History of Bessemer

"Bessemer Herald" June 28, 1921

For Bessemer Town

Up in the north of Michigan
A wondrous town you'll find
It's citizens of every race
Who live in peace that bind.

Those ties which form true fellowship
Within the hearts of man
God bless the town of Bessemer,
In Upper Michigan.

Her name is known throughout the world,
A monument of fame,
For Bessemer, the scientist,
Produced the steel that came
To be the greatest benefit
For mankind o'er the world,
No wonder then that Bessemer
The town has not unfurled
A banner of fraternity
Where no race hatred finds
A place to plant its poison seeds
Within good honest minds.

So march on Town of Bessemer!
Old mining town so fair!
These ideals bring prosperity
And honor everywhere!

Matt Fetridge
Chicago Booster Bard

Old drawing of Bessemer, MI from 1888

Bessemer, the county seat of Gogebic County, is finely situated on the northern slope of Colby hill. It is protected from the wind on all sides by high, picturesque bluffs that add to the natural beauty of the site.

It's history is just as colorful and interesting. The city's beginning must be traced back to Ontonagon County

Historical photo of a carriage with people being pulled by two horses in Bessemer

which was created in 1852 and extended west to the Montreal River on the Wisconsin border. The Ontonagon County included two townships-Ontonagon and Pewabic. Pewabic included the present townships of Carp Lake, Matchwood, Bergland, and all of present Gogebic County. The earliest explorations of Bessemer were done by single men of small exploring parties. In 1880, a hunter and trapper Richard Langford, discovered iron ore under an overturned birch tree. However, Captain N. D. Moore is credited with disclosing the ore which led to the development of the Colby property. In 1882, a few log cabins were built. The Dolan house of logs was one of the first built on what is now East Mary Street. Bessemer was a heavily timbered region which would later lead to the lumber industry. Mining began in 1883.

By 1884, the Milwaukee Lake Shore and Western Railroad (later the Chicago and Northwestern) was being built from Antigo, WI to Ashland, WI by way of the new mines. The railroad company platted the town of Bessemer in 1884. The President of the railroad named the town in honor of Sir Henry Bessemer, who discovered the smelting process which bears his name. By 1885 a boom was on in the city and people began to filter into Bessemer in increasing numbers. The railroad was finished to Ashland and ore from the Colby open pit mine was hauled by horse teams to the railroad line by the First and Last Chance Saloon which is the present corner of old County Road and Fourth Street. Here it was dumped into railroad cars and shipped to the Ashland ore docks. Miners were usually paid in gold which caused frequent robberies. This was a problem since the Sheriff was in the county seat in Ontonagon miles away

. Communication was difficult. It was not until March 1, 1863 when Abraham Lincoln signed into law an act that created the "Military Road" that travel was possible to Ontonagon, but only in the winter because the road was too muddy in the spring. Thus, by 1887, Bessemer was a wide open town with fifty saloons and with little regard for the law. Almost all of the early settlers were young people who were husky and were not afraid of hard work and privation. First came a group of mixed Americans, surveyors, prospectors who laid bare the iron ore deposits. Then came the miners. The Cornish, Irish, Scandinavian, French Canadian, and Polish. The latter were mainly railroad workers, also Finns and a few Jews.

The first church service was held in 1885 by Rev. D. S. Banks a Presbyterian minister, and Rev. Father Hennesy, a Roman Catholic priest, arrived in 1886.

June 4, 1886 Gogebic County was separated from Ontonagon and Captain Sellwood who was in charge of the Colby Open Pit (also called The Sellwood Properties)became the first supervisor of the new Gogebic County.

In March 1887, 360 voting members assembled and voted to organize the village of Bessemer. In the same year Gogebic County was officially created by the Michigan Legislature. Also in the year Bessemer and Ironwood called an election to see which city would be the county seat and also have the Court House. Ironwood secured the support of the railroad workers and people in Watersmeet. When Bessemer pioneers Paul Rutiman, Sr. and Joe Pecard found out about this, they plotted to change Ironwood's plan. Ironwood men traveling to Bessemer to vote were made drunk and the train did not stop at the voting site. Ironwood lost and Bessemer gained the county seat. This began a rivalry between the two cities that sill has not ended even today. The site selected to build the court house was the cemetery, as a result bodies were removed to the new cemetery Hillcrest. One far sighted individual suggested that the court house be built of stone rather that wood.
Palms Mine workers with carbide lamps

Mining was the major industry and as more mines were developed, nearly every home boarded men. Some homes had as many as 21 men at a time and a hired girl helped cook, clean, wash the miners clothes, and make their lunch pails. The miner was paid from $1.05 to $2.00 per day, the hired girl was paid $8.00 per month.

Conditions in the mines were dangerous and unsanitary. 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 that they would go blind.

Along with the miner came the lumberjack. Logging was the number two industry of Bessemer and the range. In the beginning pine was king and other trees were bypassed. Logging camps were opened and saw mills sprang up. Lumberjacks worked vigorously through winter months at a rate of $12.00 to $28.00 a month. In the spring the men came into town just long enough to spend their winter's earnings and the vanished until fall. Suddenly after a very few years, the pine was gone and the logging industry began a long, steady decline. Now it is done by machinery and small groups of men who live in town and drive to work each day.

From 1884 to December 31, 1958, a period of seventy-five years, the iron ore shipment from all of Gogebic County totaled over 245 million tons. In 1966 the last mine in Bessemer-the Peterson Mine was closed. Many left the area to work in car factories in Kenosha, and the local economy underwent a serious decline. Stability has returned to the area as many of these jobs have been replaced with jobs in the service industry, health care, and small manufacturing. Today the City of Bessemer's industries are mainly logging & lumbering and tourism. Four season sports helps it to continue to grow.

Did You Know?

  • Bessemer named for Sir Henry Bessemer (1813-1898), English inventor of steel manufacturing

  • 1880 - Richard Langford finds hematite on Colby Hill

  • 1884 - Bessemer Platted

  • 1884 - Milwaukee, Lake Shore & Western Railroad arrives in Bessemer

  • 1886-1887 - Ironton, Puritan, & Palms Mines begin operation

  • 1887 - Abe Abelman establishes clothing business, store still in operation

  • 1889 - Bessemer incorporated as a city

  • 1889 - Bessemer population is 2,566

  • 1891-1892 - Tilden & Yale Mines begin

  • 1891 - City fire department organizaed

  • 1905 - Telephone service has 121 subscribers

  • 1906 - Long distance telephone service starts in city

  • 1907 - Dedication of new high school, later named A.D. Johnston High School

  • 1908 - (July 25) Temperature reaches 112 degrees at noon on Sophie Street

  • 1920 - Bessemer Population is 5,402

  • 1920 - One million gallon water tank completed on Carlson's bluff

  • 1922 - Washington School dedication

  • 1928 - Good Friday through Easter late winter storm 28" of snowfall

  • 1930-1931 - Bessemer High School Football team wins U.P. Championship

  • 1931 - Rex Theater shows first 'talkie'

  • 1937 - Massie Field dedicated

  • 1940 - Bessemer Population is 4,068

  • 1945 - Thanksgiving Day storm drops 24" of snow

  • 1946 - Steiger Lumber Company begins sawmill operations

  • 1950 - Bessemer population is 3,509

  • 1950 - Marty's Goldenaires founded

  • 1960 - Bessemer population is 3,304

  • 1966 - Peterson Mine closes, producing 5 million tons of ore in 13 years

Be Historical

Interested in learning more about the history of Bessemer? Looking for information on family, businesses, or happenings in Bessemer throughout the years?  The Bessemer Area Historical Society is here to assist those looking to learn more about the great history and heritage of the Bessemer area.  The society's visitor center is located on Sophie Street in downtown Bessemer.