Mysteries of the Michigamme

Snaking its way through the old Mansfield Mine Location—just east of Crystal Falls, Michigan and three miles north of old Highway 69—the Michigamme River appears peaceful and serene. A winsome waterway, it tumbles smoothly along to meet and combine with the Menominee River. Rolling waves, soothing in sight, smell, and sound, capture the senses with their calm.

Yet the Michigamme River’s history belies its calm exterior. There is a dark side to its brooding, bending current, which has been known to be swift, sure, and to strike without warning.

A twisting and turning link between Lake Superior and Green Bay, it was a major waterway for explorers and missionaries who depended on it to guide them safely along on their journeys. But some of those journeys along the Michigamme have been anything but safe.

When the aging missionary, Father Menard, attempted to escape from an unfriendly L’Anse band of Chippewa Indians in 1661, he was last seen canoeing along the coursing river just before he met with death. Only the silent rocky shores, the towering pines and the shadowy rivulets of the Michigamme know the mystery of how he spent his final moments.

In 1911, two hundred fifty years later, what began as a spontaneous fun-filled outing ended in tragedy. A beautiful summer day motivated Willie Tamminen, Josephine Tamminen, Jenny Tamminen Mattson, Lauri Tamminen, Ida Forsman, Mrs. Sophie Lindholm and John Holm, all young men and women of the Mansfield area, to take out their tin pails and go blue berry picking. But the better berry patches were rumored to be further up the river. They left shortly after dawn, traveled up the mighty Michigamme and spent the day picking berries for pies and canning. As evening approached, the gleeful group toted their treasures to the boat, packed themselves inside and pushed off. Rounds of, “row, row, row your boat gently down the stream,” emanated up through the forest as they glided over the water, happily heading for home. But the river, swollen from recent summer rains, resisted the crew, began pitching and tossing them about and threatened to capsize their boat. Try as they would to keep on course, the young people were no match for the Michigamme. Only Sophie Lindholm and John Holm survived the berry picking party.

In 1893, the river rambling through Mansfield told an even more dismal tale of disaster. The mysteries of the mighty Michigamme are buried beneath its surface. This moody meandering body of water has, for nearly a century, held in its deep the bodies of twenty-seven men. And it does not give up its dead.

“Mine Horror,” read The Diamond Drill newspaper’s headline on September 30, 1893. “Awful slaughter—twenty-seven miners dashed into eternity… ”

The worst tragedy in Iron County, even to the present day, occurred shortly after immigrants began coming to the U.P. to pioneer the area. Following the call of recruiters from across the ocean, men and their families left their native countries, Italy, Ireland, England, Sweden and Finland, to till the soil and vie for the coveted iron ore mining jobs in Mansfield.

One of hundreds of handbills circulated about the shipyards, where newcomers planned their futures, read, “Lots for Sale! Only 240 lots in the plat. First come first served. This new village is in Iron County, on the Michigamme River and joins the Mansfield Mine. Only two miles from the Hollister Mine and only three miles from the Armenia and Glidden Mines. With a population within three miles square of over SIX HUNDRED people. LOTS $85.00 to $150.00 according to location; discount of ten percent, for cash. These prices will be advanced twenty-five per cent, after first hundred lots are sold. Care of Mansfield Iron Mining Co. Apply to W. R. Calhoun, Crystal Falls, Michigan.”

Settlers who had brought money from home bought land and began building homes as soon as they arrived. Others stayed in boarding houses, common in the U.P. at that time, until they could earn enough to venture out on their own. Families lived with other families until they were free to go their own ways. Everyone pitched in together to make life as workable as possible. There were hardships aplenty in the new land, but the joy of future dreams kept the brave and fearless clinging tenaciously to their dreams of freedom.

The Caledonia Mining Company had come to explore for iron ore on the Michigamme River in 1882, but failing to find the anticipated deposits, nearly gave up the idea of mining in the area altogether. But in the late 1800’s, they commissioned Mr. William Calhoun, a seasoned adventurer and explorer, to study the area for them. Not far from the original site of exploration, Calhoun dropped a pit and discovered Bessemer ore.

Noting the possibilities for production, Calhoun leased the property from the Caledonia Mining Company and started the Mansfield Mine, dimensions twenty-six by sixty feet and as tall as a two-story building. Top of the line tools and equipment were purchased for the operation. Hoists and pumps worked meticulously. The first floor of the mine even boasted hot and cold running water for the men to wash. At the height of production, the mine employed one hundred and twenty-five men and shipped 250 tons of ore per day to the Illinois Steel Company in Chicago.

And this was just the beginning of the boom. Railroad tracks were laid connecting Mansfield to Crystal Falls and by 1890 the cars were in full operation. The Northwestern Railroad moved ore to Escanaba. The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad shipped west to Ontonagon.

Children off on their own most of the day were not as delighted as their parents to find a new school house being built by May 1891, but they would quickly learn the value of this treasured new building when they almost lost it the same month. A forest fire swept through the Mansfield area, leaving little left in its path but destruction. Every man, woman and child stubbornly fought out the flames as they threatened to destroy the settlement.

But success was theirs, for only one month later Mansfield was granted the privilege of becoming a township. The first Postmaster, John Erickson was appointed in July 1891 and Dominic Burns was named deputy sheriff. Isaac Hirvela Hendrickson opened the first medicinal drug store. Robert McGinn owned the first livery stable and his talents were often required to repair and maintain machinery. William Richards ran the blacksmith shop and kept the local entourage of wagons in running condition.

The early 1880’s found Mansfield in need of places to shop for shoes, supplies and staples. From Florence, Wisconsin came Mr. and Mrs. William Jenkins who opened a much-needed general store and meat market. Following close behind was John D. Helps, a dry goods merchant whose store carried everything from pots and pans to paper and pins. Charles Peterson opened a modern general store complete with glass front windows to show off his wares. Kids and adults left their horses tied to a hitching fence out front while they clamored up the wooden plank walkways to get a better look at trinkets, treasures and treats before going inside to shop.

The little township was growing with leaps and bounds. Several saloons prospered in Mansfield. Some say there was a saloon for every ten people. Thomas Corbett owned one on Main Street—twenty by thirty-five feet and two stories high. Well-known pubs of the time were also owned by Peter Hicks, (later known as the Anesi Saloon) and Domenic Dallafior.

The newly built saloons were all too popular to suit some folks and they decided to take matters into their own hands. To combat the evils of alcohol, a group of young Lutheran men banded together to build a hall, which—constructed of logs—doubled first as a Lutheran Church and second as a Temperance Hall. Community events and meetings were held for the public during the week and on Sunday many came to pray.

Society began to spread its wings. Along with the first saloons and the Temperance Hall came a dance hall. This building, a town hall of sorts, became the pinnacle of activity in the new settlement. Dances, plays, box lunches and even silent movies were served up for the townsfolk. Life was good—the town was pulsing with pleasure and booming with business.

Then on the night of September 28, 1893 the lives of the Mansfield people were to be changed forever. Miners, due on the night shift, had left their families safely tucked in their beds and gone off to work as usual.

Used to the rushing of the Michigamme river waters overhead, they barely noticed the familiar sound as they descended into the mine to take their places on one of the six levels. Though water had been seeping in somewhat during the summer months, the pumps were working well to take care of the problem, so there seemed no cause for worry. The number five shaft had needed repair, but had just been fitted and set with new timbers—good as new. There was nothing out of the ordinary. Or so it seemed.

A few men noticed a little more water than usual finding its way inside, but determined there was no need for concern. Everything appeared to be in order and under control.

When the Michigamme roared its blood-curdling cry, caving in the roof and grinding its way into the shafts, the entire township of Mansfield trembled. Men who had worked the day shift, women and children, terrified at the crashing cadence came rushing from their beds to the shores of the Michigamme, while the miners inside the Mansfield Mine clawed their way toward the shafts.

Frank Rocco, a shift boss on the fourth level, was standing in the skip with the tender, Tony Baletto, when the he realized what was happening. Rocco, a true hero, tried to get to his men, give them a chance to get away, but it was too late. His men were trapped in the lethal waters of darkness. Baletto was the only survivor from the fourth level. Rocco, dedicated to his men, went with them forever into the depths of the Michigamme.

On the sixth level, another determined shift boss, Andrew Sullivan, led his men up the ladder way toward the surface in total darkness. The cave-in had created drafts so strong the men’s lights had been blown out and could not be rekindled, so they were forced to feel their way up the ladders. All but four men made their way successfully to freedom as the terrifying torrents of water gushed down the mineshafts.

The screams of the spectators—wives, mothers, sisters, brothers, friends—could be heard for miles, but the horror echoing across the land could do nothing to stop the tragedy.

Of the forty-eight miners who departed their homes that fateful evening to work in the Mansfield Mine, twenty-seven did not return and are, yet today, buried deep beneath the bed of the Michigamme.

The lost were: W. H. Pierce, Mike Harrington, John Kirppu, James Shongman, Peter Fury, Sheltono Zodra, Charlie Pohl, Oley Carlson, Antoni Shrpana, Frank Rocco, Samuel Johnson, John Regula, John Holmstrom, Angelo Cologna, Sam Peters, Oscar Lundquist, Jakob Kulla, Roscalo Fontunati, Swan Johnson, Alfred Fonsani, Nichola Fonbana, John Warmer, Frank Johnson, Celesti Neign, Christ Arcangelo, Vigalice Zodra, Oderrsaa Constanti…may they rest in peace.

The survivors later recalled the horrible event as the “nightmare in the dark.” Some blamed the mining company for the disaster. But most blamed the Michigamme, labeling it a dangerous, devious river filled with dark mystery.

There is no question that the enigmatic Michigamme harbors many mysterious secrets and there is no doubt lives have been lost in its wandering waters. Yet through the years the river has gifted us with vital resources, breathtaking beauty and revitalizing recreational activities. It has allowed us opportunities to explore, test its natural wonders and tap its treasures. The mighty Michigamme has given us back a thousand fold in riches and has earned our gratitude, care and respect.

By Coralie Cederna Johnson

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