The rapid growth and long decline of a mining community’s population
Written by Richard Steiger (2021)
The discovery of hematite iron ore in the western end of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan was the event that resulted in the opening of a new mining district in the Lake Superior region. It was to be called the Gogebic Iron Range.
After Richard Langford’s discovery of hematite in 1880 various events happened quickly. Investors in the first mine, the future Colby Mine, moved to secure property and plan the development of the mine site. The need for workers prompted people to locate to the area. Opportunities for work in the new mining ventures across the new mining district were everywhere, attracting many immigrants from across Europe.
The Milwaukee Lake Shore & Western Railroad arrived to the area in the fall of 1884, and soon thereafter platted the site naming it “Bessemer” after the English inventor Sir Henry Bessemer. The village of Bessemer was poised for growth from the mining activity which was unfolding. The new Gogebic Iron Range had immediate needs for workers and materials. People came seeking opportunity and a better life. And so it began a period of rapid growth of population for Bessemer and the surrounding new communities across the Gogebic Iron Range.
Bessemer grew so rapidly that the village status was changed to “incorporated as a city” in 1889. The 1890 U.S.Census for the City of Bessemer recorded 2,566 persons. In the period 1890 to 1920 Bessemer’s population moved upward matching the growth and maturity of the mining activity occurring within the City of Bessemer boundaries and across the Gogebic Iron Range.
The 1930’s Depression in America caused the Gogebic Iron Range mines to reduce working hours big time, with some mines closing temporarily. It also affected railroads, sawmills and mainstreet businesses. The Bessemer School System saw huge declines in school enrollment. The Depression affected workers and their families. Bessemer saw a population decline in the early and mid 1930’s, but by 1940 the population numbers recovered. Improved economic conditions in the steel industry resulted in strong demand for iron ore. World War II was on the horizon giving the Gogebic Iron Range mines renewed life, and a need for workers.
Bessemer’s population went into a steady decline after World War II ended. Longtime productive mines were nearing their end of life after decades of providing employment and value to the communities. The mines started to close one by one. The Peterson Mine in Bessemer closed in early 1966 ending the 82 year mining era of the Gogebic Iron Range. The loss of mining activity dealt a loss to Bessemer and neighboring communities. It severely affected Bessemer’s mainstreet businesses. Long established businesses like Honz & Becker, Johnson Hardware, Dewey’s Café,
Bessemer Pharmacy, and many others, closed as a result of the population decline and harsh economic reality. The closing of White Pine Copper Mine in 1995 had a further negative impact on the community from which there has been no recovery. The population data tells us that the road to recovery, if there is one, will be long and not easy in reclaiming Bessemer to its former prominence.