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The DRCF and the Diamond Drill

Black and white photo of Edmund Joseph Longyear
Edmund Joseph Longyear [photo from Minnesota Historical Society]

With the motto “Helping You Drill Better,” Boart Longyear is one of the world’s largest suppliers of drilling products and services. Established in 1890, the company pioneered the use of diamond drill bits, revolutionizing hard rock mining. In 2021, Boart Longyear reported $921 million in revenue.

The founder of this mining equipment company once owned land that is now part of the 309-acre Dead River Community Forest (DRCF). In 2022, the Upper Peninsula Land Conservancy (UPLC) added two properties to the existing Vielmetti-Peters Conservation Reserve at the end of Brickyard Road in Negaunee Township to form the DRCF. Edmund Joseph Longyear (1864-1954) owned one of these parcels in 1916.

Originally from Grass Lake in Jackson County, EJ Longyear entered the civil engineering program at the University of Michigan. In his second year, he was told to seek wilderness as a cure for frail health. This was a common prescription at the time. In fact, EJ Longyear’s older cousin, John Munro Longyear (1850-1922), had been given the same advice years before and was accumulating a fortune in Upper Peninsula land speculation.

In the summer of 1886, older cousin Munro, as John Munro Longyear was called by familiars, invited EJ to visit him in Marquette. EJ helped produce timber and geological maps for Munro’s land office. He then worked as a surveyor for the Marquette, Houghton, and Ontonagon Railroad. Soon, EJ Longyear sought employment in the mining industry. Cousin Munro helped get him a job working with Edward Kingsford (1862-1943), a respected mineral prospector, looking for iron deposits in the southern Upper Peninsula. After gaining practical skills mineral prospecting, EJ Longyear decided to finish university. He switched from civil engineering to mining technology, and in 1887 became one of the first students to enroll in the new Michigan Mining School, now Michigan Technological University (MTU).

Upon graduation a year later, EJ Longyear worked for cousin Munro, prospecting for iron in Gogebic County then Dickenson County. EJ noted the superiority of diamond drills in hard rock mining, an insight that would shape his business. In 1890, John Munro Longyear sent EJ to explore lands in the Mesabi Range in Minnesota. Using diamond drilling technology, EJ Longyear opened the first shafts in what would become the largest iron range in the United States. Profit from this project allowed EJ Longyear to start his mining equipment company and speculate in land. Like his older relative, EJ Longyear became one of the wealthiest people in the Lake Superior region. EJ Longyear also contributed to a noteworthy demographic shift. He recruited Marquette Swedish immigrants for labor, many moved to Hibbing, Minnesota to support his operation.

We do not know exactly why EJ Longyear owned the parcel in 1916 that UPLC bought to establish the Dead River Community Forest land. Neighboring properties were held as railroad investments, EJ Longyear may have intended to explore minerals, or it could have been a source of timber for the mining industry. Answers may be at the Minnesota Historical Society, which holds a collection of his papers. The Minnesota Historical Society also holds EJ Longyear’s journal from a 1909 trip to Svalbard, then called Spitsbergen, with his cousin, John Munro Longyear, investor in the Arctic Coal Company. Photos from that trip are at the Marquette Regional History Center. Munro was a prolific photographer. In a strange twist of history, an Arctic Coal Company shaft became the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, now in an updated facility nearby. This fail-safe repository of the world’s crop seeds can survive disasters including nuclear war.

It’s fitting that land along the Dead River once owned by EJ Longyear is part of the Dead River Community Forest. In EJ Longyear’s day, mining was the emerging industry in the Upper Peninsula. Now, outdoor recreation and love of nature is the region’s future. As the climate changes, people will migrate to the cool air and fresh water of Lake Superior. They will seek wilderness to improve their health, as the Longyear cousins did, creating fortunes far greater than anything these two men from our past could have imagined.

UPLC purchased the Dead River Community Forest with widespread public support and a grant from the US Forest Service Community Forest Program. In 2023, the Marquette-based 501c3 nonprofit organization hopes to begin to develop signage and trail infrastructure to allow extensive access to the DRCF lands. Signs will celebrate learning about local history, indigenous knowledge, and ecology. Trails will accommodate multiple forms of recreation. One planned trail will lead visitors to a waterfall viewing area under the impressive Dead River Trestle, built in wood in 1896 and steel in 1916 to convey Lake Superior and Ishpeming (LSI) Railroad Company ore trains across the Dead River gorge. The bridge is still used to bring iron ore to the shore of Lake Superior. Witnessing an LSI ore train going overhead from the lovely cedar grove below is an unforgettable Upper Peninsula experience. DRCF is for health and learning. Classes of students of all ages are welcome to use the land to create rich educational memories. Northern Michigan University (NMU) has raised funds to facilitate student projects within the community forest. We look forward to seeing what students can teach us about this special property. This land has a human history longer than we presently understand.

Contact the Upper Peninsula Land Conservancy (UPLC) for more information about how you can get involved with the Dead River Community Forest project. Stay tuned for updates on trail progress and opportunities for community input. This is our community's land, made possible through the efforts of donors and volunteers.

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