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River Street before the fire of 1896



Downtown, 1940s



Downtown today


First settled in 1843 and platted in 1854, the village of Ontonagon is one of the oldest Anglo colonies on Lake Superior.  Native Americans occupied the area going back 5,000 years. Prospectors and miners, beginning with English fur trader Alexander Henry in 1771 and 1772, were guided by long-dormant pits of the mysterious ancient miners. These people had located mass copper deposits and dug pit mines long before Woodland Indians moved into the area. Helpful Ojibwa such as Konteka led the Yankee prospectors to copper-rich pit locations.

The village of Ontonagon embraces the first settlements in the county, is the seat of justice, and is therefore the oldest and of greater historical interest than any other locality in the county. The land on which it stands is embraced in the claim pre-empted by James Kirk "Jim" Paul in 1843. Paul was a native of Virginia, an early citizen of Chicago, and a veteran of the Black Hawk War in Illinois.  He engaged in lead mining at Platteville, Wisconsin when he heard the stories making the rounds of the mining areas about great riches to be found in Michiganís Upper Peninsula.  Paul was 28 years of age and was looking for an opportunity to establish some permanency in his life.  Accompanied by Nick Miniclerque, a half-Winnebago who was fluent in the Ojibway language, Jim Paul made his way to the mouth of the Ontonagon River, arriving by canoe on or about May 1, 1842. He came looking for and found, a copper boulder that would make a name for this region.  Paul removed the copper boulder from its resting place and brought it to the mouth of the Ontonagon River.  In a dispute over ownership he was paid $1365 for his efforts.*

In 1843, J.K. Paul purchased a stock of whiskey and opened the Deadfall Saloon at the mouth of the river.  In doing so, he founded the Village of Ontonagon,  the oldest permanent settlement on the south shore of Lake Superior.  

The first liquor license in Ontonagon was granted in April 1850, to four saloons, at $8 each.

On February 10, 1854, Mr. Paul received a patent for 1.30 acres.  Nearly a month earlier, on January 13, 1854, James recorded the plat, which he had previously surveyed, and thereafter sold and conveyed by himself and Amanda M., his wife, many lots therein. But, inasmuch as the land was withdrawn from sale before Paul had acquired any title thereto other than his claim right, some questions arose as to the validity of his title and conveyances, which question found its way into the courts. Finally, however, a legislative act was passed, approved January 29, 1853, which authorized Daniel Goodwin, District Judge of the Upper Peninsula, to enter the land-Lots 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, in Fractional Section 25, and Lot 1 of Fractional Section 36, in Fractional Township 52 north, of Range 40 west, containing 231.2 acres, which covers the James K. Paul claim or tract, and the Greenfield Gardner addition thereto-in trust for the persons entitled thereto, and to execute deeds of conveyance to such occupants as by right demanded. Thus the title question was disposed of, and all real claimants were secured in their possessions in the village plat as made by Paul, and the serenity of the new town was not disturbed in its "great expectations" until 1858.

Prior to this time, the Commissioners appointed by the Governor under the organization act to locate the county seat, had selected the site near the mouth of the Ontonagon River, and it was thus located, and the county offices were first established upon the premises of D. S. Cash, on the west side thereof. Mr. Paul had laid out a public square in his plat of the village, on the east side of the river, which he formally donated to the county upon which to establish the county buildings and offices. To this proposition Mr. Cash and his friends objected, and to settle the question the proposition was submitted to a vote of the people on Monday, April 5, 1858, which resulted in favor of the public square in the village plat by a vote of 442 for to 181 against it. Thus ended the controversy, and the county offices were removed in accordance with the expression of the people. It was not a question of the location of the county seat; that had already been settled by other authority; but at what precise point - at or near the mouth of the river - should the buildings containing the county offices be located.

The post office of Ontonagon was established in 1846, with Daniel S. Cash as the first Postmaster, and first kept at his house, on the west side of the river. The first mail from "below" was brought in on a dog train in the winter of 1846-47, which was the only one received during the entire winter.  The Postmasters, up to the current time, are:

1846-1852 Daniel S. Cash


Henry Meatts
1862-1867/8 Daniel Pittman ? - 1873 George W. Ward
1867/8 Richard Nogle


J.W. Crozier

J.W. Crozier, the present incumbent, serves the people at his store near the Bigelow House, where the office is kept. The mails to and from this office are carried overland by stage, eastward, by way of Houghton and L'Anse, the present western terminus of railroad transportation.

The first public house in Ontonagon was the Johnson House, kept in the old Government building by Lathrop Johnson. The next hotel of any note was the Bigelow House, which was built in 1851 by a joint stock company, composed of citizens of Ontonagon and Rockland, at a cost of $22,000. It is a frame structure, five stories high, and eighty feet front by 110 feet. deep, with a basement, which was first occupied by the Miner newspaper office, post office, County Clerk's office, a Justice of the Peace office, a clothing store, a billiard room and bar. Fortune-hunting prospectors gathered at the five-story hotel to exchange information about possibilities for striking it rich here and elsewhere. The building was projected by James Carson, Augustus Coburn, Joseph Coulter and Edmond Lockwood. The first proprietor or landlord was J. W. VanAnden, and the house was first opened as a hotel July 4, 1855, by a large reception.

In February, 1862, a fair was held in this house for the benefit of the Soldier's Christian Commission, of which the net proceeds were $6,340, the largest sum of money thus raised in proportion to the population at any point during the war. The house was abandoned as a hotel in 1870, and in August, 1874, was purchased and since has been kept as a saloon, billiard hall, etc. It is now (1882) being repaired with the view of re-opening as a first-class hotel in the spring of 1883. It will make a fine resort for Lake Superior tourists.

The Centennial Hotel was opened in 1876 in a two-story frame structure, and stands in front of the spot where the old Government building was erected and afterward opened as a hotel. The Paul House is a comfortable and retired public House, occupying with additions and changes the residence of the first pioneer, the late James K. Paul. It is a commodious, two-story frame building near the lake, surrounded by trees, and kept by the widow and adopted son of Mr. Paul, the proprietor of the town. There are other boarding houses, generally connected with saloons as the main business.

The town had one of the U.P.'s earliest newspapers and a pioneering inter-city phone system.  A plank road connected Ontonagon with Rockland in 1859.

Fishing was once a thriving fishing industry of the late 1800's and early 1900's. One fishing tug, The Tramp, was owned and operated by the Hawley Brothers of Ontonagon during the late 1800 and early 1900s.   Ontonagon fisheries had supplied such delicacies as whitefish, lake trout, and "lake superior oysters" (fish livers).  These "oysters" were so prized that they were shipped off to Chicago and New York restaurants.

The fishing industry died out with the unfortunate introduction of the sea lamprey into the Great Lakes, killing off the fish and consequently a unique way of life.  Ontonagon then became a bustling port with a developed lumber and mining industry. 

In the 1850's, at the height of the copper boom, the Village of Ontonagon reached a population of 6,000. 

The educational interests of Ontonagon were, early in its settlement, looked after in the earnest spirit which prevails throughout the entire Upper Peninsula. The first school established in the village was a "select" one, started in 1851 and taught by James Scoville, a graduate of Michigan State University. He hired a room and charged a tuition of $3.50 per term, which he continued that year. In October, 1852, the Methodist Church edifice was completed, and, the village having no school building, was occupied for school purposes.  William Fox, a graduate of Oxford, England, was employed as its teacher, and continued thus in the same building for two years. The patronage of the school had now increased so that, in 1855-56, the Methodist Church building could not accommodate them all, whereupon a Miss Gamberton, from one of the Danish West Indian Islands, taught the more advanced classes, in French, drawing and embroidery, elsewhere.

On December 10, 1853, the first school district was organized, and embraced Sections 4, 5 and 6, in Township 51, Range 39, and Sections 30, 31 and 32, in Township 52, Range 39; and Section 1, in Township 51, Range 40; and Sections 25 and 36, in Township 52 north, Range 40 west. In 1856, the first School Board was organized, and purchased a lot, 75x100 feet in size, on the corner of Trap and Chippewa streets, with a building 24x40 feet thereon, which purchase consumed all the money in the hands of the School Board. To place this building in repair for school purposes, $433.50 was raised by private subscription among enterprising citizens of the district, and the new quarters were occupied the same year. The same building is now occupied as the Herald office. In 1857, the School Board contracted with James Burtenshaw to build a union school edifice. The work was commenced at once, and a frame structure, 40x60 feet, divided into three departments, was completed and furnished in modern style, at a cost of $4,000. It was occupied for school purposes June 1, 1858, under the superintendence of  O. E. Fuller, from Maine, as Principal, with three other teachers.

At the annual school meeting, October, 1858, 318 children of school age were reported in the district. The first Board of Trustees organized as a Union School Board were: J. W. Crozier, Moderator; Augustus Coburn, Director; George C. Jones, Assessor. During the winter of 1857-58, there were one public and two private schools in the village. At a meeting of the board held October 17, 1859, it was resolved to include the entire township of Ontonagon in School District No. 1, and in pursuance of this action, school taxes were levied and collected co-extensive therewith. This action was subsequently adjudged illegal, because the school districts of the State are limited by statute to nine Congressional sections of territory. The School Board of the district is now wrestling with the dilemma in which they thus find themselves.

In 1877, the school population had outgrown their school building.  It was determined to extend it, which was done by an addition, 30x40 feet, two stories high, costing $1,500 completed for use. James S. Monroe is the present Principal, with three assistant teachers. The school now (1882) has an attendance of 337. The present annual expenditures of the school are about $3,500. It is only necessary to add that the schools of Ontonagon are highly creditable, and in consonance with the intelligence of the people.

Ontonagon was incorporated as a village in 1885.

Ontonagon County's mining investors had no intention of building a permanent community here, as some mining magnates did in Houghton-Hancock and Marquette. Many mining officials had never even visited the area. Later in the 19th century, the Diamond Match Company moved into the area to harvest extensive stands of white pine. (Only the second-rate logs were used for matches.) Its two sawmills employed 500 people; its store was a magnificent edifice of brick.

The pine was basically gone when the Ontonagon fire of 1896 destroyed the entire village and lumber mills. Fire had smoldered in the surrounding swamp for months, to no great concern, when a gale-force wind developed and spread the flames quickly. Having already harvested the area's white pine, Diamond Match decided not to rebuild. No longer could the company expect to keep producing 3,000 board feet of pine a day.

The town's 2,300 residents lost their homes, and most had no insurance. But the town did rebuild. Ontonagon eventually grew to a peak population of about 2,400 in the 1970s, when families were large and schools were full.

After the fire, the town was kept afloat by logging the remaining hardwood and hemlock, plus the big paper mill and farming. The lumbering industry was a major employer of in the early 1900's with the Diamond Match Company located at Ontonagon being one of the more well known. The Lewis Genson Company of Ewen became one of the biggest users of hardwood in Ontonagon County. During that time, Ontonagon County's population was more than 12,000.

The area has many farms established by Finnish immigrants, who worked reluctantly in the mines and saved to buy farms on logged-over land.  Many Finlanders enjoyed the self-sufficiency of farming the heavy, fertile soils in this cold climate. They could survive on forty-acre subsistence farms augmented with income from logging employment. Farming peaked around 1920.

Population for the year 2000 was 7,818.

*Since 1858 the copper boulder, which weighed 3,702 pounds, sits in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C.  

Partial Source: Western Historical Company. History of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Chicago: The Western Historical Company, 1883.

For additional Ontonagon village historical notes, read Charles Willman's 1960 "Events of 100 Years Ago in Ontonagon Recalled by Files" article published in the Ironwood Globe (transcription on this site).