Hard economic times in 1930s
Downtown Iron Mountain has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. To recognize this honor, The Daily News is publishing a 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 Depression and
World War II
In Iron Mountain the 1920s began with the Ford Boom, but the 1930s began with the city sliding into the worst of economic times.
The Iron Mountain area and Dickinson County reached their economic nadir at the beginning of 1933. Out of a county population of 29,491, there were 6,000 registered as unemployed, an estimated 85 percent of the work force.
The Chapin Mine, the area’s largest, employing 1,000 as of 1925, closed down for good in 1932 after a number of years of decline. At Ford, which had employed more than 7,000 a few years earlier, all operations had been suspended the previous fall.
The area’s sawmills were also shut down. An Iron Mountain Relief Home, located in a building at the corner of W. Hughitt and Carpenter, opened in November 1932. It served more than 14,000 meals of donated food in its first four months and 5,071 meals during April 1933 alone.
The home moved to 214 E. Hughitt in April, but closed at the end of July, after serving 80,000 meals, because of lack of support. The county opened a Central Relief Depot or county relief office, containing the offices of the county poor superintendent and county employment agent and space for a welfare committee in charge of clothing distribution, in one or more spaces in the Wolfe Building, 623-29 Stephenson, in June.
The city was an early recipient of federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation assistance in 1933, and The News carried frequent notices of work relief projects, most commonly road repair and reconstruction projects. RFC labor relief workers provided part of the labor for the city warehouse built as a rear addition to the then city hall building in the summer and fall of 1933.
While the local economy improved from this low point in the later 1930s, new building during the decade comprised only a few projects although they were large ones.
One major project, construction of a new St. Joseph Catholic Church, still Iron Mountain’s largest church building, beginning in 1931, resulted from a fire that destroyed the parish’s former home in 1930.
Federal appropriations built one important project, a new post office on W. Ludington in 1934-35, and provided a major share of the cost of another large structure, the Junior High School on West Hughitt, in 1938.
A key development of the 1930s was the creation of the East and West Chapin Ponds.
The ponds filled former mine pits on either side of an embankment that carried the Chicago & North Western Railway and highway U.S. 2/141. The Chapin Mine was always an underground operation, but a large mine pit began to form in 1885 with the first cave-ins of the surface above the mine’s underground workings.
Pits nearly one hundred feet deep eventually developed.
Iron Mountain’s mines were “wet” to the highest degree and required massive pumping to prevent flooding. The Chapin Mine closed down for good in 1932, but the pumps remained in operation for a time.
In 1935, when the pumping was discontinued, the flow, estimated at 3,500,000 gallons per day, created East and West Chapin Ponds in the pits that were 80 to 90 feet deep by 1940.
During 1939, the state began to plan for rebuilding U.S. 2/141 at the Chapin Ponds location.
In early 1940 the right of way was still owned by the Chapin heirs, with whom the state was negotiating. On May 3, 1940, with the ponds still rising at a rate of about an inch per day, an 80-foot long section of the highway suddenly collapsed into the East Pit, precipitating a truck and four cars into water reported to be 26 feet deep.
The collapse cut off the primary connection between the main part of Iron Mountain and the city’s North Side and severed the Upper Peninsula’s primary east-west highway.
Nevertheless, there were no casualties, and The News was soon reporting the developing local humor about alternative strategies for crossing the gap: “there was talk today of a ‘ferry service’ across the pit. Others suggested a breeches buoy, to haul passengers over ‘at two bits a head.’ While others said that, when warm weather comes, they will swim across.”
By mid-May the state determined on pumping out the pit and constructing a new embankment of stable material, with a 40-foot wide road surface at a level with the Chicago & North Western tracks to the immediate west.
Title was obtained from the Chapins and the work carried out during the next year. The pits became ponds again when the pumping ceased and are today key physical as well as historic features of Iron Mountain.