Wisconsin’s Culture - Ashland Ore Dock

Note bene: I wrote the original story about the Ashland Ore Dock in 2007.  The ore dock was Destroyed in 2012-2013.

This is what it looked like on September 15, 2021:


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 for iron and steel. The Lake Superior region was at the center of this trade, with its plentiful ores and low cost transportation. 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 are 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 Menominee ranges to Lake Michigan and Lake Huron and then on to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Gary, Indiana and Lake Erie ports at Cleveland, Ohio and Erie, Pennsylvania.

I want to focus on the Gogebic Range, which 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, to be shipped 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 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. 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, Wisconsin, get a load of iron ore, and then sail to Cleveland. She sunk with a load of iron ore in a winter storm in Lake Superior in 1886. Presented by Wisconsin National Register of Historic Places.

For all the ports, 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, I am going to concentrate on the Gogebic Iron Range, the introduction of railroads in the area, and the loading process for bulk freighters from ore docks built in Ashland, Wisconsin, on the western edge of the Gogebic range.

The Gogebic Iron Range Mines, from Montreal, Wisconsin to Wakefield, Michigan, 1912. Presented by Mattsonworks.

This map shows the line of iron ore mines that existed in 1912 in the Gogebic Range, extending from Montreal, Wisconsin 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.

This is a 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.

From the outset, Ashland was the port of choice for the Gogebic mines. The first problem was to be able to move the ore from the mines to Ashland. Rail was the mode of choice. At least 11 rail lines competed 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 moved from Michigan's depleting forests to Wisconsin largely virgin forests.

The Wisconsin Central completed tracks to Ashland by 1877, connecting her with Milwaukee, Chicago and points beyond. But the rail way ended up in economic upheaval until 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 roots in the route from Chicago-Milwaukee along the Lake Michigan coast line. Wisconsin had just become a state in 1848, opportunities were everywhere, so the Lake Shore worked hard to attract hunters, fishermen, tourists, speculators, settlers, capitalists, and entrepreneurs, and then turned its attention to logging and mining.

As I said earlier, Ashland, located on the Chequamegon Bay, was identified early on as the port of choice for the Gogebic ore, much of which came from the area I have bounded on the map above from Wakefield to Ashland with red arrows. Ashland was now tied by rail 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 shows you the remnants of the central ore dock in Ashland when I visited in 2007. I’m going to take much closer looks at this old central dock in a moment. It's one heckuva structure.

This 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 Milwaukee, Lake Shore and Western Railway in 1884-1885. Specifications were 1405 ft. long, 46 ft. wide, 40 ft. high, trestle approach 950 ft., 234 pockets, 117 each side, 4 tracks on the dock, 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, their ore chuted into the holds of waiting ships, and 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 that 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 loaded up by 16 commercial docks. 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.

I am going to start at a distance from the ore docks, and then zero in on them. This is a wide aerial overview of the Ashland port, taken in 1992. The bottom arrow points to the central ore dock that remains standing to this day, at least in part. The top arrow points to the the Ashland Breakwater Lighthouse house. Let's walk our way from the lighthouse to the dock as they appear today.

This is a distant view of the Ashland Breakwater Lighthouse, taken from the shore. The lighthouse was established in 1915. It is the last remaining notable poured, reinforced, concrete lighthouse of its kind in the United States.

She rests on concrete breakwater, is now fully automated and solar powered.

There is a terrific close-up of the lighthouse at Northern Images Photography Galleries. The breakwater was not always there. Here's an old photo showing the lighthouse standing alone. Presented by Historic Ashland.

I need to show you one more shot as I bring you ashore. You see the light house in the upper right. I draw your attention to the wood pilings in the lower left corner. Here are two shots of the rest of those pilings.

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. It stands next to the pilings I just showed you. In this shot, 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 iron ore train cars at Conneaut, Ohio, taken in 1910, presented by Great Lakes Maritime Images. You might wish to take a look at the full photo. It's fascinating. My rough count of the cars in the photo was 17, and there likely were many more. In this case, the trains are being loaded with ore brought in by the heavy-duty freighters coming from western Lake Superior. The ships brought over 4 million tons of ore to this port every year in those days. They brought in so much that it had to piled in massive, long storage piles so the ships could return to duty to get more. It looks like they fell behind getting the ore reloaded on the trains and over to the steel mills. Or, the ore came in so fast the mills could not stay up with the pace of deliveries. You can see part of a storage pile in the upper right part of this photo.

This is the view of that portion of the central ore dock that stands on land to this day. It is a wooden rail trestle with the 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 on to the right, or inland, until it came to ground level and met the railway line coming in. That part of the assembly has been taken down. I understand the City Fathers are trying to convert this entire ore dock into a tourist attraction. Let's wish them good luck.

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

This shot was taken from the other side of the dock. It shows where the wooden portion of the trestle, on land, meets with 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. I want you to concentrate on the black, trough-like structures. Let's get a closer look.

These are trough-like, chute-like equipments. They are referred to as the pockets. While I could not see the design on the top, I believe 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 a couple chutes extended into the ship's hold while 4-5 others are partly extended, either headed up or down. Edith Mahnke has written a nice piece, "The Ore Docks of Ashland." I commend it to you. This photo is drawn from her article.

Here's an older photo from the University of Wisconsin's Wisconsin Electronic Reader section on mining. It looks like 11 pockets are pouring. Note that every other pocket is deployed. I understand that was standard procedure; every other chute deployed and pouring.

This is a view of the deck of the bulk freighter ship Harry Colby as it waits to be loaded.

I wanted to give you an idea of what the holds looked like. Fill 'em up boys! Thanks to US Steel Gary Works Photographic Collection, 1906-1971.

Ashland's remaining central dock was built in 1916, originally 900 ft. long, then extended in 1925 to the present 1800 ft., about one third a mile long. It was 80 ft. high, 59 ft. wide, and at the time the largest concrete structure of its kind. Iron-ore was shipped from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan by train and transferred to the a waiting ship from this dock. At one time, there were five such docks in Ashland.

I did travel on to Superior and Duluth and saw some ore docks there that remain operational. I’ll have to go back to observe them in operation.

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.