The Paint River runs through a valley of the same name in Iron County. The banks of the river were settled by homesteaders and mill families. Over the end of one century, and the beginning of another, the area saw several saw mills, a violent land conflict, and the death, rebirth, and final death of a mill town. The history of Atkinson and Gibbs City ended in fire and little trace remains of the mill towns, but the water of the Paint River still winds its path.
Homesteaders had settled in the area of the Paint Valley as early as 1885 to farm the land. In 1887 Escanaba banker J.K. Stack with Henry Atkinson and James Lillie purchased thousands of acres of virgin pine lumber from the Keweenaw Canal Company on the North and South branches of the Paint River. They built the Metropolitan Mill on the North bank a mile below a fork in the river where they had dammed up a section to make a mill pond. The settlement was named Atkinson after Henry Atkinson, who was in management of the mill.
The area was populated by homesteaders and millworkers. Businesses sprung up to service the people of Atkinson, including hotels, a saloon, a town hall, a church, a school, and a company general store that housed the library and post office. A bridge was built from Atkinson to the South side of the Paint River in 1893 by Thomas Sensiba. Atkinson had become so populated that in 1894 the area split from Iron River Township and Atkinson Township was formed. Atkinson also became a station on the Chicago and North Western Railroad. At the height of its operation the Metropolitan mill was the largest in the county and ran constantly with four band saws; the mill was the center of the town life and township politics.
The homesteaders and the lumber mills came into conflict over land rights around 1888 and the clash led to sabotage and even death.
Though the land matter was taken to court,nothing was accomplished until 1889 when President Grover Cleveland evicted homesteaders who had settled after 1882. Though this caused many people to leave the area, Atkinson persisted until a tragedy struck at the beginning of the new century. A fire broke out in the mill in 1900. The Metropolitan Mill’s cut lumber was saved, but the mill itself was destroyed. Much of the timber in the area had been depleted so the mill was not rebuilt, only a temporary two band saw mill was constructed. The population of Atkinson dwindled as families dismantled their houses and rebuilt in other towns. By 1906 the township of Atkinson was dissolved.
A mill had been built on the south side of the river in 1899 by Cyrus Sensiba, but Atkinson was not resurrected until 1914. That year, Royal F. Gibbs built a mill on the South bank of the Paint River upstream from Atkinson. He took abandoned buildings from Atkinson, as well as any remaining mill workers. The village was basically Atkinson,but with its second life it was renamed Gibbs City. The mill produced hardwood for World War I. A post office was established in Gibbs City in 1917 and the town also featured a boarding house and community hall, which was used for dances, social events, and as a movie theater. The mill town’s second life was short lived. In 1922, an explosion killed one man and destroyed the mill.
During World War II, the remaining mills in the area produced wood for war time supplies. In 1948 there were attempts to rent out the abandoned buildings in Gibbs City as a ‘Comfort Club.’ The company store was open until 1962. In 1966 the remains of the ghost town were set aflame in a controlled burn because the decrepit mill town buildings were seen as a safety risk to tourists.Nearly a thousand people came to watch Gibbs City burn down. All that remains standing of Atkinson is the chimney of the Atkinson house.