High School Hoist House
Something about schools attracts abandonment, and I can’t explain it.
After I first heard about Mather Mine B and found it on the map, I thought it had been replaced by twin office buildings. From the satellite maps the full parking lot was encroaching on a half-complete concrete block. Obviously, this was a prefabricated under-construction expansion for the company next door, one that capitalized on the cheap price of former mining land.
Then I got in touch with local historians, who told me I was completely wrong, and I am happier today for it. When I heard what they had to say about the concrete block and the busy parking lot, it all made sense.
The concrete block was the former heart of Mather B, a hoist house, dissected by demolition and displaced next to a new high school, which in fact did make use of the cheap mine land.
As I walked the iron-stained path from the once-suspicious parking lot to the towering train doors, worn into the earth by hundreds of student sneakers, I had to wonder. Is it the fact that Brownfield land usually defaults to local governments for cheap new construction, or is there something that tantalizes our sense of imagination in the shadows of the history we can trace, and the blackness of what we will never experience again? I leave it to the reader to decide.
The shadow of the town’s past is the lone brick building behind the local high school, and where the new eclipses the old is the center of the historic mine shaft, conspicuously capped by the paved parking lot nearby.
When most iron mines around the Upper Peninsula were being shuttered, gutted and razed, Mather Mine B was just revving up. In 1950, the first load of dense, wet ore was hauled into the sunlight, one of thousands to come.
I am often asked, “What happened to the underground mines?” The answer to this very good question is evidence by this mine’s history.
Early in the 1960s, blast furnaces in the East were starting to get their first taste of pelletized iron ore, which many people generally call ‘taconite.’ Pelletized ore are usually the product of open-pit mines (strip mines) because the concentration of that product is lower than what can be derived from deep underground mines.
In order to make the low-quality ore salable, the dirt with iron traces is filtered to leave the iron, then concentrated before being mixed and baked into pellets the size of marbles.
Steel mills found that not only was this new form easy to transport, but the size and shape of taconite made it combust more easily in their blast furnaces; thus, the demand for pelletized ore grew.
A Game of Concentration
Mather’s business model was collapsing for underground mines because in spite of their superior iron concentrations the pit mines could move much more product and concentrate it into pellet form.
To augment their increasingly-obsolete methodology, the Pioneer Pellet Plant was built next to Mather B in 1965.
The Pioneer Pellet Plant received natural iron ore from Mather B, baking and rolling the raw mineral into small, hard pellets. Unlike Minnesotan taconite mills, the Michigan mill did not concentrate the iron content in its pellets; this is mostly due to the nonmagnetic nature of the iron ore in the region. Just two states away, giant electromagnets extracted trace elements from millions of tons of soil; not so at Pioneer.
That said, the Pioneer Pellet Plant was a indeed a pioneer—the first of its kind to pelletize natural, non-concentrated iron ore.
It was no surprise in August of 1978 when Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Company, Mather Mine B’s owner and operator, announced the pellet plant and mine would shut down. The list of abandoned iron mines in Michigan was long, and one record longer the following summer, when “Mather B” joined the roster.
The activity on the site belongs as much to the next generation as the last, although I wonder how many generations it will take for the story of the strange brick building—over there, by the school—to fade back into the grungy shadows.