Ironwood's Miners Park combines history and recreation

Visitors to Ironwood’s Miners Memorial Heritage Park will soon have more to explore as work nears completion on an additional 10 miles of mountain bike trails throughout the park.

The trails will likely be completed next year, said Tom Bergman, Ironwood Community Development director. Although they are designed for riding, the trails will ultimately be open for all non-motorized use.

“Anybody can use them, they’re free to access,” said Bergman, who is also president of Sisu Dirt Crew, a local mountain bike nonprofit helping to develop the trails. “Yes, if you have a mountain bike and you can access them, that’s great but that’s not a requirement. They’re optimized for mountain biking but they’re not for mountain biking only.”

Miners Memorial Heritage Park – which consists of approximately 162 acres from Bonnie Street near the city’s industrial park to Lowell Street near downtown Ironwood – is where the mines that gave the city its start were located.

“When the mines petered out, the mining companies pretty much just left. They capped the shafts, filled them in, and left,” said Rick Semo, president of the Friends of Miners Memorial Heritage Park. “The area divides Ironwood into two, the north side and the south side.”

Semo became involved with the Friends of Miners Memorial Heritage Park shortly after the group started in 2008-2009 because of his interest in trails as a cross-country skier and hiker.

“The concept of trails right in town was extremely attractive to me,” he said.

The friends group is responsible for maintaining and developing the park, Semo said, and works to both celebrate the city’s mining history and to provide modern relevance by creating recreational opportunities and hosting various events.

The park has hosted an Art in the Park event during the summers – which has since been incorporated into the larger annual Emberlight Festival – as well as the Sisu ski race and the Friend’s annual candlelight snowshoe hike.

Mining the past 

The park’s mining history dates back to the mid-1880s and the start of the Norrie Mine, said Ivan Hellen, the group’s historian. 

“That mine led to the development of the city of Ironwood. They called it ‘The Mighty Norrie’ because it was, at that time, one of the largest producers of iron ore in the world,” Hellen said.

 Information on display in the park indicates the Norrie Mine was the first mine in the Upper Peninsula to produce more than one million tons of ore in a single year.

Hellen said there were as many as 18 mine shafts at one time in that area.

Mines could have more than one shaft; the park is home to at least seven mines operating at various times through the 1960s, when cheaper alternatives for iron ore became available and mining in Ironwood came to an end.

Mining left the land barren, with fre trees and little vegetation visible, Hellen said, comparing the site to a war zone. 

“Now it’s actually quite a significantly beautiful wooded area,” Semo said, regarding the nature that has retaken the site.

When the Friends of the Miners Memorial Heritage Park was established, the area had largely been used as a communal dumping ground since the end of mining.

“There was not a park – there was an under-utilized area in the middle of town that was considered a dumping ground by a fair number of locals. It was literally full of garbage,” Semo said.

Over time, the group began to develop a trail system and approximately three miles of ski trails and five miles of walking/snowshoe trails were constructed. The group also launched an effort to mark the various mine sites with signs displaying historic photos and information about each one.

“I think we’ve discovered every single mine – what’s left of them,” Hellen said.

 Semo said foundations and footings are all that is left of many of the former mine buildings.

Expanding the trail system

The completion of the bike trails projects will considerably expand the park’s trail system, as well as add or enhance several trailheads.

“The project also incorporates multiple neighborhood entrances to the trail. So they’re not technically trailheads but they’re trail spurs that terminate into neighborhoods,” Bergman said. “The idea is there’s access points in multiple locations around the park so neighborhoods can access the trail without (having to go to a trailhead).”

Sections of the newly constructed trail will vary in difficulty from beginner to more challenging advanced terrain.

“You want this to be a progressive trail system, where people are coming in (and) there’s a place for them to learn and take step-by-step to different levels,” Bergman said.

The project, funded through a combination of a Michigan Department of Natural Resources Trust Fund Grant and local matching funds, will also include the construction of a pump track – a skills-based circular course featuring berms and rollers.

The ability to construct mountain bike trails in the heart of the city is a special opportunity for Ironwood, Bergman said.

“Most mountain bike trail systems are always on the outskirts of a city or they’re way out,” he said. “This is kind of a unique situation because you can literally be out mountain biking, come into town and have ice cream or eat dinner — you’re right there.”

“We’re just really lucky to have that land in the middle of the community,” Bergman added.

The construction of the park’s trails are more than just a hobby for Bergman, they’re an economic opportunity for the city.

“Our community – like so many others – we really, really struggle with labor. We don’t have an adequate labor force for all the businesses we have, and we struggle even more with professional-level labor; so doctors, nurses, high-tech engineers, things like that,” Bergman said. “Trails are an attraction piece.”

The trail project has also helped enhance the historical aspects of the park as it has opened up previously inaccessible portions of the park.

“This development has allowed them to see stuff that has been just covered by nature for decades, and they’ve also been able to find lots of old mining relics that are laying on top of the ground that they’ve come upon while building the trails,” Bergman said. “(The trail project) has really added to the historical significance of the park.”

The park’s trails have also served to introduce locals to a history they were unaware of.

“There’s a lot of people that I’ve met in the park who came there for recreation only, but they were blown away by the history that they didn’t know,” Hellen said.
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