A Brief History of the Area

Iron County - Wisconsin's Snow Capital

Before the area had been settled the area known today as Iron County, Wisconsin had been yielding a wealth of natural resources.  The area’s heritage is linked between the area’s vast resources and the people trying to better their future with its wealth.


The first non-native American settlers to Iron County were the French fur traders in the late 1600s.  These traders followed their Chippewa guides from Lake Superior south via the Flambeau Trail to their nation at Lac du Flambeau.   This ancient Native American trading route began with a 45-mile portage that linked Lake Superior to the navigable riverways and lakes to the south.  Water became the resource that dictated the early transportation and commerce of the area.  It was much quicker & easier to float the tradeable goods & people downstream in canoes than it was to fight the dense woods of the overland trails.


By the late 1800s, the impressive forests of northern Wisconsin were viewed as a new source to supply the growing demand for building materials to relieve the demand from the rapidly growing cities and farms in the Midwest.  The same rivers and lakes that were used by the fur traders were used to float the buoyant pine & cedar logs to sawmills in the central part of the state.  The wintertime was the easiest time to harvest the timber products and move them over ice-covered roads via horse teams to landings on the rivers.  The timber was then floated down the river in the spring when the rivers were at their highest.


Most of the pine logs were harvested by the turn of the century, but vast forests of hardwood remained.  This type of timber created a new problem for the loggers as it was not buoyant and could not be floated down the river like the pine logs, and must be transported over land.  These forests would remain untouched until the arrival of the railroad in the late 1890s.  The logging industry thrived in the area until the demand for plywood fell after World War II.  Once there was a lack of demand for the timber products the logging companies moved on to other areas leaving behind many unemployed workers.


Though there was a lack of demand and supply had been running short for the timber industry, the area had more natural resources to take advantage of.  Not all of the area’s resources could be found above ground.  Iron ore, the area’s “red gold,” could be found throughout the Penokee-Gogebic range and in 1885 the area’s first iron ore was mined.


Iron mines began popping up around the area and the area soon became known as “The Iron Range.”  This iron boom, as it was known, helped the area during the harsh times of The Great Depression & both World War I & II.  Eventually, the bubble burst on this iron boom as investors lost confidence, and the iron ore market declined.  The area’s last mine, “The Cary,” was closed in 1962 and the area’s residents were forced to find a different way to survive.


By the early 1900s, much of Iron County land had been cutover.  The logging companies had moved west, leaving behind many acres of stump-filled land.  This gave many of the new immigrants coming to America an opportunity to own their own land.  Not all the new settlers came to the area for farming, as many came to work in the iron mines first and then moved to farms as they had lived in Europe.  The transformation from a miner to a farmer was a slow process and few were successful in producing a paying operation, even with other forms of supplemental off-farm work.


With the lands of Iron County sometimes being difficult for the farmers, some of the miners & loggers also transitioned into tourism.  They established many resorts and corner market stores that in some cases are still in use today.  Today farming continues to be important for industry for Iron County but it has given way to tourism as the top economic resource.  The area’s businesses are able to take advantage of the changing climates and offer many different activities and attractions for people from all over the world to come and take advantage of.

Mercer, WI - Loon Capital of the World

Located between three lakes, Mercer, Wisconsin has made its reputation as a tourist area since the railroad brought the first people there in the 1890s.  Vacationers from all over would travel on the railroads and spend summers at Mercer’s area resorts.  There were also numerous boy & girl scout camps throughout the area that would bring children north for a summer full of fun.


In 1926, the waters of the Turtle River and Manitowish River were dammed to create a “systematic flow” of water that would generate power to make paper.  This became known as the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage Dam which flooded nine natural lakes, portions of the Turtle & Manitowish Rivers, and many swamps to create the 18,900-acre Turtle-Flambeau Flowage.  The “TFF,” as it is locally known, became a prime destination for anglers and a tourist attraction for both the Mercer & Springstead areas.


After the loggers moved on from the area many devasting fires worked their way through the area.  To help combat this new danger, workers from the CCC & WCD erected and manned a network of “fire towers” that were located throughout the area.  Many new fire prevention programs were started around this time.  This included the “Smokey the Bear” campaign, which would help create the long-time popular character through an ad campaign that was centered around fire prevention.  The first “Smokey the Bear” costume was created by a Conservation Department employee at the Mercer Station.


In the early days the trip from Chicago, IL to Mercer, WI would take two days.  Obtaining gas & tires was a challenge, and maps & road signs made navigating quite a challenge.  As the automobile was produced and together with improvements in highways, the area’s tourism saw great improvements.  This led to the development of many area resorts, which helped fuel the tourism rush.  The area’s resorts, along with the Boy & Girl Scout camps that were located in the area, would help the area’s economy through the tough times of waiting for the forests to replenish themselves.


Logging remains an important part of the area’s economy, but tourism has replaced it as the main source.  There are a few remaining resorts, though many vacationers from the cities have made the area their second home.  The area’s many lakes make it a very attractive destination for people looking to build their second home.

Hurley, WI - A Place Where Everyone Can Play

Hurley is situated in the northern part of the state near the border with Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The history of Hurley is closely tied to the mining and lumber industries that dominated the region in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Hurley was founded in 1884 during the height of the iron mining boom in the area. The city was named after M. A. Hurley, a prominent attorney and landowner. The discovery of rich iron ore deposits in the Penokee Range attracted many settlers to the region, leading to the rapid development of mining communities like Hurley.

Iron mining became the backbone of Hurley's economy, and the city quickly grew as more people arrived to work in the mines. Numerous mines and processing facilities were established in the area, providing employment opportunities and driving population growth. The mines in and around Hurley produced millions of tons of iron ore, which was transported by rail to industrial centers across the country.

The logging industry also played a significant role in Hurley's history. The surrounding forests provided abundant timber resources, and logging camps sprang up to meet the demand for lumber. Logs were floated down rivers to mills, where they were processed into timber for construction and other purposes. Sawmills and related industries thrived in Hurley, contributing to the local economy and providing additional jobs.

During its early years, Hurley experienced rapid growth and development. The city became a hub for commerce, with numerous businesses catering to the needs of the growing population. Infrastructure, including roads, railways, and utilities, was expanded to accommodate the expanding industries and support the community.

Hurley also became known for its vibrant social scene. The city boasted theaters, saloons, and entertainment venues, attracting people from all walks of life. It was a center of cultural and recreational activities for the mining and logging communities in the region.

Over time, however, the mining and logging industries declined, and Hurley's population and economy were affected. Changes in market conditions, labor disputes, and depletion of natural resources led to the closure of many mines and mills. The city faced economic challenges and a decline in population.

Despite these setbacks, Hurley has persevered and adapted. Today, the city has diversified its economy, focusing on tourism, outdoor recreation, and small businesses. Its location in the heart of the Northwoods, with its scenic beauty and abundant recreational opportunities, has made it a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts.

Hurley's history as a mining and logging town is still evident in its architecture and heritage. Visitors can explore historic buildings, learn about the city's past at local museums, and experience the charm of a community deeply connected to its industrial roots.

Overall, Hurley's history reflects the rise and fall of the mining and logging industries in the region, and its ability to adapt and reinvent itself in the face of changing economic circumstances.