Monday, May 13, 2013

The Hermit of Gogebic County

Eventually, the story of exactly who does what, where and when is written by folklorists, historians and other interested parties. It belongs to everybody, after all.

But at the time of an event, especially when discovery occurs deep in a trackless wild then leads to untold riches, who wins claim to credit determines who goes on to live how. It's mostly winners who first alter the authentic narrative that later becomes what we call "history".

Which means that oftentimes, nobody alive knows exactly what actually happened. So we fill in the blanks as needed and when satisfied, call the compilation true...

The southern Gogebic Range

For a critical few transformational years in America's history, the Gogebic Range of the Superior Basin served as the nation's greatest producer of iron ore.

Through frightful work, brave men scabbed wealth from beneath the shrouded hills and with their labor helped make possible the transition of America from an agrarian to an industrial society. With so much going on, the question of credit for what led directly to that became a casualty of ambition.

What's true is that by 1848, federal and state geologists had mapped the existence of iron ore across much of the ancient range. It was a hard, inhospitable place said to be infested by insects and where even Indians didn't go. The landscape rested in relative obscurity as attention turned to the nation's first great mineral rush, the Copper Boom of the neighboring Keweenaw Formation.

The year before, Richard 'Dick' Langford emigrated to the States from Ireland. Then in 1852 or thereabouts and for reasons unknown, he'd found his way to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  There he made of himself a hunter, trapper, prospector and general all around woodsy. Langford wandered the dark region of the Gogebic alone, deeper than most any white man had.

It's said that in 1868, Richard 'Dick' Langford sunk a test pit at a promising site on the Gogebic, but didn't dig deep enough to find ore. Near there and atop a hill in 1871 or '72, he discovered iron laden rocks wedged into the roots of a fallen tree. The story goes that at some point, Langford took an unemployed mining captain to the site.

What's true is that subsequently, D.T. Moore wasn't long unemployed.

Probably in 1873, analyzed samples of stone provided by Moore proved to hold iron ore. On the strength of this he raised capital, bought the site and by 1884 the legendary Colby Mine pumped iron all the way to furnaces in Erie PA, to make steel for to build modern American cities, which then gave rise to a radically new American narrative.

A year later, no fewer than seven mines were open on the Range. The rush was on.

Later, D.T. Moore recalled how he'd been timber looking when he picked up a reddish rock from between the roots of a fallen tree and the rest was history.

That story's retold on the vintage Wisconsin State Historical Marker posted at a tourist's view of the Gogebic Range:

The officially sanctioned prose reads in part:

Nathaniel D. Moore (sic) uncovered iron ore deposits in the Penokee Gap near Bessemer in 1872, but it was not until 1884 that the first shipment was made. The news spread rapidly, attracting speculators, investors, and settlers. By 1886 there were 54 mines on the range and the area boomed, having "inexhaustible deposits of uniformly high-grade Bessemer ores." For a brief period stocks rose 1200 percent. The crash in 1887 ended the extravagant prosperity.

Well, not quite. There remained decades of fortunes to be made, lost and made again, while the collective family of miners came and went. When they stayed, most died poor and too often prematurely because the fortune mostly flowed elsewhere.

This is what Richard Langford had to say about it, as quoted by Victor F. Lemmer in his "Ghost Mines of the Gogebic Range", published in 1966:

My labors have brought wealth to others and me to the poorhouse. I could have established my right to one-quarter interest in the Colby Mine, but I did not care to take such a step. I never had a lawsuit, been arrested, or served as a witness or juryman. In fact, I have never been put under oath.

Image courtesy of the Philp J. Kucera collection

What's true is that blind and broke, Richard 'Dick' Langford died in 1909 at the age of 83, in the infirmary of the Ontonagon County poor farm.

Today, traces of both Langford and Moore remain on the Range. A short piece on the hill from where the Colby was dug, there's this:

Upon which there's a plaque erected by the Daughters of the American Revolution (no less) and take that, Wisconsin State Historical roadside signage...

Then if you'd like a hint of the landscape that first drew Langford to the Gogebic, head east and wander back roads through the Ottawa National Forest to reach Langford Lake. It's at the shore of this lake that Langford's image was captured in front of his shack, or so I once was told.

As for D.T. and/or Nathaniel Moore, we'll have to return here:

This is the best spot for passersby to get a look at that part a the Gogebic Range left relatively unmolested through the mining years. You'll find it at a quick pullover off U.S. 2 in Iron Co WI, a few miles west of Hurley.

Here you'll see a soft line of ancient hills that rise from a landscape counted among the most pristine in Wisconsin. That distinction's earned the place its own name, so today we call it the Penokee Hills. Whatever the name, rains run off its flanks add to a watershed that feeds the entire region, then flows into the rice beds at the Kakagon and Bad River Sloughs, before nourishing Superior.

At the behest of their Florida partner the Cline Group (GTAC), downstate Wisconsin politicians intend to make these hills disappear, as the last remaining scabs of iron in the once fabled Gogebic remain buried deep within. It's poor quality ore, tough to get at and retrieval is an exceeding dirty business, sure. But hey, someone's gotta do it and these are hard stinkin' times. Or so the story goes.

Gazing from this wayside at some of the oldest mountains on the face of the earth -- what used to be like the Andes or the Rockies but are now worn with geologic time -- the State of Wisconsin's got your back because behind you on official signage it tells the story of one Nathaniel D and/or D.T. Moore, a once unemployed mining captain made definitely good.

But the way better bet is to keep looking at those hills, while considering the story of the Hermit of Gogebic County.

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