Penokee-Gogebic Iron Range
Part 1: The Iron Giant Awakes
Herbert Wagner

November 21, 2011

"The Penokee Iron full of low grade ore, and some day it may become an iron mining center" -- Attributed to steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, The Lake Superior Country in History and in Story (1929)

Penokee Range looking towards Mount Whittlesey

The Penokee (Gogebic) Iron Range is an 80 mile long, 2.2 billion year old geological structure in Northwest Wisconsin and Upper Michigan that contains large amounts of iron-bearing minerals. The Wisconsin portion of this monadnock ridge begins near Hurley and extends westerly about 53 miles across Iron and Ashland counties in a series of low narrow mountain blocks or segments and terminates in Bayfield County near the northern end of Lake Namekagon. At its maximum height it rises 1,890 feet above sea level or 1,288 feet above Lake Superior.

For many decades the Penokee Range was considered not profitable to mine. But with a rise in iron ore prices from $32 a ton in 2004 to $200 a ton in 2011 this viewpoint has drastically changed. Hints of mining in the "Penokee Mountains" (as these hills are often called), first surfaced in 2003 and since that time there has been growing political and public debate concerning this vast deposit of low-grade taconite iron ore. (1)

Twice Named

Probably because it crosses two states this iron range is known by two different names. In Wisconsin the name Penokee (a corruption of Pewabik) has been in use since the early 1850s, while in Michigan the name Gogebic (after Lake Gogebic) first came into use during the 1870s. While both describe the same geological feature they are not exactly interchangeable. The term Penokee is favored on the western portion of the range in Wisconsin while Gogebic is used more often around Hurley and almost universally in Michigan. In this document the traditional Wisconsin name "Penokee" has been adopted. Upon occasion this name will also be found as "Penokie" or "Penoka." In a future chapter we will explore the origin of this unsual name in greater detail.

Gogebic Taconite

A company named Gogebic Taconite LLC (GTAC) with local offices in Hurley, currently holds a mining option on 22,000 acres of land on the western Penokee Range between Upson and Mineral Lake. News reports have named LaPointe Mining Co. of Duluth and Hibbing, Minnesota, and RGGS Land & Minerals, Ltd. of Houston, Texas, as the actual surface and mineral rights owners on most of these lands. GTAC's parent firm is the Cline Resource and Development Group, a coal mining company based in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. (2)

Taconite Mining Process

The intention of Gogebic Taconite (or GTAC) is to obtain the necessary permits that will allow it to mine and process Penokee ore into enriched taconite pellets. Because the percentage of iron minerals in the formation is low (30% or less), the final product must be benificiated or enriched before it can be used in the steel making industry. The enrichment process consists of several steps. After the taconite is extracted from the mine it is finely crushed and then floated over powerful magnets in water in order to separate the magnetic iron particles (magnitite) from the waste silica or cherty component of the host rock. The iron concentrate is then rolled with a clay binder into pellets and baked at high temperature. The finished taconite pellets contain about 63-65% iron and are ready for use in the blast furnaces of the domestic and foreign steel making industry.

Since only a fraction of the original iron-formation consists of usable iron minerals, it will take about three tons of ore-containing rock to make one ton of finished pellets. Considerable waste rock and glacial materials will also have to be removed. The tailings and overburden will come in various sizes from boulder-size to finely ground powder. Some of this material may be used in the construction or road building industry, but huge amounts will have to be integrated back into the landscape. According to one recent estimate, some 560 million tons of tailings and 350 million tons of waste rock would be generated from GTAC's first open pit mine. (3)

Mine Location & Size

According to information released by GTAC, the location of the proposed mine roughly straddles the Iron-Ashland county line south of Highway 77. This would place it about half-way between Mellen and Upson in the mountain segment between Tyler's Fork of Bad River and Ballou Creek where these streams cut through the iron range in picturesque water gaps. This first open pit ("Phase 1") of the mining operation has a projected life span of 35 years and 700 well-paying jobs have been promised. (4)

GTAC has variously described Phase 1 of its operation as a 4 to 4.5 mile long open pit that would be about 0.3 to 1.5 miles wide. While those dimensions roughly follow the linear alignment of the iron-formation itself, the depth of the proposed mine is less certain. Due to the narrowness and steep angle of the iron-formation as it is positioned in the earth (about 60 degrees), the amount of surrounding rock and glacial materials that must be removed will increase greatly as the V-walled open pit goes deeper. For that reason only a fraction of the total deposit will be profitable to mine. (5)

Published sources vary on how deep the mine may go. Estimates of 800, 900, 1,000 and 1,500 feet can be found in newspaper reports and other sources. One recent article in the Milwaukee Journel-Sentinel says that one pit wall of the mine would descend about 1,000 feet from the surface while the opposing wall would descend about 700 feet from the surface. This difference in wall depth may be due to the uneven geology of the Penokee ridge itself. On its south or footwall side the pit wall will be formed by a resistent and high-standing rock body known as the Palms quartzite, while the north or hanging wall side will consist of the less resistent Tyler slate and where the ridge has a natural downward slope towards Lake Superior. (6)

Because of the high angle of the iron-formation, it extends into the earth much deeper than human mining operations can ever hope to reach. Nobody knows for sure how far it actually extends, but the total depth of the ore body can probably be measured in terms of many thousands of feet and possibly in miles. In other words, how deep a mine can go in theory is not restricted by the ore body petering out as often happens in a gold or silver mine, but due to cost considerations alone.

Estimate of Resource

But if only mined to the relatively shallow depth, the size of the iron resource is still immense. In the 21 mile stretch between Upson and Mineral Lake the potential mineable ore body has been conservatively estimated at 3,711,000,000 (3.711 billion) tons which could yield 1,190,980,000 (1.191 billion) tons of enriched pellets. According to GTAC, its leased lands contain some 2 billion tons of taconite or somewhat more than one-half of the estimated resource present between Upson and Mineral Lake. If all its lands were exploited, GTAC has stated that mining could extend out to nearly a century. Economically mineable taconite may also exist between Mineral Lake and Lake Namekagon. One estimate has placed a value on Penokee Range iron of $200,000,000,000 ($200 billion). (7)

Those big numbers make the Penokee Range the largest known metallic mineral resource in Wisconsin and one of the world's great untapped iron ore reserves. That it remained unmolested by humankind for so long is something of a historical and geological accident.

Mineral Land Mecca

During the second half of the 19th century, Northwest Wisconsin was considered a promised land or mecca for mineral treasures. Copper, silver, gold, platinum, nickel and cobalt values were all reported in Ashland and surrounding counties on the so-called trap ("copper") and gabbro ranges that parallel the Penokee hills on the north. On the Penokee Range itself the iron deposits were discovered early and made the young townsite of Ashland highly esteemed as a potential world-class mining and smelting district. The failure of this early mining industry was not for lack of trying. Shallow test pits and shafts pockmark these bedrock ridges all the way from Montreal River at the Michigan line to the Minnesota border and St. Croix River on the west.

But while native copper and precious metals were either present in small amounts or maybe not there at all, the western Penokee Range held large amounts of iron-bearing minerals. What shattered the early plans for a mining industry was the nature of the iron-formation itself. Lean western Penokee ore was knocked out of the running by the discovery of naturally enriched ores in Upper Michigan and in Minnesota. On Minnesota's Mesabi Range soft hematite ore with an iron content up to 60% could be dug from open pits with steam shovels for a few cents a ton. Similar deposits were discovered on the Gogebic end of the Penokee Range in Upper Michigan and in Wisconsin around Hurley, Montreal, Pence, and Iron Belt. These mines produced soft hematite ore from deep underground shafts between the years 1884 and 1965.

Quirk of Nature

West of Upson, however, naturally enriched hematite ore does not occur in large amounts. Due to a quirk of nature the iron-formation there remained in its original form as a hard and resistant rock known since the 1890s as taconite. Here the iron minerals are sandwiched in thin laminations between layers of silica or in thicker wavy-bedded layers of cherty sedimentary rock with an average overall iron content of around 30% or less. For over 150 years these low-grade western Penokee deposits has been known, studied, and some early mining attempts were made. But until now these ventures were all frustrated by the low iron content and hard crystalline nature of the rock itself.

But times change. The huge demand for steel during World War I and especially during World War II along with America's appetite for steel-based consumer goods prematurely depleted Lake Superior's rich hematite ores. Today enormous and rapidly increasing steel consumption by China and India has put huge new demands upon the world's remaining iron ore resources. Suddenly the long-forgotten Penokee Range is back in the spotlight. This development is something that old timers around Ashland and Mellen have been predicting for a hundred years or more.

The technology to mine and process low-grade taconite is well established. Since the early 1950s there have been taconite mines and industrial scale processing plants in Minnesota and on Michigan's Marquette Iron Range. But no successful taconite mine or processing plant has ever been built on the Penokee-Gogebic Range. However, with increased demand and spiking commodity prices companies like GTAC would like to add this long dormant resource in Northwest Wisconsin to the ranks of the world's iron ore producers.

Great Change

If this new era of mining comes to pass then great changes are inevitable. The footprint of GTAC's mines and related processing facilities will be a big alteration to the landscape. Because while investment companies have been sitting on these western Penokee lands for decades, the range westwards from Upson remains in a largely untouched, somewhat wilderness-like condition today. Some logging has been done over the years, but the Penokee Mountains remain very much intact and appear as they did in presettlement times. Taconite mining and pellet production would bring a radical transformation to this slumbering bedrock ridge.

Pros & Cons

Some celebrate the economic boost that will come with new mining: the well-paying jobs, the increased tax base and other commercial developments. Others wonder how the transportation network and other services will cope with the introduction of a large-scale industry into communities like Mellen, Upson and the rural towns of Anderson and Morse. Some question how the vast amounts of waste material will be disposed of and whether that can be done safely. Few specific details about the mine project have been released and the hydrology and other natural systems on the Penokee Range are not well studied or understood. As a result rumors and uncertainties abound. Early claims by GTAC that taconite mining is not a polluter seems to be contradicted by problems known to exist in the taconite mining and pellet making industry in Minnesota and Upper Michigan. (8)

Because vast amounts of water are necessary in the pelletization process, some fear that the streams flowing from the Penokee uplands into the Bad River basin and into Lake Superior will be polluted or otherwise disrupted. Many of these waterways are trout streams with outstanding water quality and contain picturesque waterfalls and rapids in their upper reaches. Lower down near Lake Superior extensive wild rice beds are important to the people living on the Bad River Indian Reservation. It is well known that wild rice is sensitive to changes in water level and quality.

Nor is it yet certain how the open pit mine will be reclaimed. Backfilling is probably not economically viable. But while some think that desirable man-made lakes will result, others slam the project as "mountaintop removal" with the potential for acid mine drainage and toxic runoff. Many people remain uncertain, welcoming the jobs that mining would bring, but only if no significant pollution results and the quiet northwards lifestyle is not overly disrupted. (9)

How those conflicting demands will be resolved is not yet clear. Right now the project is quietly simmering in the face of the Governor Walker recall election attempt and GTAC's decision to put its project on hold pending favorible legislation in Madison. But with so much at stake the issue of iron mining in Northwest Wisconsin will almost certainly pose important political, environmental, economic, and social challenges in the months and years ahead.

It may also prove controversial. Plans to fast-track the mine permitting process have been launched in Madison and the intent to radically change existing Wisconsin mining laws has raised suspicions in the minds of many. Some Indian tribes and environmental groups are lining up to oppose GTAC and pro-mining influence in Madison. Commenting on the possible conflicts over iron mining in the northwest part of the state one report stated that, "The previous estimates did not consider environmental and aesthetic factors of large open-pit mines and related processing facilities, which would undoubtedly be major factors affecting the future of this resource." (10)

Historical and Ecological Background

The object of this essay series, however, is not to discuss these political or social issues no matter how important they are. Rather the goal is to provide a historical and ecological background of the Penokee Iron Range in a unique manner by utilizing obscure and long forgotten early documents and reports. This material comes from sources gathered over the years while I was researching a book about the legendary lost silver and gold mine that is supposed to exist somewhere in the greater Chequamegon region. Since that book project is now nearing completion and because Penokee iron only slightly impinged upon that fantastic story, I've decided to share that additional material as an online work of non-fiction. Or at least a portion of it while I neglect my real work.

As it turns out, the subject is a vast one. Not only in the scope of time and natural forces involved, but also in that peculiar clash of cultures that has always demonstrated itself in the matter of minerals and mining around Lake Superior. Reviewing that neglected history may provide the current generation with a time-machine glimpse into this imperfectly understood but always wonderful realm of northern forest, crystalline rock, and fabulous mythology that surrounds the greatest freshwater entity on planet earth.

As readers will see, the story goes as deep as Lake Superior and the iron-formation itself. As deep as the old Indian gods who once resided here and possibly still do. After exploring and studying the various mineral ranges of Northwest Wisconsin and Upper Michigan for over three decades I don't claim to fully comprehend these things. But I have learned how to suspend my disbelief in order to find them. Yet never in that time did I dream that the sleeping giant mis-named Penokee would ever stir from its ancient stony slumber. But that day may finally have come.

Next in Part 2: The Discovery of Magnetic Iron Stone in the Penokee Mountains!

(Reference Notes for Part 1)

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