ONTONAGON, Mich. (WJMN) – The town of Ontonagon is rich in history with ties to the lumber, mining, maritime, railroad, and farming industries that have helped shape it into the town we see today.

“Initially it was all Native Americans of course prior to 1600. And sometime in the 1600s the French came, and they got heavily into the fur trade industry,” Dean Juntunen with the Ontonagon County Historical Society said. “So the whole Lake Superior basin was French fur trading industry prior to the existence of modern day Ontonagon. Modern day Ontonagon came about basically because of Ohio believe it or not.”

After the State of Michigan acquired the Upper Peninsula in 1837 through the Toledo War, an abundance of natural resources were unearthed in the U.P.

A copper mass found in the Minesota Mine
Photo Courtesy: Michigan Tech Archives

“So immediately the Governor hired a state geologist Douglas Houghton to come up here and survey the U.P. and see what we got up here,” Juntunen said. “He found all kinds of minerals and copper in particular. So right shortly thereafter, the copper boom started so in the 1840’s a lot of development of copper mines up here in this area, including Ontonagon. The first one was 1848 over in Rockland at the Minnesota Mine, and that was our most profitable mine here in the U.P. until the White Pine Mine came later. The town of Ontonagon then had to grow up to serve as a port for the copper mines basically. So by the 1850’s there was a legitimate town here.”

With a town comes the need to build things and the lumber industry began to boom for the town of Ontonagon.

“LIMA” Norton Lumber Co.
Photo Courtesy: Ontonagon County Historical Society

“The mining area needed timber,” John Doyle with the Ontonagon County Historical Society said. “You had to have timber for houses so that is where that started. John Parker started the first sawmill here in about 1855 and the first house that was built here and is still standing with lumber from his mill. So they had to cut stuff for the mines because you have to have timber and such for the mining effort, so that started the timber industry up here.”

Sharing natural resources with the rest of the country didn’t happen on its own. The Porterfield and Ellis Railroad Company found a unique way around the terrain of the western U.P.

Andy Lemerond and Gerald DeHut in 1924
Photo Courtesy: Ontonagon County Historical Society

“They had something called the loops on their railroads and what a loop was was just a big dip in the railroad instead of building just a giant, expensive railroad trestle up at the top of the river valley,” Juntunen said. “They would just go down the hill with the rails, make a small bridge across the river at the bottom and then go up a big hill on the other side and they called those loops. The loops were not only employed here in Michigan but there were also employed elsewhere. Supposedly our railroad loop had the steepest grade found anywhere and the engineer was named Gerald DeHut. He wrote a nice story that we have here on his days lumbering and he said that in order to make it up the far side hill he had to go 70 mph on the downhill grade. With the little old steam engine, they are just blasting down the hill with wind flying everywhere. DeHut wrote that they could not fire the furnace while they were doing the loop because it would suck in shovels and everything else. The suction was just way too great at the speed.”

Mining is no longer practiced, but logging, farming, and now tourism are still a part of the Ontonagon landscape today.

If you are interested in taking a deeper dive into the people, traditions, and things that helped shape Ontonagon into what it is today, you can visit the Ontonagon County Historical Society Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.

For more information on the Ontonagon County Historical Society, click here.