Iron Belle Trail inspires Ironwood to rethink its future

A long-time tourism destination, the city of Ironwood and its neighbors have recently developed a new recreational opportunity that is accessible to everyone: the western-most section of the statewide Iron Belle Trail.

“We see people out there every day, it’s amazing how much (the trail) does get used,” said former Ironwood city manager Scott Erickson.

At more than 2,000 miles, the Iron Belle Trail runs from Ironwood in the Upper Peninsula to Belle Isle in Detroit. Locally, approximately nine miles have been paved from the border between Hurley, Wisconsin, and Ironwood, Michigan, east to the community of Ramsay in nearby Bessemer Township.

Local officials said that there may have been doubts regarding the wisdom of spending money to construct the trail when the idea was first raised, but many of those skeptics came to realize the benefits once they had a chance to use the trail.

“Even while it was being built, people kind of thought it was a waste of money and a waste of time. But then the first moment they were out there and they were going for a walk … I think it showed people how important a piece of infrastructure is like that and how accessible it is for so many people and so many different demographics,” said Tom Bergman, Ironwood’s community development director.

"It levels the playing field for recreation because trails are free and all you need to do is walk on it to enjoy it," he added. "There’s really no financial restriction on participation – and it’s one of the few things really in our modern lives that is like that.”

The positive impact was obvious once the trail was completed, and now, "It’s not a question … of whether or not it should keep extending to the east and to the west, it’s just a matter of how it’s going to,” Bergman said.

Ironwood isn’t the only local community to see benefits from the trail.

“It not only physically connects the communities but it brings people of all different backgrounds together,” said Charly Loper, city manager for neighboring Bessemer. “When you go down the trail, you’ll pass a 2-year-old on a tricycle … or walking with their mother pushing a stroller, then you'll pass teenagers skateboarding and a couple (biking).”

“It really is a community trail,” she said. “Sometimes when you go to different communities, it’s all really intense people using the trail and you feel kind of excluded. But in our area, it is for everyone and everyone is always friendly.”

The local trail was built in three phases – with the first portion, running approximately 2.5 miles east from the Montreal River to the city’s border, dedicated in September 2015. The trail was extended into Bessemer the following year and continued onto Bessemer Township’s community of Ramsay in 2020.

Local leaders take pride in being the Iron Belle’s starting point and say the city has absolutely benefitted from the recognition.

“The impact is that we’re on the radar of everywhere else that’s along the trail. Having Iron in the Iron Belle Trail is significant in terms of as an attraction for tourism,” Bergman said, adding the awareness of Ironwood as a gateway into Michigan has also helped with other grant opportunities.

Since the construction of the Iron Belle, a number of other local trails have been built – such as those at Mt. Zion and Gogebic Community College, Ironwood’s Miners Memorial Heritage Park and around the Copper Peak Ski Jump.

“(The Iron Belle) created an opportunity where people could see the advantage of having trails in the area and I think it also helped spur enthusiasm for trail development in our area,” Erickson said. “I’m not so sure that (other trail systems) might not have happened without it, but it really is the backbone of everything in our area.”

The backbone description for the Iron Belle is one used by some local trail advocates as they look to not only continue work on the Iron Belle but create ribs branching off to other trail systems and amenities in the area. A recent part of that effort is Project Connect, a partnership between the Gogebic Range Health Foundation and other groups focused on linking various communities and amenities to the Iron Belle.

“The idea is to create a system of interconnected trails for cross-country skiing, walking and biking,” said Andrea Bergman, executive director of Gogebic Range Health Foundation.

“We look at walking and biking trails as elevating the status of individual health,” Bergman said. “I think it changes the culture around healthy behaviors.”

Along with the direct benefit of providing locals with recreational opportunities, Erickson said the Iron Belle Trail has more intangible economic benefits to the area as well.

“We’ve seen a lot of people move into our area, and not just because of the Iron Belle Trail but it’s one of the things that really makes our area attractive to people who have that kind of interest,” Erickson continued.

Bergman said the trail development prompted her to live in the city of Ironwood.

“For me, it’s why we moved downtown. It’s why I’m starting a side business downtown,” Bergman said. “I can walk and bike to my job everyday if I want to. I can walk and bike to the grocery store. These are all things that are important to … a community I want to live in.”

A number of businesses have opened in downtown Ironwood since the Iron Belle was constructed, including Cold Iron Brewing – which both Tom Bergman and Erickson are part owners of.

“We looked at 20, 30 buildings and there’s a reason we ended up in the one we did. It was proximity to the Iron Belle Trail that really, really mattered – and the motorized trail too, the Depot Park is a trailhead for both of those. … We’re sitting in between the core part of downtown and the Iron Belle. That’s the perfect location as far as I’m concerned,” Bergman said. 

Erickson said the construction of the trail sends a positive message to companies considering locating in Ironwood.

“I do think having reinvestment in a community, in an area, supports economic development in that business owners who can locate anywhere in the United States see there is positive growth in our area … and it makes it probably a little more appealing to them to invest their money in a community that’s going in a positive direction and reinvesting back in itself,” Erickson said. “So we’re not in a spiral down, I think we’re in a spiral up and they see the opportunity to get in on that ground floor.”

Richard Jenkins is a former reporter for the Daily Globe in Ironwood, Michigan. He currently serves on the city of Ironwood’s planning commission and is active in a local chapter of the North Country Trail Association.