Geo. R. Stuntz Interview
VERMILION IRON JOURNAL–November 5, 1891
The Discoverer of the Vermilion Range.
As George R. Stuntz walked up the principal thoroughfare of our prosperous little city last evening, with its dozens of flourishing stores, its brick business blocks, its street cars, its electric lights and the hurrying crowds of contented and prosperous people, it must have required a considerable effort on the part of his imagination to again picture the scene that greeted his eye twenty-six years ago last October, when he stood in the vicinity of what is now the mine and gazed down in a valley below, where today is the metropolis of the Vermilion Iron Range. A site, covered with a dense growth of pine and moss-covered rocks, over which the veteran explorer then clambered, he now sees laid out into well-graded streets lined by hundreds of commodious stores and comfortable dwellings. As, with pick and hammer, he knocked loose a few iron specimens from the outcropping in the neighborhood of the Lee Mine on the 21st of that autumn month, far from his mind was the thought that it was the first fruitful work that was ultimately to reveal to the world the iron riches of Minnesota. Mr. Stuntz was seen by a JOURNAL representative at the Pioneer Hotel, and in response to the request related for two hours interesting facts and incidents connected with the early discoveries in the vicinity of Tower.
“It was in October, 1865, that Capt. Platt and myself left Superior with two months’ supplies, and a resolution to search the Vermilion country for iron, my attention having been called to the matter by one Joe Posey, a half-breed Scotchman. In those days we ascended the St. Louis River, made the portage to Pike River and then down the stream into Pike Bay and Lake Vermilion. At the time we came up Henry Mahew, now of Grand Marais, Richard Eames, a geologist, and J. J. Hibbard, of Michigan, were also enroute, together with others, all of whom were attracted hither by the reports of gold.
“One, Francos Roussain, had established a trading post with the Indians across Sucker Bay opposite from what is now the government reserve. Roussain was absent at the time of our arrival and the post was in charge of Captain Simons, whose initials I have forgotten, and a half-breed who could interpret. We stopped there that night and were rather surprised when the half-breed told us that the Indian chiefs, of which there were several present, objected to our coming up here in their country. I did not suspect Capt. Simons of being at the back of this, and began to expostulate, and through the interpreter make my defense. Fortunately, I discovered the interpreter was not telling the chiefs what I requested him to, and at once suspected that Simons was at the bottom of the whole affair. It required but a few moments for me to express myself. I had the Indians informed that if they injured a hair of our heads, we would have the United States troops after them, not neglecting to give the jealous Captain Simons a little wholesome advice at the same time. Then with considerable ceremony Platt and myself laid ourselves on the floor t†he night, first significantly placing a small United States flag on a stick at our heads.
“It is hardly necessary to say that we were not molested and the following morning took our departure with about two weeks’ supplies. We went around Sucker Point, across the Narrows, where we found a lodge of Indians. After throwing them off our route, in order to prevent their informing Simons, we drew into a small bay west of what is now Stuntz Bay and proceeded through the country to look for the ‘mountain of iron,’ where Posey had taken his few specimens. We found the place — where the Lee Mine is now located — and on the same day, while wandering about alone I discovered the great iron outcropping, later known as Breitung and from which I am told nearly 100,000 tons of ore was taken years after when the developments were made. We spent two weeks around the east end of Lake Vermilion, going as far east as what has since been known as the Pete Armstrong claim.
“On our return trip to Roussain’s post, Capt. Simons expressed great solicitude for our welfare and had thought us lost, but it isn’t probable that he had worried as much as to our safety, although he was fearful that we would discover something. In November, with sixty pounds of specimens, all of iron, we ascended Pike River and began our return to Superior. The rivers froze and we were compelled to make sixty miles through the wilderness.
“In the spring of ’66 the gold excitement broke out and I came up again. All efforts to interest prospectors and capitalists in the iron resources were futile. It was gold or nothing. In May ’66 Winston, just above Pike Falls, had 300 inhabitants and twelve or fifteen log stores and houses beside numerous tents. There was a stamp mill there, also one on Minnesota Point near Gold Island.
“As you know the gold excitement died out and I did not again visit the Vermilion country until the Summer of ’75 when, under the management of W. W. Spalding, of Ontonagon, George C. Stone and other parties, Prof. A. H. Chester, geologist of Hamilton College, New York, started to search for and explore a great iron mountain reported to be on the eastern Mesaba Range, around in 60-12 and 13.
“John Mallman, W. H. Bassett and myself were members of Chester’s party and when we arrived at the Embarrass River I endeavored to persuade the professor to accompany me and take a look at the Vermilion formation. It was necessary to open a road some miles east to the reputed mountain of iron on the Mesaba, which, by the way, was said to be twelve miles long, and hence progress was very slow. Prof. Chester, however, finally allowed me two Indians, a keg of powder, some supplies and with John Mallman we journeyed down the Pike River and around to Stuntz Bay. The professor had told me that if I could find as good ore as my specimens, at least 1200 feet from where I had taken those, thus showing that the vein had some extent, he would consent to visit the place. On our arrival here I found such a place, and in June we commenced drilling on an outcropping which has since been known as the South Lee.
“Our longest steel was forty-eight inches, and we drilled three holes forty-two inches deep, the work requiring many days’ labor, as we were at first compelled to journey over to the blacksmith shop at Sucker Point to have our drills sharpened. Before the week was over, however, I found a frame to a bellows left in the deserted city of Winston and covered it with some rubber cloth we had. At the same time I also obtained possession of two additional sledge hammers and work was proceeded with increased vigor by aid of our rudely equipped blacksmith shop.
“When our three holes were ready we filled them with about eighteen inches of powder, and the first blast in the iron history of the Vermilion Range was fired. The holes were about three feet from the south edge of the formation and several feet apart. The blast only rent a crack about a half an inch wide, four to five feet deep and nearly forty feet long. We hadn’t enough powder for another such blast and the only recourse was to work with wedges in the endeavor to throw out the body of ore. We first dug and broke away all that was possible on the south side, thus exposing the side of the perpendicular formation. Then ash wedges generously covered with pieces of soap were inserted and driven in. By this means we widened the crack to three inches at its widest place, and preparations were made for a final blast with sand and what remaining powder we had. The result was all we had hoped for, fully twelve cubic yards, over sixty tons, of hard Bessemer ore, that we afterward found assayed 65 and 66 percent, was thrown out of the vein, which on uncovering we found to have a width of thirteen feet.
“One of the Indians was then sent with specimens to Prof. Chester and in a few days he was on the ground. I shall never forget his exclamation after examining our work, ‘Why, with only three men, you have shown more ore here than I have found with twenty-two men on the Mesaba.’
“Although this excellent showing was made and I even called his attention to the immense outcropping on the north hill (Breitung), the parties who were backing Chester were so discouraged over the Mesaba result that nothing further was done until five years later, 1880, by which time George C. Stone had succeeded in interesting Tower, Munson and other Eastern capitalists.
“In March and April, 1880, I surveyed this town, 62-15, and others adjoining and that Summer Sioux scrip was filed on what is now embraced in the Minnesota mine lands. Through the efforts of Hon. H. M. Rice and other senators of the northwest, Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin were exempted from the mining laws, and these lands became subject to homestead entry and scrip locations. Several parties filed pre-emptions on lands around Tower, but none of them realized anything great on their ventures, and I believe most of them relinquished.
“After the survey was completed and early in the Summer of ’80, with about twenty men, Chester and myself began the first real developments, of the land which is embraced in the Minnesota mine. We dug a series of trenches across the formation, from what was afterwards known as the Stuntz on the east to the Breitung on the west. Nearly all were on the ore formation and the whole constituted one of the greatest showings ever made. Our camps were located but a short distance from where the Minnesota Company’s compressor house now stands.
“In ’81 a Michigan mining expert named Wright visited the property and made reports that I believe were instrumental in interesting Breitung, Lee and others. I remained in charge of the work until ’83 during which time it was decided to build the Iron Range road. My successor was John Armstrong, who was the man that gave the various pits names and proposed to call them so many different mines. He was in charge less than two years and was succeeded by Capt. E. Morcom who remained in charge until D. H. Bacon’s arrival in June ’87.”
Mr. Stuntz also related to the JOURNAL representative a large number of early experiences, and facts regarding the “ancient diggings,” presumably made thousands of years ago and yet to be seen near the Minnesota property. He told of a medicinal spring below the Lee hill, of its discovery and the beneficial effect of its waters upon Prof. Chester.
Mr. Stuntz has been requested by the Old Settlers Association to place his knowledge of the early Vermilion history in book form, and intends to set about the work soon.