Mining truth from myth
It's been 117 years since Grant Merritt's grandfather Alfred helped pioneer the exploration and discovery of iron ore on the Mesabi Range. But Merritt said he feels obliged to correct errors and omissions in some of the historical accounts of the...
It's been 117 years since Grant Merritt's grandfather Alfred helped pioneer the exploration and discovery of iron ore on the Mesabi Range. But Merritt said he feels obliged to correct errors and omissions in some of the historical accounts of the monumental discovery and its aftermath.
"There are some [historical accounts] that have it right, but more that have it wrong," said Merritt, 72, a Twin Cities attorney. "Some of the professors that have written about this haven't looked at both sides."
It's generally agreed that a Merritt brothers' exploration team headed by Capt. J.A. Nichols of Duluth found iron ore on Nov. 16, 1890, near what is now Mountain Iron, said Marty Vadis, director of the state Department of Natural Resources Lands and Minerals Division.
But there's more to the story, Merritt said.
Merritt will speak Monday at the University of Minnesota Duluth about the iron ore discovery, a recently discovered letter that he says could have kept the Merritt brothers in control of their mines, and the controversial 1970s Reserve Mining Co. tailings disposal case.
"It's kind of a set-the-record-straight proposition," said Glenn Maxham of Duluth, a former Duluth TV station news director who helped organize Monday's event. "I have heard at one time that a tree had blown over and there was iron ore beneath it. There have been all kinds of myths."
WORKING THE WILDERNESS
The saga began with North Albert Posey, an Indian blacksmith who showed Lewis Merritt a chunk of iron ore during a gold rush near Lake Vermilion about 1875, Merritt said.
"When he [Lewis] came home, he told his sons that some day there would be great mines discovered up in that region worth all the gold in California," Merritt said.
In the mid-1880s, while working for a railroad, one of the sons, Cassius, discovered a large piece of iron ore just west of what is now Mountain Iron, he said.
In 1887, the Merritt brothers began exploring the region, an undeveloped, rugged wilderness, Merritt said. After taking a train from Two Harbors to Tower, the explorers would walk, carrying tools and supplies in backpacks.
"My father said they'd go up to Tower and then to Mountain Iron, and 'we'd have our sled dogs with us and we were the sled dogs,' " Merritt said.
"They hired teams and looked for iron ore for 2½ years," he said. "They used picks and shovels and dug a 14-foot-deep test pit [at Mountain Iron]. They took the rock to Duluth, had it assayed and found it was 64 percent iron. Even the ore that Cassius had found before that just west of Mountain Iron was rock."
The brothers, who came from Duluth and were joined by nephews, became known as "The Seven Iron Men."
The discovery, along with ore findings on other parts of the Iron Range, ignited a massive industry that for more than a century has provided the raw material used to make steel.
The Merritts went on to develop mines at Mountain Iron and Biwabik and built a railroad and dock in Duluth to transport the ore.
But five years later their fortune was gone.
Amid mining, transportation and processing problems; along with a stock market crash, competition from another railroad and court disputes, the Merritts lost their holdings to Eastern entrepreneur John D. Rockefeller.
In February 1894 Rockefeller took control of the mining assets the Merritts had developed -- through fraud, according to Merritt, who said he has a letter proving Rockefeller lied about the value of his mining assets before the two families' properties were consolidated.
Merritt says it's been frustrating to read incorrect accounts of the discovery and says Rockefeller and his associates "did not play fair and square with the Merritts."
A book written by Theodore Blegen, a deceased American historian, describes the discovery of iron ore when "the big wheels of a heavy wagon cut down in the soil to a red, powdery substance."
Other books also contain inaccurate accounts, Merritt said.
"I don't like to see all these historical inaccuracies perpetuated," said Merritt, who grew up in Duluth and was Minnesota Pollution Control Agency commissioner from 1971 to 1975. "It bothers me a great deal."
The Merritt family still owns about 2,800 acres of property near Hoyt Lakes, Merritt said. But after losing their fortune, the brothers never had an appetite to return to the Mesabi Range. They were buried in Duluth, he said.
"They pretty much left the Range when they lost everything," Merritt said. "They couldn't stomach going up there."
LEE BLOOMQUIST can be reached weekdays at (800) 368-2506, (218) 744-2354 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .