NHPRC Documenting Deomcracy

The Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Company Historical Records Digitization Project

The History of Cleveland-Cliffs Iron

Centennial Parade Photo of a Shallow HOle Trailer Drill and three workers

The Industry

As William Hogan points out in his monumental five-volume Economic History of the Iron and Steel Industry in the United States, the iron and steel industry has been “one of the foundation stones” of the American economy for over a century. Indeed, iron and steel have almost universally been essential elements of industrialization. Their continuing importance can be attested by the plethora of books on the iron and steel industry as it went into decline in the late twentieth century. The processing end of the industry – blast furnaces and steel mills -- has been the object of most historical scholarship.

Iron Ore and Lake Superior

Loading point of conveyor belt The history of the other major natural resource input -- iron ore – has, however, received much less attention. Yet the iron mines of Lake Superior were of central importance to the evolution of America’s iron and steel industry. They first become an important supplier of ore in the 1860s. Their importance steadily increased as the nation’s industrial revolution accelerated in the aftermath of the Civil War, and by 1890 Lake Superior mines produced over half of the nation’s iron ore. By 1900 that figure had reached two thirds, and for most of the twentieth century Lake Superior iron mines provided three-quarters to four-fifths of all iron ores produced in the United States. Today these mines are the only producers of American iron ore.

Control Panels for Hoists at Cliffs Shaft Mine Despite the importance of iron ore to the iron and steel industry, and hence to American industrialization, documentary records dealing with iron mining are relatively scarce. Before the opening of the Lake Superior district, most blast furnaces owned their own small, local iron deposits. Few records of these operations survive. After the emergence of large-scale firms in the industry, the greater capitalization of the production end of the industry and the isolated locale of their iron mines resulted in few records of the ore mining part of the industry surviving. This proposal, by digitizing the records of a major iron ore mining firm, would make primary source material from one of the key inputs to the American industrial revolution widely available.

The transition of iron ore production to the mid-West was well underway during the Civil War. In 1860 Lake Superior mines had produced less than 5 per cent of American iron ore. By 1870 the proportion had tripled to over 16 per cent. By 1873, Pittsburgh furnaces (on the west side of the Alleghenies) “universally” used Lake Superior ores and could not compete in quality with imported iron without them. By 1880 Lake Superior mines would produce 30 per cent of American iron ore, with Michigan on the verge of becoming the nation’s leading iron ore producing state, surpassing traditional leader Pennsylvania. By 1890 the Lake Superior district was producing over 50 per cent of American iron ore, rising to 75 per cent by 1900, when Minnesota surpassed Michigan as the leading ore producer.

The Company

Man drilling holes in a shaft Between 1895 and 1904, the Carnegie and Rockefeller interests and, then, J. P. Morgan, seeking to reduce uncertainties in price and supply, began to integrate downwards from the steel mill complexes they controlled, seeking to dominate iron ore supplies as well. One of the few ore mining companies to survive the consolidation and remain independent was Cleveland-Cliffs. The annual reports produced by the mine superintendents of Cleveland-Cliffs which will be digitized as part of this project provide a perspective of the consolidation of the industry from the leading surviving independent ore company.

In addition to furnishing documents that provide insight on the three major transformations the iron mining industry underwent in the last century and a half, the Cleveland-Cliffs collection provides important historical materials in a host of other areas, including labor history, Great Lakes maritime history, agricultural history, and environmental history. For example, Cleveland-Cliffs maintained one of the largest privately owned fleets of vessels and was one of the major practitioners of corporate paternalism as a means of combating labor discontent in the early twentieth century. It was early a strong advocate of the “Safety First” movement in industry. CCI sponsored a variety of schemes to promote agriculture in Michigan’s unpromising Upper Peninsula and was one of the early practitioners of sustainable forestry and early seeded streams with fish. All of these developments – and a host of other historical issues reflecting broad themes in American history – are reflected in the documents that would be digitized by this project – particularly the very extensive and detailed annual reports of Cleveland-Cliffs’ superintendents.

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