The Penokee Iron Range of Northern Wisconsin
Herbert Wagner
March 27, 2012

Part 3: Charles Whittlesey on the Pewabik (Penokee) Range in 1849 and Incidents of Early Exploration

"One of the men thought he saw a bear, but instead [it] was a fine show of Magnetic iron ore"--Charles Whittlesey

"Those given to exaggeration call them mountains"--C.E. Wright

The first detailed exploration of the Penokee Iron Range dates to the year 1849. It was conducted by Col. Charles Whittlesey, a geologist from Cleveland, Ohio, who later commanded a regiment that saw action in the Civil War. As a result of this exploration, Whittlesey came to believe so strongly in the value of Penokee iron ore that he convinced his brother Asaph to permanently settle at the head of Chequamegon Bay, where in 1854 he cut down the first tree on the townsite of Ashland. These men and others saw Chequamegon Bay as the natural outlet and supply depot for the rich iron mines they were convinced would soon be opened in the interior.

As early as 1845-'46, Charles Whittlesey had been in the Lake Superior region on behalf of the U.S. geological survey under David Dale Owen. From various reports, letters and reminisces written by Whittlesey, we obtain a glimpse of conditions prevailing in the western Lake Superior area of northern Wisconsin in the late pre-settlement era. Although primarily of a geological nature, these documents also contain important observations on ecology, place-names, incidents of exploration, and the lifestyle and beliefs of the indigenous Ojibwe or Chippewa Indians.

Hungry & Out of Food

While exploring the copper-bearing formation near the Wisconsin-Michigan border in 1846, Whittlesey and his companions had the same problem shared by many early travelers and that was running out of food. At the time they were on the "Opinike" (Potato) or "east" fork of Bad River, where by chance they stumbled upon the "Phelps Location," an abandoned mineral prospect made two years earlier by the New York and Michigan Mining Company.

Occupying the claim cabins were some porcupines, and after chasing the animals out, the hungry men discovered several wooden barrels of provisions left behind. Some of these were still intact and the ravenous men broke them open and helped themselves to the two year old but still eatable salt pork and butter, or as Whittlesey quipped--"at least it was eaten by us."

Although foremost a careful observer in the scientific method, Whittlesey was no stuffed shirt, but had something of the 19th romantic about him, which also makes his writings appealing and interesting yet today. Sometimes his reports contain impressions of the granduer of the Lake Superior country. For example, when west of the "Gogogashugan" or Leaning Tree River (blandly known today as the "West Fork" of the Montreal), he describes an eerie part of the copper range where he beheld: "mural faces [of rock] looking every way, forming a confused collection of precipices and gulfs...a labyrinth of dark valleys, with perpendicular sides, cliffs, and crests, two and three hundred feet above the adjacent low places."

Whittlesey returned to northern Wisconsin in 1849, this time to follow up Andrew Randall's discovery two years earlier of magnetic iron-stone found at the transect of the Fourth Principal Meridian and the Penokee mountains (see Part 2). Whittlesey's assistant on that occasion was an observant young man named Harry Beasley. With them were two "French-Indian" (metis or mixed blood) voyaguer guides from La Pointe named Antoine Connoyer and Paul Soulies, who served as packers, boatmen, interpreters and guides.

In July (1849) this party in company with a man named Wood left La Pointe in a birchbark canoe bound for the mouth of Bad River. Wood was returning to his farm and sawmill operation several miles upstream. After passing the Indian mission and government farm at Odanah ("village"), Whittlesey observed along the riverbank places where the people of Bad River had carved figures and images in the red clay which he said described their first dreams and recorded the chart of their lives. At La Pointe, Whittlesey had also spoken with Ojibwe elders and learned of their world-view of how Madeline Island had been the first land created after the great flood spoken of in their cosmogony. He also explained that the Indian name for Bad River was "Mashkeg-ziibi" or Swamp River, while the French knew it as the "Mauvaise" or Bad River. The latter name was due to difficult canoe travel in the upper timber-choked or rocky stretches. A few old sources also call the stream Nagonub River after an influential tribal leader, and Floodwood River can also be found.

Wood's Farm

By noon the next day Whittlesey and party reached Wood's farm located at the lower falls on Bad River. Wood himself had been in the country since 1845 and held a mineral claim on Montreal River. On the Bad he operated a water-powered sawmill, raised potatoes, and grazed cattle in the river bottoms. He claimed that the winters were not overly severe. Today the site of Wood's farm is in the remote interior of the Bad River Indian Reservation where the stream tumbles over exposed layers of sandstone.

At the time of Whittlesey's visit, the sturgeon were running and could be seen "flouncing" in the riffles as they tried to get over the ledges in the stream. The sight was too much for Whittlesey's hungry men, who waded into the shallows with axes and clubs and shouting in Ojibwe, French and English, proceeded to harvest as many fish as they could. Afterwards they had a grand sturgeon feast with fresh milk, butter and potatoes supplied by Mr. Wood.

Leaving the next day, they portaged two miles around the falls in order to resume their upstream canoe journey. Along the way they met a party of Indians coming down from Lac Court Orielles and obtained some smoked venison from them. That afternoon they turned into a tributary stream coming in from the west, and soon reached the crossing with the trail to Lac des Anglais--better known today as English Lake.

Mosquito Fork

Camping at the trail crossing, Whittlesey's party enountered so many mosquitoes that even the most liberal use of pipe tobacco and smudge fires could not fend them off. He later recalled how their guides had indulged in so many "sacres" of the "maringouin" (mosquito in Canadian-French) for the good Catholics that they were, that he named the stream Maringouin in honor of the moment. This name appears on modern maps in corrupted form as Marengo River. In spite of that spelling, the name has no connection to towns in Iowa, Illinois or in Italy that also bear the name Marengo, but instead is a mispelled tribute to the humble but omnipotent northwoods mosquito.

The next day Whittlesey and his men followed the Indian trail south on foot. They soon reached as he described it, "a mountain range of trap, hornblende and sienitic rocks." These hills form part of the so-called "copper range" of Ashland County. On a high point in these lofty bedrock hills (possibly Brunschweiler Mountain), Whittlesey climbed a tall hemlock tree and beheld like a dream the whole of the Bad River country stretched out before him, the Bayfield Peninsula, Chequamegon Point, and the shimmering Apostle Islands beyond.

Pewabik Mountains

From that spot Whittlesey could see an even higher mountain range not far off in a southerly direction. Intrigued by this unknown prominence, the party then descended into the beautiful valley of Lac des Anglais, where they met an Indian man who informed them of a canoe cached nearby that they used to explore the rocky shoreline of English Lake and nearby Bladder Lake, today known as Mineral Lake.

The next day was stormy, with intense lightning, rain and powerful concussions of thunder. In spite of the unsettled weather, the men broke camp and climbed to the top of the mountain observed the day before, where, at an elevation some 450 feet above English Lake they reached the top. There, in the gloom and fog at the summit, one of the Frenchmen shouted in surprise at the nearby presense of a large black bear. For a moment there was confusion and alarm, but then the object resolved itself and the man realized that he was actually seeing an outcrop of dark colored rock. Going up to investigate, Whittlesey soon discovered that the outcrop consisted of magnetic iron-stone, which not only strongly affected the movement of his compass needle, but when a sample was pulverized, the particles were attracted and held fast by an ordinary magnet. This iron-bearing member stood at a high angle from the horizontal and ran along the crest of the mountain block south of English Lake in a distinct and regular manner. It consisted of layers of the mineral magnetite sandwiched between layers of silex or quartz. Whittlesey described the iron beds there as being of "extraordinary thickness" and pitching steeply to the north in a manner identical to the iron mountain that in 1847 Dr. Randall had encountered some twenty miles farther east.

This was an important discovery and Whittlesey quickly realized the implications. He surmised that the two widely separate occurances of magnetic iron-stone--one near English Lake and the other on the Fourth Principal Meridian line--might not be isolated occurances, but instead form a continous geological feature persisting for a great distance over the landscape. To test his theory, Whittlesey turned their explorations easterly, where they would attempt to follow the trend or strike of the iron-bearing formation back towards the Fourth Principal Meridian--and across a region no scientist had ever set foot.

Drunken Bear

That evening in camp the men discussed the curious matter of a rock outcrop that took the form of a black bear. This may have led to talk of "shape shifters," which in Indian tradition held that bears and other natural entities sometimes possessed peculiar powers of transformation. Due to their connection with both European and Ojibwe culture, this notion that would have been well-understood by Connoyer and Soulies.

Then they told other bear stories, including one acted out by the French guides to the entertainment of Whittlesey and Beasley. This was a pantomime they called "drunken bear," and involved an incident that had taken place in the area around English Lake some time earlier. On that occassion, Whittlesey noted, some illegal liquor traders had entered the country by way of Chippewa River and had cached three kegs of contraband whiskey near English Lake. These spirits they planned to sell at the upcoming Indian payment at La Pointe, by which they hoped to gain great profits.

In their absence, however, three black bears discovered and had broken open the kegs. Then the bears had proceeded to guzzle and lap the whiskey up from the ground. This had gotten them wildly intoxicated, but instead of making them angry or mean like it would have some men, they had instead become gentle and tame. By chance some Indians happened to come along to witness their unusual behavior, which Connoyer and Soulies now mimiced to good effect. They acted out, Whittlesey said, the bear's humorous actions that were "similar to kissing, licking each others faces, as young puppies sometimes do, and making feeble attempts to hug one another in a friendly, loving way."

Whittlesey at Penokee Gap

The next morning the party proceeded east along the crest of the range which they found to be nearly continuous and level until they reached a wide canyon at the crossing of the main branch of Bad River. Today this legendary place and striking geological feature is known as Penokee Gap. There the iron beds are thick and well-exposed in bluffs on opposing sides of the river. And although there is no major waterfall at that place, Whittlesey noted peculiarly loud and picturesque rapids in a beautiful setting. Describing the ferriferous part of the formation he wrote: "In the wild and deep ravines where the Bad River breaks through the range, there is a cliff of slaty ore, most of which comes out in thin, oblique prisms, with well-defined angles and straight edges, probably three hundred feet thick, including what is covered by the talus or fallen portions. I estimate more than one-half of this face to be ore; and, in places, the beds are from ten to twelve feet in thickness, with very little inter-mixture of quartz."

There was now little doubt in Whittlesey's mind that the iron-formation extended across many miles of countryside, although narrow and linear in nature and somewhat broken into segments offset by cross faults into separate mountain blocks. Further investigations made by Whittlesey in 1860 would prove that the iron range extended west of English Lake to near Lake Namekagon in Bayfield County. Other explorations would prove its existence east of Montreal River in Upper Michigan as far as Lake Gogebic, for a total end-to-end length of nearly 80 miles.

Realizing that this newly discovered iron belt had great potential value as a ferrous mineral resource, Charles Whittlesey now proceeded to name it for scientific and capitalist purposes. The name he choose was derived from the Ojibwe word "pewabik" (or "biwabik"), a term used either as a general description for metal, or more specifically applied to iron or steel. Whittlesey thus named the formation the "Pewabik Range," a perfectly discriptive title that acknowledged the Ojibwe language and presence of that people in northern Wisconsin. By an unfortunate quirk of fate, however, that title would not long endure in its original and correct form, but would be transformed and corrupted into something else.

The Gorge

Out of food again, Whittlesey and his men backtracked to Wood's farm where they resupplied. Then they followed up the Bad River again south past the Marengo fork until they came to a picturesque waterfall and extensive outcrop area around modern day Copper Falls State Park. Here, about five miles downstream or north of Penokee Gap, they encountered the copper-bearing formation again. Then, entering a tributary stream near the falls coming in from the east, they found a man named Tyler holding down a copper-silver claim for the Charter Oak Mining Company. Lonely and starved for human companionship, Tyler was friendly and informed them of everything he knew about the countryside. Whittlesey afterwards dubbed this branch of Bad River "Tyler's Fork" in this man's honor, but again the original and rightful name somehow got turned around until today it is seen on maps as "Tyler Forks." Whittlesey also learned that Tyler's Fork came out of "the mountains" about twelve miles away in a "chasm" or gorge "some 200 feet deep."

Rightfully assuming that this might be another segment of the Pewabik Range, Whittlesey and party took the Indian trail leading from Copper Falls to a high ridge about six miles away to the southest and where today Gogebic Taconic has proposed to dig an open pit iron mine. There Whittlesey's group split into two parties, with Whittlesey himself working east along the range while Beasley explored to the west.

In both directions they again found almost continuous magnetic indications of iron-formation. Outcroppings of iron-stone were exposed where Ballou Creek and Tyler's Fork river form major water gaps in the range. On Ballou Creek Beasley found the rocks "well charged with a rich, heavy ore, showing thirty, fifty, and seventy feet, with iron predominating over quartz." Outside where modern Mellen now stands, Beasley climbed an especially large and tall peak formed of magnetic iron-stone, quartzite and slate. Beasley named it Mount Whittlesey in honor of his companion, boss and mentor.

Meanwhile, exploring in the opposite direction, Whittlesey came upon a famous 19th century locale known as "the Gorge." This wonderful geological feature consists of a series of low plunging cascades, cedar-hung rock walls, and an unusual stream course deflected by hard bedrock into several right-angle turns. The Gorge is located at the dead-end of Moore's Road about eight miles east of Mellen south of Highway 77, and where Tyler's Fork river cuts through the Penokee Range. Here one can see in a beautiful natural setting a perfect cross-section of the Ironwood iron-formation and adjacent strata, including the Palms Quartzite and Tyler Slate. One of the most interesting features of the place is a narrow gorge (hence the name) where the river passes through enclosing walls of solid rock and then emerges from them as if passing through a great iron-stone gate. The place is not only important for scientific and educational reasons, but it also has intense aesthetic and natural legacy values. Places like this were known to traditional Ojibwe people as "manitouwut," which, according to the native writer Basil Johnston, refers to that sacrosanct mood or presence of a natural place beyond easy explanation. Such sites were sometimes thought to have curative or healing properties somewhat similar to a European spa.

In the 1850s a townsite was platted at the Gorge to service iron mines projected for that vicinity. And although this city was never built or those mines opened (to be explained in a future chapter), history does repeat itself as today Gogebic Taconite would like to construct a $1.5 billion mine and related taconite processing facilities not very far away--but only if the mining regulatory process is made more favorable in Madison. How this verdant and beautifully pristine hydro-lithic landform worthy of a state park or natural area will be affected by the GTAC mine is not yet known or even discussed very much. But the Gorge is located at the eastern end of the mountain block between Tyler's Fork and Ballou Creek where GTAC plans its first open pit mine. In the face of this giganitic mining enterprise, the fate of this beautiful natural legacy place is uncertain.

In fact, outside of some logging, the entire area of the proposed GTAC mine remains essentially as it was in 1849 when Charles Whittlesey and Harry Beasley first walked over it. U.S. government topographic maps delineate this segment of the Penokee Range as rising 1,890 feet above sea level and some 400 feet above the surrounding countryside. This would place it among the highest points in northern Wisconsin and possibly a few feet higher than the more famous Mount Whittlesey located a few miles away. In his final report of 1852, Whittlesey published a cross-section drawing or view of GTAC's mountain, and indicated that an Indian trail passed over the range at that point.

At this late date it's difficult to know what purpose this trail may have served and why it went over the mountain instead of taking an easier water gap route by way of Ballou Creek or Tyler's Fork. Possibly there was something up there of practical value to the original inhabitants of the region or maybe something of a symbolic nature important to Ojibwe culture. After all, there was an outcrop at the summit near English Lake that looked enough like a black bear to fool a mixed blood Catholic French-Indian man. As Whittlesey remarked of traditional native Wisconsin beliefs: "Fire, rocks, waterfalls, mountains (my emphasis) and animals are alive with spirits good and bad."

But there the scientist goes mute and the great stone book first opened in 1849 by Charles Whittlesey is shut. We can only speculate upon the matter, but also note that whatever was up there in 1849 is probably still up there yet, or at least until the mountain top is dug out and transformed either into a toxic waste dump or a sparkling alpine lake depending upon whose viewpoint you wish to believe. But it will take someone better versed than me in the realm of Ojibwe manitouology, image stones or teaching rocks to tell us what may linger in that lofty abode of the thunderers and the god-hero Winneboujou.

(Reference Notes for Part 3)

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