Iron was first discovered in the Upper Peninsula by the surveyor William Burt in 1844, but it would take many years and the construction of the Soo Canal in 1855 to make iron production viable in the Lake Superior region. As westward expansion accelerated after the Civil War, the national demand for iron surged, and dozens of Upper Peninsula iron mines and blast furnaces sprang up to meet the demand.
Iron ore was mined in the western Upper Peninsula during this time. Although no ore was mined in the Pictured Rocks area, investors looked to take advantage of the close proximity to the extraction that was occuring in the western half of Upper Peninsula.
The Schoolcraft Iron Company was one of the many new ventures in the area, spearheaded by local agents Peter White and Henry Mather and bankrolled by a group of investors in Philadelphia. The Schoolcraft furnace was constructed near Munising Creek using stone quarried on Grand Island, and a “corduroy” log road was built from the furnace to the lakeshore 1,100 feet away. A small community, the first site of the town of Munising, sprang up around the furnace. The furnace first went into blast on June 28, 1867, and within a year was producing up to twenty tons of pig iron each day.
The smelting process relied on a variety of resources and transportation networks to produce the finished product. Iron ore was mined in the Marquette area and transported by rail and boat to Munising, while limestone was shipped from the Lake Erie region. Logging crews cut beech and maple trees from the 87,000 acres of company land surrounding the furnace, then placed the cut wood into beehive-shaped kilns to be burned down into charcoal. Over 500 workers were employed to help in this labor, and they and their families made up nearly the entire population of Old Munising.
Once the ingredients arrived at the furnace, workers would empty several “charges” of charcoal, crushed ore, and limestone into the top of the furnace each hour. A steam engine pumped heated air into the crucible of the furnace, where the extreme heat liquefied the iron ore. The impurities in the ore fused to the limestone and could be drawn off the top as slag, while the pure iron flowed in a fiery glowing stream into prepared sand molds. The hardened “pigs” of iron (so called because the bars looked like pigs suckling) where then loaded into ships and sent southward to be cast into railroad tracks and train engines.
The furnace experienced turbulent fortunes over its ten years of operation. Shortages of iron or charcoal occasionally caused the furnace to shut down, and poor financial management bankrupted the company in 1870, but the business was reorganized under the direction of Peter White. The furnace was soon running at full production again when the Panic of 1873 and subsequent economic downturn sent the price of iron spiraling. The Panic was blamed largely on over-rapid expansion of railroads into the western US, and new railroad construction virtually stopped as a result. Without its primary buyers, the Schoolcraft furnace never fully recovered. A number of investors attempted to start up the furnace again, but efforts never lasted more than a year. The furnace shut down for the last time in November 1877.
The workers in the town of Old Munising were left with few options after the closure, and most residents left the area. The town itself was eventually moved to its current location to be near local logging operations, while the furnace equipment was melted down in 1901 and recast for use in the Keweenaw copper mines.
Though most traces of the furnace are gone, visitors to Munising Falls can still see remnants of the corduroy log road in the creek downhill from the trail, as well as fragments of slag along the beginning of the North Country Trail. The din of the furnace and the bustle of the town have passed away, leaving only the distant memory of the industry that once dominated the landscape around.
Last updated: January 31, 2022