You’ll Dig These Destinations

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Former Mining Sites Transformed Into Recreational/Historical Trails

From the shores of the Great Lakes Region where the Copper Culture thrived in prehistoric times, to the mineral-rich lands of the Upper Mississippi where the lead boom of the early 1800s helped accelerate statehood, mining has always been a key part of the area we now know as Wisconsin. It’s even reflected in our official nickname; we’re called the Badger State in a nod to the early miners of southwest Wisconsin who were too poor or too busy (mostly likely both) to build homes on their mining claims and instead lived like badgers in the underground tunnels.

It’s not just the state’s history and culture, however, that mining has helped shape. Wisconsin is home to some beautiful recreation sites that were once mines but were either redeveloped according to state abandoned-mine reclamation guidelines or preserved for their historic significance. A visit to one of these scenic places is a great way not just to unwind in nature, but to bask in some Badger history as well. Here are a few of our favorites.

Wazee Lake Recreation Area

Wazee Lake is known for its clear, deep water, scenic views, and wide, sandy beach.

Wazee Lake Recreation Area, located just outside of Black River Falls in Jackson Electric Cooperative’s service territory, is Jackson County’s newest and largest county park, but those aren’t the park’s only superlatives. The centerpiece of this 1,300-acre site is the 146-acre Wazee Lake.

With a maximum depth of about 355 feet, Wazee Lake is the deepest inland lake in Wisconsin with some of the clearest water around. With those attributes, the lake is one of the premier places for scuba diving in the entire Midwest.

Looking over the crystal-clear water, surrounded by lush greenery and red cliffs, with a wide sandy beach at one end, it’s almost impossible to imagine this pristine area as the iron-ore mine it once was. Jackson County Iron Mining Company, a subsidiary of Inland Steel Mining Company, operated at this site from the late 1960s through early 1983. After the mine shut down, the property was sold back to the county and Inland Steel began reclamation work.

The large pumps that ran continuously to keep the pit drained were stopped and the pit filled with groundwater. The tailings basin, where the pumped water had been moved to, was transformed into a wildlife nesting area. Materials removed from the pit were piled in ridges and hills around the edges, creating scenic overlooks.

Thirty years ago this month, this publication featured the brand-new Wazee Lake Recreation Area, which at the time was already a hotbed for scuba diving but offered little else beyond simple day uses such as picnicking. However, enthusiasm for the property’s potential was high, and work was underway adding hiking trails, developing the lakeshore, and stocking the water with fish, with plans to eventually add a boat landing, develop a beach, and build surrounding campsites.

Over the following years, Jackson County checked all those boxes. Today, Wazee Lake is still known for excellent scuba diving, but it’s also a great place for fishing and any manner of non-motorized water recreation. There’s also a large beach for swimming, nine miles of hiking trails, three miles of surfaced biking trails, an accessible fishing pier, and 12 rustic campsites.

Wazee Lake Recreation Area is located at N6302 Brockway Rd., Black River Falls, WI 54615. To learn more, call 715-284-5357 or visit www.co.jackson.wi.us.

Plumer Mine Interpretive Park Preserves Iron-mining Heritage
of Northern Wisconsin

No exploration of former mining sites in Wisconsin would be complete without a look at the Penokee-Gogebic Iron Range in northern Wisconsin. This range is an 80-mile belt of Precambrian bedrock characterized by iron-rich minerals. Discoveries of the vast deposits of ore along this range shifted the focus of mining in the state from the southwestern end to the northern region by the late 1800s, with miners and their families establishing new communities in Wisconsin’ s Northwoods.

As resources were exhausted and deposits farther north into Michigan were found to be more lucrative, lumber took over mining as the major industry in this area. However, vestiges of this once-dominant industry remain, and perhaps none is more impressive than the Plumer Mine Headframe that looms 80 feet in the air just off Highway 77 in the Town of Pence.

Despite its 120 years, the Plumer Mine headframe was recently examined by an engineer and determined to be structurally sound.

This imposing steel structure is the last remaining iron mining headframe of the hundreds that once dotted the Penokee-Gogebic Iron Range. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the headframe is the focal point of the Plumer Mine Interpretive Park, which is being restored under the watch of the newly formed non-profit Friends of the Plumer Mine Headframe organization.

“As far as we know, it was built in 1904 or 1905,” said Cathy Techtman, president of the Friends of the Plumer Mine Headframe and a member of Bayfield Electric Cooperative. “So it’s about the 120th anniversary of the headframe this year. We’re planning to have a rededication of the headframe some time this summer.”

Restoration work thus far has included clearing brush to make the headframe more visible from the highway, redoing the gravel driveway to make the structure more easily accessible by vehicle (it’s also accessible via snowmobile and ATV trails), and installing a new safety fence around the base of the headframe. In addition, the group is redoing the interpretive signs within the park and perusing local records to find more details about the headframe’s history.

Future plans call for developing an interpretive walking trail behind the headframe to the ruins of a collection of mining buildings, including the hoist house, engine house, various repair shops, and a “dryhouse” where miners could clean up and change clothes after a long shift underground.

The Test of Time

Like other headframes, the Plumer Mine headframe was built over the opening of a shaft mine, with cables running from a hoist house through sheave wheels on top of the headframe to elevator-like cars that were lowered into the mine, carrying miners into the shaft and loads of iron ore out of it. Carts of ore stopped at the “tipple” half-way up the headframe, where the ore was tipped directly into railroad cars parked below and delivered to the ore dock in Ashland and shipped to steel mills in the Great Lakes area for processing.

Although it’s an impressive sight, the Plumer Mine Headframe was not the largest headframe of its time. The size was determined by the depth to which the cable had to be extended. The Plumer Mine reached a maximum depth of 2,367 feet, according to the Friends of the Plumer Mine, whereas the nearby Montreal Mine reached a depth of 4,335 feet, requiring a much larger headframe.

“There were many that were larger than this one, but for some reason this one wasn’t torn down,” Techtman said. “We don’t know the reason why.”

Unused but not unappreciated, the headframe stood tall against time and weather for decades. When Iron County was designated a Wisconsin Heritage Area in 1994, the Plumer Mine headframe was included as one of the historic sites along the Penokee Iron Range Heritage Trail and developed into an interpretive park. Bayfield Electric Cooperative is listed on one of the original signs as one of the local organizations that supported this initiative.

Time continued to take its toll on the park, so a small group of interested volunteers formed the Friends of the Plumer Mine Headframe and, with the Town of Pence’s blessing, assumed responsibility of preserving “this grand old dame,” Techtman said.

The Plumer Mine Headframe Interpretive Park is located on Plumer Mine Road just off Hwy 77 between Pence and Iron Belt. To learn more, visit https://www.plumermine.com or follow Friends of the Plumer Mine Headframe on Facebook.


About a mile and a half down the highway from the Plumer Mine Headframe is Montreal, once home of the Montreal Mining Company and the world’s deepest iron mine. The community was literally built by the Olgebay-Norton Mining Company, which designed a community that would provide an environment to “accommodate the nationality and temperament” of the 700 miners needed to work at the new Montreal Mine shaft and their families. These frame houses were maintained at company expense. The original homes of this mining company town are preserved in Montreal’s National Historic District.

Flambeau Mine Nature Trails and Recreation Area

Just south of Ladysmith in Rusk County, where Jump River Electric Cooperative is headquartered, there’s another beautiful nature and outdoor recreation area that bears little resemblance to its past life as a mine.

The Flambeau Mine Nature Trails & Recreation Area near Ladysmith is great for wildlife viewing.

The 150-acre Reclaimed Flambeau Mine Nature Trails & Recreation Area attracts nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts who come to enjoy the five or so miles of trails that wind through woodlands, grasslands, and around two wetland areas, all teeming with wildlife.

About 30 years ago, the Flambeau Mining Company, a subsidiary of Kennecott Minerals, operated an open-pit mine of a copper-gold deposit at this site. The minerals mined here were shipped to Canada for processing and used worldwide in the manufacture of items such as electrical wiring, electronics, and medical equipment.

The Flambeau Mine was the first to be approved and operated under Wisconsin’s stringent environmental and mining regulation requirements, which included an approved reclamation plan. The mine operated from 1993 to 1997, after which reclamation work began. The pit was backfilled with the materials that were removed from it, the site was contoured, topsoil was applied, and native grasses, wildflowers, and trees were planted.

Today, the Flambeau Mine Nature Trails & Recreation Area has more than two dozen species of trees and shrubs and hundreds of native grassland and wetland plant species. These plants attract a wide variety of birds, making the area especially popular with bird watchers. With its well-groomed, mostly flat trails and interpretive signs throughout, the Reclaimed Flambeau Mine Nature Trails and Recreation Area is family friendly and easy for all levels of hikers.

The Reclaimed Flambeau Mine Nature Trails and Recreation area is located on Highway 27 about 1.5 miles south of Ladysmith. It’s open year-round from dawn to dusk. For more information, visit www.flambeaumine.com or call 715-532-2642.

Merry Christmas Mine Trails & Prairie

The trails on Merry Christmas Mine Hill include some stations where remnants from the mining operation were left in place.

Southwest Wisconsin’s lead-mining history is preserved at Pendarvis, a Wisconsin Historical Society site in Mineral Point that’s on the National Register of Historic Places. The site is made up of a cluster of preserved stone buildings built by Cornish miners who came to this country in the early 1800s, lured by promises of lucrative lead mining—and later zinc mining—in the area.

A companion Pendarvis attraction is the Merry Christmas Mine Hill Trails and Prairie across the road from the stone buildings. This area is the site of the former Merry Christmas Mine, so named because zinc was discovered in these mines around Christmas time.

The restored site now offers two half-mile interpretive walking trails winding around a 43-acre prairie, one of the largest native prairies in southwestern Wisconsin.

The two walking trails—Lead Trail Loop and Zinc Trail Loop—take visitors on a journey that’s as educational as it is scenic. Interpretive signs help explain how mining shaped the area’s history as well as its landscape. Most of the mine shafts were filled in when mining operations ceased; however, some remnants of the area’s mining past were left in place and marked on a map available at the Pendarvis Visitor Center or online.

The Zinc Trail Loop incorporates such relics as a (covered) mine shaft opening and the winch used to move materials up and down the shaft. There’s also a 1905 air compressor that provided ventilation in the underground mines, and an old wagon drill and cart that was used to haul the ore to the end of the railway and dump it down a chute and into the processing mill. Some remnants of the tailings (waste rock) used as a base for the ore-cart railway are still visible, as are the concrete foundations of the processing mill. The trail ends at the Merry Christmas Mine Building, a large stone construction that was likely used as a mine building.—Mary Erickson

Pendarvis is located at 114 Shake Rag Street, Mineral Point, WI. The Merry Christmas Mine Trails & Prairie is open year-round from sunrise to sunset (the Pendarvis site has operating hours and entrance fees). To learn more visit www.pendarvis.wisconsinhistory.org or call 608-987-2122.

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