The History of an Iron Smelting Town

Posted on July 21st, 2020

By: Baylie Bullington

In the little historic townsite of Fayette tucked along Snail Shell Harbor, there are some nineteen structures that stand. They are what is left behind of time when the cost of a suit was $17, profitable employment was rare, and many children sacrificed their education to help out at home. It was a time of boom, and with every boom comes a consequential bust. When walking the roads of Fayette one must be careful not to fall blind to the many stories eager for their shot in the light. Yes, buildings are what remain visible to the eye in this old ghost town but to the nineteenth century iron industry entrepreneurs they saw an opportunity, a hope for prosperity, and something to leave behind for their children. 

Jackson Iron Company

According to the Report on the Machine Shop and other Shops at Fayette Iron Works by Larry Lankton in 2018, Fayette was an attractive prospect. In 1864, the Peninsula Railroad made the connection between Negaunee mine to Escanaba, which soon acquired an iron loading dock and later became a bustling port city. This location allowed for a longer shipping season and was more cost-effective than shipping in Lake Superior.

 The Jackson Iron Company, who operated iron mines in Negaunee, especially had their eyes set on Snail Shell Harbor. In 1867, Fayette Brown the company agent (hence the town name) was given the okay to start construction of an iron smelting works. In no time, the first furnace was up and running in December of 1867 and a second was constructed in 1870. By smelting ore locally it could ship pig iron off to larger markets. Mr. Fayette Brown started construction in Snail Shell Harbor just two years after the Civil War in which pig iron had seen an influx in demand for the production of cannons, pistols, rifles, and railroad locomotives. Coincidence, I think not. 

For those of us who do not have a science degree, including myself, this is the simplest explanation for the iron smelting process preformed by the Jackson Iron Company. First, the raw iron ore would come in from Negaunee where it was mined, next on the train to Escanaba then it would be put onto scows dragged by tugboats with Fayette being its destination. Last into the furnaces at Fayette to remove impurities. Voila, you have pig iron. In other simpler terms smelting is the process of heating metal to extract a more desirable base metal. Dare I try simpler terms? Smelting is using heat to separate the bad stuff from the good stuff. 

These large furnace towers are enchanting to the eye and the most noticeable feature about the Fayette townsite. You can’t miss them. Perhaps, this was on purpose because the town was essentially built for one purpose: iron production. And produce, it did. These furnaces were like silver medal winners at the Olympics of nineteenth century furnaces (at least in the Upper Peninsula) and produced a whopping 229,288 tons of pig iron. For the people who once lived there, these towers must have been an everyday reminder of what the foundation of existence was for this little community.

We Built this Ghost Town 

It wasn’t long after Mr. Brown first visited Snail Shell Harbor before an entire town appeared on the shoreline. Lankton states, “The Mining Journal of Marquette reported on Nov. 6, 1869, that Fayette by that date had a superintendent’s house, nine good frame houses, and forty “comfortable” log houses”. Lankton’s 2018 report also notes that by the late 1860s,  Fayette was home to a town hall, hotel, boarding house, ice house, meat market, apothecary and a doctor’s office. Much of the town was built by contractors that the Jackson Iron Company hired out. There were as many as 38 laborers on the company accounts and they were responsible for much of what you see today.

Lankton’s report states “In the Escanaba Tribune of July 2, 1870, the paper expressed the opinion that Fayette was about “as independent a little community as one usually meets”. This self-sustainability would not have been possible without the many shops in Fayette that were responsible for building and repairing structures. Let us not forget the many resources that this little location in the Upper Peninsula provided. If this was the game Settlers of Catan, Fayette would be the winning spot on the board. 

The limestone cliffs that trace the shoreline of Snail Shell Harbor served as more than just a breath-taking view. Park Historian, Troy Henderson, was able to give more insight on the importance of the resources in the area. According to Henderson, all of the framed residences, commercial buildings, and industrial structures were made from limestone quarried from the limestone cliffs. This limestone also served a crucial part of the iron production process and was used as flux to help rid of impurities.

Another prized resource that served this self-reliant town well was timber. If you have ever traveled to the Upper Peninsula you know there is no shortage of trees. Fayette needed timber in order to create many of the structures but timber was also necessary for making charcoal. A lot of charcoal. To put it in perspective about 35 chords of timber were burned in one sitting and at one point there were over 60 kilns in 10 miles of Fayette. It is no surprise that the charcoal was used to heat the furnaces for the iron production. 

You had all you needed right there. You needed a house built? The carpenter’s shop had you covered. Supplies? Walk yourself on down to the Company Store. Food? Just around the corner at the Meat Market. The only thing Fayette didn’t have was a garbage system. Which would have come in handy with all the worker’s kids running around barefoot. This little community was set-up quite well to withstand, the only thing that could stop it was if the company closed up shop. Which it eventually did. Oh the irony. Get it. Sorry, not punny. 

The Shop

The furnaces were one of the main reasons Fayette existed but if you look closer it really couldn’t function without the Machine Shop. One might argue that the Machine Shop was the heart of the city rather than the furnace, meaning I’ll argue that. It’s not a matter of whether the chicken or the egg came first because undoubtedly the furnaces were built before the Machine Shop. But without the Machine Shop, the production of the furnaces simply couldn’t run smoothly. The Jackson Iron Company highly relied on the Machine Shop and in a sense, the people of Fayette highly relied on the Machine Shop. 

Like the rest of the buildings in this self-sustaining town, the materials were sourced locally. In this case, the Machine Shop was constructed of limestone. The sun descends into the interior of the building from six windows and its chimney towers into the sky. Lankton notes that the windows were originally flanked by wrought iron shutters to prevent fire, which was not an uncommon downfall to many of the buildings in Fayette. This shop is unlike your dad’s modern-day man cave filled with Bosch supplies that run off conventional power sources. According to Lankton, the machines in this shop were powered by a line shaft system that used a steam engine with all sorts of pulleys and belts. These systems were likely not up to speed with OSHA standards today. Lankton states, “The greatest danger was to catch a finger, hand, sleeve, tie or pant leg between a belt and a pulley. Such accidents seriously injured or killed workers who found themselves suddenly wound up in a machine”. 

Unsung Heroes

I was lucky enough to get ahold of some bios on the machinists of the 1800’s from Henderson, one by the name of Robert Bassler. There’s not a ton of information on Mr. Bassler but one can assume what his life might have been like. According to Lankton, the machinist didn’t perform the same duties every day but rather they worked on whatever job came in. The tools were also fit to work on any variety of tasks.  Mr. Bassler was paid $75 per month according to the payroll records of September 1886 and April 1887 and he also paid $5 for rent. Henderson believes that this would have constituted Bassler as a middle to upper-class citizen compared to someone receiving $40 a month working in the furnace. According to Lankton’s report, with that pay, Bassler was likely the master machinist. These machinists needed more background knowledge than just operating power-driven machine tools because a great deal was done by hand. It is unsure how many people staffed the machine shop but it was likely anywhere from three to six men. Another man with the Bassler name also worked in the shop and only earned $1.65 as a machinist and $1.75 for the locomotive rate. When not working Robert Bassler was a member of the Fayette Brass Band and played the solo alto and likely played at Fayette’s Music Hall. When not working or playing the saxophone it appears that Mr. Bassler might have spent some time getting into trouble. According to records he was one of many defendants accused of trespassing and assault in 1880, but that is a story for another time. A very odd, unexpected story. In fact, you can find it in our blog called Wild West Fayette.

Barn and Yard Crew, Fayette, c. 1867-86, Photo courtesy of: Fayette Historic State Park

Anyways back to the machine shop. Despite Basslers run-in with the law, it is certain that in the machine shop these machinists were like unsung heroes. Lankton assures that there were two times where real emergencies occurred that in turn required the smelting operations to shut-down. If the machine shop was unable to handle the necessary repairs the task would be passed on to a bigger machine shop like the one in Marinette. Regardless, the machine shop in Fayette was always on standby to repair any necessary part to keep the Jackson Iron Company in business and the workers employed.

Fayette Historic State Park Today

The Fayette Visitors Guide notes that in 1879 the hotel stated that it was “a favorite summer resort” and a group of visitors from Chicago boasted that it was “the most pleasant place of amusement they had yet found”. A slower pace of life Fayette must have been tucked away from the rest of the world. It still is, long after and the Jackson Iron Company left town not finding the business very profitable, the town remains vacant. It must have been heartbreaking for those who had called the harbor home for 20 years but couldn’t find security in recreating a livelihood.  But those who did stay behind after Fayettes peak were likely lured in by the beauty of Snail Shell Harbor, and who could really blame them. Life must have been more challenging without the reliance on a steady-paying job that the Jackson Iron Company provided or the many shops that no longer found it practical to remain in the area. But those who first came to the harbor optimistic and able to withstand the hardships probably found that survival was as rewarding as it gets. 

Fayette today is a great place to visit and experience a different time in history. You can walk through the remaining structures and learn about life back in the late 1800’s. The park also has a campsite with hook-ups and is steps away from the townsite and Lake Michigan. Oh yeah, and a beach, a boat launch, harbor slips, and five miles of hiking and cross-country trails. So like the nineteenth century people of Fayette your set-up pretty well to enjoy yourself. Careful though, you might run the risk of staying long after your vacation.