March 17, 1889: Alfred Merritt begins expedition to what is now the Mesabi Iron Range

Alfred Merritt. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

On this day in 1889, Alfred Merritt and a crew of six men started off on an expedition that would eventually lead to the opening of the Mesabi Iron Range. Here’s how Alfred recounted the story in 1917: “The year 1889 the first work was done on what is now the Mountain Iron Mine. I took a crew of six men in by way of Tower, on March 17. Started from Tower with three dog trains, and we were the dogs. We went in by way of Pike River, and then by way of Rice Lake, then to Mountain Iron. We dug test pits, and finally drilled. All work was done on the south half of section 34, township 59 north of range 18 west. We found that we were too far north for ore, and on going south found the ore on section 4, directly south of our first work, the summer of 1890. No one who has not gone through the hardships and the discouragements of keeping a camp going, out so far from the base of supplies, can realize what one has to contend with. The raising of money alone was no small job, and worst of all the task of endeavoring to keep up the courage of one’s partners. After the ore was found we then had to look for transportation.” It would take Merritt and his fellow investors to find that transportation; they did it by building the Duluth, Missabe & Northern Railroad. But it took until 1893 to deliver the first load of ore to their docks in Duluth. By then, John D. Rockefeller had become the controlling investor in their enterprises. When the Financial Panic of 1893 shook the nation’s economy, Rockefeller called in his debts and essentially took control of everything the Merritts had built. Read Alfred Merritt’s autobiography here.

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