Stephenson Avenue becomes early heart of city

Downtown Iron Mountain has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. To recognize this honor, The Daily News is publishing a 10-part series on the history of downtown Iron Mountain.

These accounts were researched and written by Robert O. Christensen, National Register Coordinator from the State Historic Preservation Office in Lansing, and edited by Dickinson County Historian William Cummings.

The first plat of land in Iron Mountain, surveyed October 29, 1879, included the early heart of the city centered on Stephenson between Fleshiem and Hughitt. This became the heart of the early city because of its location near both the Chapin Mine and the Chicago & North Western depot.

The first stores in the embryonic business district soon located here. Mrs. A. D. Stiles’ history of early Iron Mountain states that Frank Ayers, a bachelor from the state of Maine, who had been exploring (for ore) in this vicinity was the first to have a building ready for occupancy. It was located on the southeast corner of Stephenson Avenue and Ludington Street.

Ayers procured lumber from Marinette and cut cedar in a nearby swamp for studding and floor sills. After thebuilding was completed he put in a small stock of “Lumber-Jack” furnishings, including mittens, overalls, stockings, shoepacks, tobacco, liquor, etc. Later he started a restaurant, the first in the place. He next added groceries and meats.

In the spring of 1880, he sold a half interest to William Doucette. About two months later Mr. Doucette became sole proprietor and Mr. Ayers left for parts unknown.

Charles E. Parent, Sr., should have the credit of having been the first general merchant in the town, as he came here in November of 1879, bringing a stock of general merchandise and commenced business in a tent. His family still remained in Menominee. He soon had a building in readiness located on Stephenson Avenue, between Ludington and Brown Streets.

In June 1880 A. P. Swineford, in his The Menominee Range, said of Iron Mountain, “As yet the new town consists of but few buildings, principally saloons.”

But a 1/29/1881 story in The Florence Mining News noted the following businesses: the Kern Bros. hardware, in a two-story building nearing completion; C.E. Parent general store (the article refers to Parent as the “first settler”); C.S. Greece’s restaurant, the Commercial Dining Hall; D.T. Adams’ new music hall, nearing completion; the E. Bannerman general store and Bannerman’s adjoining Iron Mountain House hotel; Steller & Frederick drug store, opening soon; Ben Marchand “liquid dispensatory”; Branch & Parent livery stable, “with sample room attached” (presumably meaning saloon); W.S. Laing meat and poultry market; Joseph Borch’s “confectionary, nuts and eatables” store; and Louis Dittmar’s shoe shop. Most of these businesses occupied buildings along Stephenson’s east side between Fleshiem and Hughitt.

During the 1880’s Stephenson’s east side built up rapidly with wooden commercial buildings.

The few 1880’s photographs of the downtown – a mid-1880’s one shows the north end of the 300 block of Stephenson between Ludington and Hughitt and a later 1880’s view shows the 200 block between Brown and Ludington picture nearly solid rows of wooden one and two-story buildings, mostly falsefronts, with the three-story gable-roof Jenkins Hotel, built in 1881 by Henry W. Jenkins, at the northeast corner of Ludington.

The 1886 Beck & Pauli birdseye view shows nearly solid development of wooden commercial buildings along Stephenson from Fleshiem south to A, with scattered commercial buildings in the next two blocks down to C Street, plus numerous commercial buildings on Brown, Ludington, and Hughitt from east of Stephenson west toward Carpenter.

The 1890’s Sanborn maps show the commercial development expanding more onto A and B Streets near Stephenson and west to Carpenter. Born from Iron contains numerous illustrations of the business district’s early wooden commercial buildings. Many buildings contained residential units, and often a combination of residential and commercial and office uses, upstairs, and, along streets other than Stephenson itself, houses often stood alongside commercial buildings. The district today contains more than a dozen of the late nineteenth-century wooden commercial buildings.

The buildings at 111 E. Brown, 100 E. Hughitt, and 305 and 535-37 Stephenson are the oldest of the downtown’s wooden store buildings; dating from 1884 or earlier, they are true pioneers from the city’s earliest boomtown days.

One of the large wooden buildings of the boom times of the late 1880’s and early 1890s was the McKinney Block at the southwest corner of Carpenter and B Streets. The McKinney was the brainchild of Manistique businessman F.W. McKinney, who, Mrs. Isaac Unger stated in her part of the Iron Mountain history begun by Mrs. Stiles, planned to develop a residential subdivision known as Lawndale on the city’s west side and to remake Hughitt Street leading west from Stephenson into the city’s prime business street.

McKinney built his McKinney Block with a half block frontage on Carpenter’s west side and a combination of apartments and commercial space as part of this development.

A few distant, indistinct photos show the building in its original two-story form, with a tall-roofed tower angled across the Carpenter/B corner and a series of double-decker bay windows along the Carpenter faade south of the corner commercial space. McKinney, according to Mrs. Unger, sold out his interests just before the development collapsed with the economic woes that began in 1892 and continued into 1894.

Badly damaged in a 1931 fire, the building was cut down to a single story, as it stands today, and rebuilt entirely as commercial space.

Even during the 1880’s the concentration of side-by-side wooden buildings along Stephenson resulted in destructive fires. Late in January 1883 a fire destroyed five buildings in the 200 (Brown to Ludington) block, and another fire at the end of December 1886 burned three more buildings. Then, on December 18, 1888, thirteen buildings, most of the block between Fleshiem and Brown, was destroyed. Although these buildings were all less than ten years old, they were described in the newspaper account as “old frame structures” and “wooden rookeries.”

After this last fire the city enacted its first fire limits ordinance, but even before that a few brick commercial buildings were being built.

A newspaper story stated that Oliver & Penglaze, owners of one of the buildings burned in January 1883, planned to build a three-story brick building on the site. This apparently never happened, but grocery-dry goods merchant John Russell did build the (now much altered and expanded) building at 100 E. Brown sometime in the 1884-88 period to house his business and an upstairs hall that served during its early years as the Masonic Temple and Baptist Hall.

The Montgomery Block at 323 S. Stephenson and the first part of the Commercial House hotel (demolished 1987) on West B opposite the Milwaukee & Northern depot were built in 1887.

Many masonry buildings along and just off Stephenson soon followed. The Wood Block-First National Bank at the northeast Stephenson/Ludington corner and the Parent Building located next door to the north at 219 Stephenson were built in 1888 and the Spencer Block (soon to be the home of the Iron Mountain Co-Operative Society store) in 1889 on East B opposite the railroad station (all demolished).

The four buildings at 105-119 S. Stephenson were all built following the fire of December 1888; the Sanborn insurance maps indicate that 105-119 and the two buildings around the corner at 205 and 207 E. Fleshiem were all built by late 1891 – these may be some of the buildings Mrs. Stiles refers to when she states “In the year 1889 we saw the construction of many new business places”

The year 1891 marked a dramatic turn in the business district’s development with the construction of four large masonry buildings.

One of these, the Fisher Block, located at 108-110 E. Ludington, has been demolished. Built for owners Hiram D. Fisher of Florence, Wisconsin, and Edward J. Ingram and Oliver Evans of Iron Mountain, the block, the first three-story commercial building in the city, contained two store spaces at street level, two office spaces upstairs, “each with a fireproof vault,” and two halls, initially occupied by the Masons and Knights of Pythias, upstairs.

Still standing are the adjoining Eskil and Robbins Blocks at 215-19 E. Hughitt and, at 206-16 E. Ludington, “Wood’s Sandstone Block,” so-called to differentiate it from the brick Wood Block next door west at the Ludington/Stephenson corner built for the same owner, John R. Wood of Appleton, Wisconsin.

The Robbins and the Sandstone Block are both constructed of the local red-brown sandstone, the Eskil with its side and rear walls of the stone. The largest nineteenth-century commercial building in Iron Mountain, the Wood’s Sandstone Block, initially contained six store spaces at street level and eleven office spaces plus a hall upstairs.

The central part of Iron Mountain included in the district contains at least ten commercial buildings dating from the 1880’s and 22 more that were built during the 1890’s or perhaps late 1880’s.

These numbers exclude another 15 houses built during the 1880’s and 90’s and the former First Presbyterian Church at 200 W. Brown, built in the mid-1880’s, the 1889 Chicago & North Western depot, 310 S. Stephenson, and the 1896 courthouse and jail.