Corrigan's Lookout may soon look out
on a scar on the land
a town built on speculation in the taconite mining
business. Fortunes were made but the money left with
the mine owners. To this day, the head frames and
tailing piles still remain as remnants of the glory days
that brought wealth to some, despair and death to
others. Mines were dangerous places and the mine
culture encouraged drinking which nearby Hurley was
all too willing to accommodate along with other
“diversions” for which Hurley became notorious. The
Northwoods for a time also served as a staging area for
bootleg liquor flown in from Canada.
The entire Penokee Range is lined with iron ore
deposits but with the abundance of cheap steel from
abroad an entire industry eventually faded with
reverberations into shipping on the Great Lakes and to
the steel mills along its various shores which have left
toxic, derelict cities a shell of devastation. Just drive
past Calumet City, IL or Gary, IN along the interstate for
a view of an apocalyptic landscape.
Now with the rise in price of raw iron and more efficient
methods of extracting it (sort of) from the ground, there
I first came upon Corrigan’s Lookout (the land is or was owned by a family named Corrigan) back in the mid '80s. Iron and
Vilas Counties were my stomping grounds when I wanted to get away from the city. Many of my friends back then came
from the small town of Mercer, WI where tourism was the primary industry and graduation from High School usually
tempted the students to move to the bigger cities for job opportunities. As mentioned in the story, I became close friends
with many of the people up there from the numerous camping trips and visits by the Milwaukee transplants back home to
visit family. Much later I discovered a personal family connection to Ironwood, MI, just across the Wisconsin border from
notorious Hurley, WI. While I can’t completely prove the reasons yet, my maternal grandmother seems to have moved there
with her second husband and after his death, remarried at least once to a man with Iron mining connections. Ironwood was
|A debate is raging in Iron County over a proposed mine along
Highway 77 in Iron County, immediately west of my
sanctuary.--Map by headwaters.net
is renewed interest in the Penokee Range in Wisconsin. A debate is raging in Iron County over a proposed mine along
Highway 77 in Iron County, immediately west of my sanctuary. My view would no longer be tree tops but a vast, miles long
scar of an open pit mine. There is debate on both sides of the topic. Gogebic Taconite, LLC is the company proposing the
mine and has an option to lease 22,000 acres from LaPointe Iron in Minnesota and RGGS Land & Minerals of Texas.
Gogebic is a LLC subsidiary of Cline Coal which has operations in Appalachia and Illinois. The lease is contingent on
passing the permitting process from the state of Wisconsin. The current permit is tied up by stringent rules which would
need to be modified to make the project feasible. In the current political climate, this seems to be a priority proposal. The
proposal covers mineral and surface rights. Gogebic spokesperson Mathew Fifield (curiously the name of a town in Iron
County) mentions in passing that they have a “government affairs team” that wouldn’t try to change state mining laws but
is active in discussions to find middle ground. I think all they have to say are the magic words “family supporting jobs” and
tax revenue and our current administration will salivate in Pavlovian fashion.
Taconite and of particular interest at this site is high grade magnetite, long known to exist in the Ironwood formation, isn’t
the only potential mineral. There are kimberlite tubes and possible copper, nickel, gold and silver deposits. Kimberlite
tubes are the source of diamonds and at least one South African firm has surveyed the area judging it a source of
industrial grade diamonds. At least two diamonds were found in Wisconsin in glacial deposits in the late 1800s when
digging water wells. No one can be sure where they originated and one of the diamonds has disappeared from the
museum where it was housed. The diamonds are thought to originate in the geological formation known as the Canadian
Shield which extends into Wisconsin irregularly through the northern third of the state, including Iron and Vilas counties. It
is one of the oldest landforms on the planet.
Gogebic Taconite estimates the mine would generate about 600 family supporting jobs but the risk is the cost of
extraction (both in removal and remediation of the land) versus the price of the commodity remaining stable and high.
Mining jobs by nature are fickle. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is proof of this. The opposition to the mine is concerned
about the extraction methods. The land on which the mine would open is sensitive wetland and watershed. A number of
rivers and creeks, as well as spectacular waterfalls rushing to Lake Superior are drained from this land. The ore body
which is quite deep is overlain by hilly terrain. It extends from Ashland County into the UP. To access the ore would require
removing much of the overlaid rocky hills. An ore processing mill would need to be built to reduce the ore to a more
concentrated pellet form. Current estimates from the Iron County Website and Gogebic Taconite estimate 3 tons of ore
would yield one ton of viable taconite pellets. Gogebic LLC estimates that at full capacity, 7-8 million tons per year of
pellets will be produced. By their math at a 3 to 1 ratio, I am guessing we are talking about 24 million tons of ore extracted
to yield the 8 million tons of taconite. The site of the mill is as yet undetermined. Mellen is mentioned as a potential site.
These mills are water use intensive as part of the refining process. I’ve visited a mill in the UP where a friend worked and
it’s a surreal environment. Artificial mountains of mine tailings leach red run off and chemicals into the environment.
Monster trucks haul boulders the size of homes to be crushed into an ultimate fine powder. Dynamite is typically used to
blast the ore as the mine deepens along with giant shovels to scoop it into trucks that roll constantly from mine to mill. No
longer would the wind and crows be the only sound in my woods. To transport the ore to the ore docks on Lake Superior
rail spurs would need to be laid to connect to docks in either Duluth, MN or Marquette, MI.
Even more concerned are the Native Ojibwe of the Bad River Nation fearful of the impact on their ground water and the
effect on their fishing and wild rice beds. A byproduct of the mining process can be toxic chemicals released into the
ground waters. The indigenous people are some of the most vocal opponents to the mine. The mine can have an impact
on both water quality, drawing down the water table and change the directional flow of streams. Sedimentation of the
water is a concern to native fish and plants along with changes in water flow.
A drive along Highway 77 west out of Hurley takes you through what are almost ghost towns; Upson, Montreal, Pence and
Iron Belt now survive on the few tourists who come to ski and snowmobile in the winter or ride ATV’s in the summer.
There are few resorts in the area because of the rough terrain and few lakes suitable for resort type activity. A few years
back when a Super K Mart opened in Ironwood the employment line stretched around the parking lot. In the short term,
jobs would be created, just as they were 100 years ago when immigrants from Europe and the cities in the US (The UP is
home to a large number of descendents of Finnish, Polish and Slovak immigrants) and they leave when the jobs dry up
because of the harsh climate, leaving behind a damaged landscape and forests cut down to facilitate the mining. This
deforestation leads to further run off of the mine waste and surface soils.
In the words of Joni Mitchell’s song Big Yellow Taxi, “Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s
gone. They paved Paradise…. (Ladies of the Canyon July 1970, Warner Brothers)
Much of my information on this topic was gleaned from an article in Headwaters Magazine, Public Meeting on Proposed
Penokee Iron Mine by Casey Duncan 2/2011 and from the Iron County Web site on Iron Mining Proposals
Also the Bad River Watershed Association: http://badriverwatershed.org/
By Debby Tewes
Preface to the Gogebic Taconite Mine:
Last month, Asianwisconzine published a story I wrote for a Women’s Studies class I took a few
semesters back. The class was called Women’s Spiritual Journeys. Corrigan’s Lookout is a real
place and one that for me is almost a sacred place. I made reference to several of our class
readings. Another of the stories for the class spoke of the Camino del Santiago in Spain, a 500
mile trek in use by religious pilgrims for centuries. The Camino starts in the Pyrenees of France
at St. Jean Pied du Port and ends at Santiago de Compostela, the cathedral believed to hold the
earthly remains of St. John. I was delighted to find that the pilgrimage has been turned into a
thoughtful movie called “The Way” 2010 starring Martin Sheen and produced by his son Emilio.
Both are very devout Catholics and Martin Sheen has actually finished a considerable bit of the
pilgrimage. This movie is about setting out to find what you think you want but instead finding
what you need.
In one of the final paragraphs of my article, I make reference to the remote location of Corrigan’s Lookout and the
spectacular vista at the end of the hike. I was quite sure that because of the remote location and lack of usable recreational
land (i.e. no lakes, resorts or hotels) the only civilization for miles are the ghosts of glory days in the small, run down iron
mining towns. Little did I know when I wrote that that plans were on the drawing boards of corporations who had their eyes
on other resources: high grade iron ore and other minerals known to underlay the Penokee Range. The original mines
played out as the price of iron ore was undercut by cheap imported ore. The towns were abandoned, people moved away
and the old mines and tailing piles fell into ruin. The main attraction for now is the snowmobile trails in the winter and
summertime use by roving packs of ATV enthusiasts who keep the taverns busy. I never suspected that condos and resorts
would be the least of my worries. A far worse blight upon the landscape even now awaits a change in legislation in our State
government, one which will likely pass. The mine will create a job boom for the region, jobs that are badly needed but will
surely leave in a few years as they did in the past leaving a ravaged landscape and contaminants in the waters that will
remain for many more years.
My report on the Gogebic Taconite Mining plans follows.