November 15, 1890: Mining captain ordered to “start digging” at Mountain Iron 

On this day in 1890, the pioneer Merritt family of Duluth ordered their test-pit crew, Captain J. A. Nichols to “Start digging!” According to railroad historian Jeff Lemke, “the Merritt’s good fortune in finding Mesabi Range hematite ore came after Cassius Merritt became employed by the Duluth & Winnipeg Railroad (D&W) in 1888 as head surveyor in laying out their line from Duluth towards Winnipeg. It was Cassius who found the first small amounts of high-grade Mesabi ore, and he and two of his brothers, along with a nephew or two, began the true search for Mesabi ore riches that began in earnest during the spring of 1890.” H. V. Winchell recorded the next day’s success: “On the sixteenth day of November 1890, workmen, under the direction of Captain J. A. Nichols, of Duluth, Minnesota, encountered soft hematite in a test-pit on the Northwest Quarter of Section Three, Township Fifty-eight, Range Eighteen, West of the Fourth Principal Meridian. The mine, now called Mountain Iron, was the first body of soft ore discovered on the Mesabi Iron Range.” But, as Lemke explains, the Merritts only wanted to mine the ore. They didn’t want to build a railroad to transport it. But they could not convince other railroads to build a connecting line to their ore deposits and the following June incorporated the Duluth, Missabe & Northern Railway Company. It was an expensive operation, including the construction of a massive ore dock in Duluth. They would eventually seek financing from John D. Rockefeller, which would prove to be a huge mistake. Read about how Rockefeller ended up with all of the Merritt’s mining assets and then battled with Andrew Carnegie, Henry Oliver, and Duluth’s Chester Congdon over the Mesabi Range, here.

Today much of what’s left of the Iron Mountain Mine has become a lake.

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