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1 THE MERRITT FAMILY AND THE MESABI IRON RANGE The Mesabi Iron Range The Merritts first arrived at the head of Lake Superior from Chautauqua County, New York, in 1855 and 1856. My great-­ grandfather Lewis Howell Merritt and his oldest son, Napoleon, came in 1855 at the request of Edmund F. Ely, early missionary to the Indians, to supervise the construction of a sawmill in what is now Duluth at Fortieth Avenue West. Great-­ grandmother Hephzibah and her five sons arrived in 1856 and lived on a quarter section in Oneota, where the Merritts built the first hotel and schoolhouse. The mother of the Merritt boys was a small but sturdy woman born in 1812 who, according to my grandfather Alfred, was “universally beloved and ever helpful to the community.” There were eight Merritt boys in the family, five of whom grew up at the head of the lake. They attended the first school in the Duluth area, built by the boys’ father, and were taught by their older brother, Jerome, the first schoolteacher in Duluth. While growing up, at least some of the boys became friends with the local Ojibwe Indians, especially Leonidas, who became a blood brother of Loon Foot.1 They worked different jobs around the waterfront, both in the woods and at the sawmill built by the Wheelers and the Merritts. The Merritt Family 2 Alfred became interested in sailing and at nineteen worked as a deckhand on the schooner Pierpont, on which he visited Washington Harbor, Isle Royale, in 1866 to drop off fifteen hundred empty kegs for the fishermen there. They returned six weeks later and picked up the hundred-­ pound kegs, all full of salted lake trout, whitefish, and herring. The next year, 1867, Alfred and his older brother Leonidas worked as chain men on the survey for the first railroad to reach Duluth, the Lake Superior and Mississippi. They built the first commercial vessel in Duluth, a forty-­ nine-­ ton schooner named the Chaska, which was sixty-­ seven feet long, and then built the schooner Handy to haul stone to the pier at the Superior Entry and the breakwater at Ontonagon, Michigan. They traded up and down both the north and south shores of Lake Superior, peddling flour, sugar, and salt among other food items. Around this same time, in the winter of 1865–­ 66, Lewis Howell Merritt joined the gold rush to Lake Vermilion, not far north from the Mesabi Range. On his way, some eighty teams of horses passed him, heading back to town along the Vermilion trail. After looking over the Vermilion property, he was not “boomed over the gold find.” He was impressed, however, by the prospect of iron ore mining after being shown a chunk of iron ore by the blacksmith North Albert Posey. When he came home he told his sons that “someday there would be great mines discovered up in that region worth more than all the gold of California.” Alfred would later say that “those words perhaps influenced us in later years to discover the Mesabi Range.”2 Brothers Leonidas, Alfred, and Cassius worked in the woods around Duluth cutting white pine and prospered as lumberjacks. As they tramped through the muskeg swamps and among the white pine they remembered their father’s words and looked for signs of iron ore. In the mid-­ 1880s Cassius became head surveyor for the Duluth and Winnipeg Railroad. During the summer of 1887 he uncovered a large chunk of iron ore near the height of land, west of present-­ day Mountain Iron. The sample was taken to Duluth and The Merritt Family 3 proved to be the first pure iron ore taken off the Mesabi Range. As a result Uncle Lon, Grandfather, and Cassius, joined by nephews Wilbur and John E., began an intensive, organized search for iron ore along Giant’s Ridge, as the Mesabi Range is sometimes called. They hired men to dig test pits using shovels and, at times, the new diamond drills invented by Edmund J. Longyear. In March 1889 Alfred took a crew of six men to Mountain Iron. They traveled to Tower on the Duluth and Iron Range Railroad and left from there. They had “three dog trains and we were the dogs,” Grandfather said in his autobiography. They focused on the south side of the Continental Divide, along the height of land on Giant’s Ridge.3 On November 16, 1890, they found the first large body of rich...


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