Column: History of an iron smelting town

ESCANABA — Few places in the world do I feel as though I can be within a town and simultaneously be  in nature. One of those places is Fayette Historic State Park. I was lucky enough to spend time researching and getting to know what life might have looked like back in the 1800s and I have come to one conclusion: I am so lucky to live in such a historically and culturally rich area. Tourism to me isn’t simply the act of getting on the plane or in the minivan and taking pictures along the way. It is a community of people willing to share with outsiders what life was once like, what life means today, and the opportunity to experience it all. So feel free to share with others this little tidbit of our beautiful area via email or through your social media. You can also find the full blog post at Visit Escanaba.com. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. 

Left  Behind 

In the little historic townsite of Fayette tucked along Snail Shell Harbor, there are some nineteen structures that stand. They are what is left behind of time when the cost of a suit was $17, profitable employment was rare, and many children sacrificed their education to help out at home. It was a time of boom, and with every boom comes a consequential bust. When walking the roads of Fayette one must be careful not to fall blind to the many stories eager for their shot in the light. Yes, buildings are what remain visible to the eye in this old ghost town but to the nineteenth century iron industry entrepreneurs they saw an opportunity, a hope for prosperity, and something to leave behind for their children. 

Jackson Iron Company

According to the Report on the Machine Shop and other Shops at Fayette Iron Works by Larry Lankton in 2018, Fayette was an attractive prospect. In 1864, the Peninsula Railroad made the connection between Negaunee mine to Escanaba, which soon acquired an iron loading dock and later became a bustling port city. This location allowed for a longer shipping season and was more cost-effective than shipping in Lake Superior.

The Jackson Iron Company, who operated iron mines in Negaunee, especially had their eyes set on Snail Shell Harbor. In 1867, Fayette Brown the company agent (hence the town name) was given the okay to start construction of an iron smelting works. In no time, the first furnace was up and running in December of 1867 and a second was constructed in 1870. By smelting ore locally it could ship pig iron off to larger markets. Mr. Fayette Brown started construction in Snail Shell Harbor just two years after the Civil War in which pig iron had seen an influx in demand for the production of cannons, pistols, rifles, and railroad locomotives. Coincidence, I think not. 

For those of us who do not have a science degree, including myself, this is the simplest explanation for the iron smelting process performed by the Jackson Iron Company. First, the raw iron ore would come in from Negaunee where it was mined, next on the train to Escanaba then it would be put onto scows dragged by tugboats with Fayette being its destination. Last into the furnaces at Fayette to remove impurities. Voila, you have pig iron. In other simpler terms smelting is the process of heating metal to extract a more desirable base metal. Dare I try simpler terms? Smelting is using heat to separate the bad stuff from the good stuff. 

These large furnace towers are enchanting to the eye and the most noticeable feature about the Fayette townsite. You can’t miss them. Perhaps, this was on purpose because the town was essentially built for one purpose: iron production. And produce, it did. These furnaces were like silver medal winners at the Olympics of nineteenth-century furnaces (at least in the Upper Peninsula) and produced a whopping 229,288 tons of pig iron. For the people who once lived there, these towers must have been an everyday reminder of what the foundation of existence was for this little community.

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Baylie Bullington is with the staff of Visit Escanaba


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