End of an era in Ashland: Remnants of iron ore industry disintegrating
As concerns about a possible massive iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin continue to simmer, the last remnants of the iron ore industry in Ashland are vanishing.
I visited my parents in Minocqua over the weekend, and I carried along a Wisconsin State Journal story written last September by Barry Adams. It told how the Soo Line Ore Dock stretching 1,800 feet into Lake Superior's Chequamegon Bay in Ashland was being demolished. Half the dock was built in 1916, and it was extended in 1925. The dock served rail lines that brought ore from mines in northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula for shipping to steel mills in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Today, mines still at work generally ship product out of Superior; Duluth, Minn.; and Marquette, Mich.
Ashland's last concrete dock, stained the red-dust color of iron, hadn't shipped ore since 1965. It was crumbling and causing hazards for anyone who might venture near, so a company has been demolishing it. Even the wooden railroad ties holding the train tracks atop the massive structure had rotted away. Materials are being recycled whenever possible.
Adams wrote that the project would stretch across three years, so I talked Dad into joining me on a nearly two-hour ride from Minocqua northwest to Ashland on Saturday. It's a good thing we didn't wait another week. The only thing still standing on the concrete pier, perched atop about 10,000 wooden pilings, was the last tall tower on the far end. Long gone were the train tracks, ore bins and the 300 chutes that lowered the rock into waiting ships. I shot a few pictures from outside a tall fence the contractor erected to keep out trespassers. Also taking pictures was a family from Fond du Lac that has a summer home in Ashland. They said it was sad to see the ore dock go. By the time you read this, that lone tower might be gone, too.
Dad and I ate on Main Street at the 2nd Street Bistro, which served good if expensive food. It apparently does well catering to a weekday lunch crowd of business professionals. The proprietor told me some in the city hope the pier's base will remain as a buffer to big waves that can wash into and damage the harbor. He said the city might buy the 30-foot-tall light poles that lined the dock and install them on Main Street. The bistro is among the businesses doing well in an attractive downtown featuring many beautiful murals on buildings.
I wished I had time to walk and appreciate the entire downtown, but Dad is no longer up to much walking. At the Ashland Historical Museum on Main Street, I stopped in to buy a DVD in which Ashland's former mayor tells the history of the former ore docks in town. I also bought one of various souvenirs created from remnants of this last one, which was touted as the largest reinforced concrete ore dock in the world.
Two museum staffers suggested we stroll around the corner and through the tunnel under Highway 2 to reach the shore, where a walking/biking trail stretches five miles. They also encouraged us to stop at the lovely visitors center on the west end of town to appreciate a three-story mural depicting Ashland history. Maybe another day. I'm sure my wife, Cheryl, would enjoy a weekend trip to shop, eat and walk the trail in Ashland, a city that might be saying goodbye to a crucial part of its heritage but still has much going for it.