Iron County, Wisconsin - "A Wisconsin Heritage Area"


Before the area had been settled the area known today as Iron County, Wisconsin had been yielding a wealth of natural resources.  The area’s heritage is linked between the area’s vast resources and the people trying to better their future with its wealth.

The first non-native American settler’s to Iron County were the French fur traders in the late 1600’s.  These traders followed their Chippewa guides from Lake Superior south via the Flambeau Trail to their nation at Lac du Flambeau.   This ancient native American trading route began with a 45 mile portage that linked Lake Superior to the navigable river ways and lakes to the south.  Water became the resource that dictated the early transportation and commerce of the area.  It was much quicker & easier to float the tradeable goods & people downstream in canoes than it was to fight the dense woods of the overland trails.

By the late 1800’s, the impressive forests of northern Wisconsin were viewed as a new source to supply growing demand for building materials to relieve the demand from the rapidly growing cities and farms in the Midwest.  The same rivers and lakes that were used by the fur traders were used to float the buoyant pine & cedar logs to sawmills in the central part of the state.  The winter time was the easiest time to harvest the timber products and move them over ice covered roads via horse teams to landings on the rivers.  The timber was then floated down river in the spring, when the rivers were at their highest.

Most of the pine logs were harvested by the turn of the century, but vast forests of hardwood remained.  This type of timber created a new problem for the loggers as it was not buoyant and could not be floated down river like the pine logs, and must be transported over land.  These forests would remain untouched until the arrival of the railroad in the late 1890’s.  The logging industry thrived in the area until the demand for plywood fell after World War II.  Once there was a lack of demand for the timber products the logging companies moved on to other areas leaving behind many unemployed workers.

Though there was a lack of demand and supply had been running short for the timber industry, the area had more natural resources to take advantage of.  Not all of the area’s resources could be found above ground.  Iron ore, the area’s “red gold,” could be found throughout the Penokee-Gogebic range and in 1885 the area’s first iron ore was mined.

Iron mines began popping up around the area and the area soon became known as “The Iron Range.”  This iron boom, as it was known, helped the area during the harsh times of The Great Depression & both World War I & II.  Eventually the burst on this iron boom as investors lost confidence, and the iron ore market declined.  The area’s last mine, “The Cary,” was closed in 1962 and the area’s residents were forced to find a different way to survive.

By the early 1900’s, much of Iron County land had been cutover.  The logging companies had moved west, leaving behind many acres of stump filled land.  This gave many of the new immigrants coming to America a opportunity to own their own land.  Not all the new settlers came to the area for farming, as many came to work in the iron mines first and then moved to farms as they had lived in Europe.  The transformation from a miner to a farmer was a slow process and few were successful in producing a paying operation, even with other forms of supplemental off farm work.

With the lands of Iron County sometimes being difficult for the farmers, some of the miners & loggers also transitioned into tourism.  They established many resorts and corner market stores that in some cases are still in use today.  Today farming continues to be important for industry for Iron County but it has given way to tourism as the top economic resource.  The area’s businesses are able to take advantage of the changing climates and offer many different activities and attractions for people from all over the world to come take advantage of.

Visitors are drawn to many area attractions:

  • Waterfalls - Home to +15 waterfalls, many of which appear on the Top 10 Largest Waterfalls in Wisconsin
  • Saxon Harbor - On the shores of Lake Superior.  Even if a boat is not an option, the harbor is a popular destination for picnicking, ATVing, camping & hiking
  • Averages +200 inches of snow per year
    • +500 miles of well-groomed snowmobile trails
    • 175,000 acres of off trail boondocking
    • +20 established cross country ski & snowshoe trails
  • +200 miles of maintained ATV/UTV trails
  • Whitecap Ski Resort - One of Wisconsin's largest ski resorts offering a 400 foot vertical drop and in the summer offers golf, disk golf, mountain biking and much more
  • +220 Lakes - many offering public access
    • 2 Flowages - Turtle Flambeau Flowage & Gile Flowage
    • Fishing - one of the most popular attractions in Iron County with numerous tournaments being held throughout the year
    • +100 miles of trout streams
  • 377,900 acres of forest land - nearly 80% of the land
  • Iron County Historical Museum - 3 stories of Iron County History housed in the old County Courthouse building, built in 1893
  • Iron County Farmers Market - Established in the late 1970’s. Providing an outlet for area growers & artisans to sell locally grown & handmade products, while also providing an education forum for the customers
  • Northern Highland Continental Divide - Surface waters to the north of this demarcation line flow to Lake Superior & waters to the south flow to the Mississippi River
  • Gogebic - Iron County Airport - Providing Gogebic & Iron county access to the National Air Transportation system, dedicated in 1930
  • Events throughout the year to entertain the whole family
    • Memorial Weekend ATV/UTV Rally - Poker run, live music, vendors, and lots of mud (Memorial Day Weekend)
    • Iron County Heritage Festival - A 2 week festival to celebrate and learn about Iron County's past (Last week in July & First week of August)
    • Iron County Fair - Live entertainment, carnival rides, exhibits and more (First week in August)
    • Iron County’s “Fall Color Tour” - A spectacular show of color in the area’s hardwood forest (Fall)