It was the Gogebic Iron Range, where the discovery of hematite iron ore in 1882 resulted in a mining district and flocking investors. The need for workers and transportation was vast.
“There were boom towns all over the Gogebic Range,” Bessemer Area Historical Society president Daniel Cvengros observed. “Logging and farming also were big industries.”
The Milwaukee Lake and Shore and Western Railroad laid down tracks in 1884 — soon thereafter the mining site was named Bessemer after English discovered the smelting process inventor, Sir Henry Bessemer.
Besides mining as the major industry, logging options also were seemingly endless. Jobs were plentiful and well-paying for miners and lumberjacks. The village was poised for progression, industry and families.
The people quickly came.
Bessemer was incorporated as a village in 1887. Seated on the northern slope of what is today known as Colby Hill, the city was surrounded by high, heavily forested bluffs.
Rapid growth and a population explosion quickly led to the incorporated city of Bessemer in now Gogebic County in 1889. Just a year later, there were already more than 2,500 citizens living there, with the number growing as mining activity flourished there and all along the Gogebic Iron Range.
Once the land of the Chippewa Indians, Bessemer now was home to the Colby Mine — the city’s first one — as well as several other prominent mines. Lumberjacks worked through the winters, staying in logging camps and filling the town during summer months.
After several years of endless pine logging, however, the pine was gone and the logging industry took a sharp decline. Because stockholders resided in New York, the profits did not stay in Bessemer.
Still, mining was on an uphill scale, with excellent wages and long days for workers. As more mines developed, nearly every home boarded workers — some with as many as 21 men at a time. Women were hired to cook, clean, wash clothes and make lunch pails. Miners were paid from $1.05 to $2 per day, hired women $8 per month.
Conditions in the mines were dangerous and unsanitary, according to historic literature. There was no electricity and early miners wore a candle in their hats for light. Mules were used to haul the ore out and kept in the mines so long they would go blind, it was noted in historic literature.
By 1885, Bessemer was a boom town with a population of over 5,700, 18 boarding houses, 15 hotels, five restaurants, three grocery stores, several photographers, jewelers, a couple newspapers, two railroads, three doctors, six lawyers and nearly 50 saloons. Main Street businesses multiplied, schools opened and city boarders expanded several miles. The year 1888 saw a courthouse and a jail built from of Lake Superior brownstone — the first sight of the law in the small town. Until then, the sheriff was in Ontonagon, nearly an hour away.
By 1889, after a contentious vote between Ironwood and Bessemer, Bessemer was officially voted in and named county seat of Gogebic County. The next year, the city had its own electrical system and the following year a fire department — a wagon driven with a team of horses. A full-fledged waterworks system quickly followed.
C.M. Ross was its first mayor that year. Census showed inhabitants to be of Finnish, Polish, Swedish, Irish and a few other descents; 1980 saw the first graduating class at public school — with two students.
The turn of the century hit Bessemer hard, however. To extract more iron ore, mines needed to dig deeper — which wasn’t feasible for most. Additionally, the 1930s Depression caused the Gogebic Iron Range mines to slash workers’ hours, while other mines shut down altogether. Moreover, it impacted the railroads, sawmills, school enrollment and the main street economy. Population dropped.
When the 1940s came, some recovery came with the steel industry’s demand for iron ore. World War II gave the area mines new life, with the drive for more employees again. After the war ended, however, population again declined in Bessemer.
Mines started to shut down, one by one. The last, the Peterson Mine, closed in 1966, thus ending the 82-year mining area of the Gogebic Iron Range. Neighboring communities in addition to Bessemer felt the impact — longtime businesses left and population hit an all time low.
To the north, the final shuttering of White Pine Copper Mine in 1995 further effected Bessemer’s economy, which resulted in even more residents moving away.
It was through tourism and drawing upon the Bessemer’s area’s many wild and natural attractions that the city began to find its new footing and resource for the future.
Ski resorts opened, taking advantage of “big snow country” and winters saw tourists traveling and staying to hit the slopes throughout the long winters.
Then and now, logging also continues to be a main industry.
“The Depression really shut things down for a long while, but everything is starting to turn around again now,” Bessemer city manager Charly Loper observed.
Cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, snowshoeing and other winter recreation sports all rein in Bessemer with its lake-effect snow from Lake Superior.
Past railroad beds are now trails, some for motorized sports such as all-terrain and utility vehicles or snowmobiles, while others promote silent sports such as hiking, biking and jogging. All tour the area’s scenic countryside.
“ATV and snowmobiling through town are huge assets,” Loper said. “Tourism is everything here, and we have so much to offer here for it.”
The downtown had 14 new businesses arrive last year — with a special pop-up program at work to help several get started and try out the waters before making a long-term commitment.
The city population today is just about 1,900.
“The people are absolutely wonderful here,” Loper added. “I am alway amazed at how the community comes through to support each other.”
The Bessemer Area Historical Society on Sophie Street in downtown Bessemer works to preserve, promote and education people and visitors about the area’s rich history. It stocks several exhibits from mining and logging to farming and home life to newspapers and old city ledgers in addition to military, education and more.
Many pass through the historical society seeking answers for genealogy or past former residents — puzzle pieces Cvengros often enjoys helping find.
Cvengros, who grew up in Bessemer and continues to work and reside in the city, has volunteered with the historical society for almost a decade now.
“I like it, I like meeting people and I enjoy the local history,” Cvengros said. “I like the small town feel.”
One may join the society for a single or family fee, or for annual or lifetime. Those with local historical items can donate them, should they fit the historical society’s mission.
“We’ve been really luck with donors,” Cvengros said. “We’re starting to outgrow our space here.”