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Iron CountyIron County

Iron County is the only county in Michigan not named after a person, a geographical anomaly, or an Indian word. Iron County is named after the ore that was the reason for its settlement and its primary industry.

A man named William Burt noted “an outcrop of iron ore five feet high” while surveying the area in 1846. This became part of what was known as the western deposits of the Menominee Iron Range, near present-day town of Stambaugh.

The Chicago & Northwestern Railway built a rail line from its Escanabe iron ore docks to Vulcan, Quinnesec, and Iron Mountain, all in that area. The railway was built in the early 1870s and by 1875, prospectors and developers were moving into the wilderness along the Menominee Iron Range.

Due to the large migration of miners along the western Menominee Range, there were calls to separate a new county out of the western townships of what was then Marquette County. The Marquette County Board of Supervisors denied the first request in 1885 but, in the same year, Iron County’s founders persuaded the state legislature to do this anyhow.

Iron mine in Iron River, Michigan.

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Iron River was named the temporary county seat, which did not sit well with people in the eastern part of the county, particularly those in Crystal Falls, who waited for another county seat to be selected.

Then, in early 1887, afraid that delays would only add to the strengths of Iron River, residents of the eastern part of the county “stole” the county government.

According to legend, a poker game was arranged after a county commissioners meeting. With the game still hot, Commissioners Frank Scadden and Burt Hughitt, both of Crystal Falls, left the game, pretending that they were going to go to bed.

Instead, they went to the building that served as the county courthouse, loaded the county records onto a sled and moved them to a safe hiding place (some say a hollow tree, others a mine shaft). Enraged, Iron River residents threatened to have the records returned by force, but were dissuaded.

Both communities turned their attention to the referendum to officially decide the issue. Reports are that there were voting irregularities, such as the registering of dead men, importing lumberjacks from other counties as voters, and the destruction of ballots.

In the end, Crystal Falls won by five votes. A permanent county seat had been selected.

The mining industry grew rapidly in Iron County. By 1893, 1.2 million tons of ore had been shipped from mines in the Iron River District alone.

Then a nationwide depression hit the mining industry. Only three of the county’s twenty-six mines were operating by 1894.

The county turned to lumbering, its second industry, to keep its government afloat. The mining industry never recovered.

 

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