is a magnificent wooden rail trestle with tracks on top and a side rail of sorts. The side on the left of the photo is headed toward the water. 

In the old days, the ore dock stretched inland until it came to ground level and met the railway line coming in. That part of the assembly had been taken down.

The architectural design and construction of the wooden trestle is fascinating.

I took this shot shown on the left from the other side of the dock. It shows where the wooden portion of the trestle, on land, meets with a concrete structure, heading out into the water. Remember that the concrete structure is resting on the wood piling dock basin. Let's get a closer look at the side of the concrete structure.

The boat berthed here is the Kiyi, belonging to the US Geologic Survey. Disregard her for the moment, though she would be fun to study later. Concentrate on the black, trough-like structures. Let's get a closer look.

These are trough-like, chute-like types of equipment. They are referred to as the “spouts.” While I could not see the design on the top, there are pockets through the concrete. The rail cars would dump their ore into these pockets. The ore then would travel through the concrete pocket to these black chutes, or "spouts." The spouts would be extended to the holds of a bulk freighter ore ship berthed next to the dock. The ore would then flow down the chutes into the holds of these ships.

Here you see a photo of the chutes extended into the ship's hold. I took this from an old postcard ebay showing the loading of iron ore into a freighter ship on Lake Superior.  

All of this is absorbing

I’ll now show you a group of photos I took on December 4,  2012 as the demolition of Ashland’s last ore dock was in train. I’ll show them in the order I took them. I dashed around in a hurry to get as much as I could. This is a sliding gallery.

This website makes use of cookies. Please see our privacy policy for details.