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The Merritt family helped put the ‘iron’ in Iron Range

On the cusp of controlling a mining empire in northern Minnesota, they lost everything to business titan John D. Rockefeller.

The Merritt family some twenty years before they began mining operations on the Mesabi, 1871.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The discovery of iron ore on the Mesabi Range can hardly be credited to one person. In 1890, however, it was the family of Lewis Merritt that discovered merchantable ore and opened the Mesabi to industry. Within three years, they owned several mines and had built a railroad leading to immense ore docks in Duluth. On the cusp of controlling a mining empire in northern Minnesota, they lost everything to business titan John D. Rockefeller.

The Merritts came to Minnesota Territory in 1855 and 1856. They were among the first settlers of Oneota (West Duluth). The family ran a hotel and Lewis, the father, worked as a millwright. Lewis participated in the Vermillion Gold Rush of 1865–1866. Like his peers, he found nothing. He was, however, shown a chunk of iron ore that prompted him to speculate that ranges of the mineral would be discovered in northern Minnesota.

Lewis and his wife Hepziabeth had eight sons. One became a teacher and another a minister. Some worked on Lake Superior vessels for a time. Several of the sons worked in the extractive industries of lumbering and mining. Prominent among the brothers was Leonidas. He became the head of the Merritt clan in Duluth, especially after his father Lewis died in 1880.

In the mid-to late-1880s several of the brothers were employed as timber cruisers, which required them to spend months in the woods surveying tracts of forest. In 1884 and 1887 two Merritts found samples of iron ore. Soon afterwards, the family began an organized search for a large deposit of ore even though experts said none existed. In 1889, Alfred Merritt led a crew to the area where ore had been found and began digging test pits. The results were positive and on July 10, 1890 the Merritts incorporated the Mountain Iron Company. A few months later they discovered what became Mountain Iron Mine. This discovery, and their subsequent work, earned them the moniker “the Seven Iron Men.”

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Within two years the Merritts owned several mines and held interests in others. From the beginning they tried to get railroad companies to serve the Mesabi Range, but ran into difficulties. To solve this problem the Merritts incorporated the Duluth, Missabe & Northern Railway Company. At first, they intended to build less than fifty miles of track to connect with another rail. However, when that rail met with financial problems, the Merritts decided to build all the way to Duluth, and to construct their own ore docks. This decision led to the American Steel Barge Company, which was associated with John D. Rockefeller, purchasing a large interest in the Merritts’ railway.

The rail was completed in the summer of 1893. It led to what were then the largest ore docks in the world. While this was a great accomplishment, the Merritts had achieved it using borrowed money as the country was entering the financial downturn of 1893. In the summer of 1893 Leonidas met with John D. Rockefeller. The two men negotiated the consolidation of their mining interests into the Lake Superior Consolidated Mines Company. In addition, Rockefeller pumped over two million dollars into the Merritt properties to keep them afloat. As the financial depression of 1893 deepened, the Merritts found themselves unable to meet their obligations. Eventually, in January of 1894, the Merritts sold all of their stock in the consolidated company to Rockefeller.

In 1895 Alfred sued Rockefeller for fraud, arguing that he had misrepresented the value of his mining interests upon the consolidation of the company. The first federal trial took place in Duluth and awarded the Merritts $940,000 in damages. Rockefeller appealed and the previous verdict was overturned. In 1897 the Merritts settled out of court for $525,000. The family signed a statement retracting all of their accusations.

Like many others who assumed large debts in the Gilded Age, the Merritts lost their holdings to those with more wealth during the greatest depression to date.  The Merritt family continued to accuse Rockefeller of lies, manipulation, coercion, and illegal dealings.  While historians have generally concluded that Rockefeller followed the practices of the age, the question of Rockefeller’s intent to defraud during the depression continues to be disputed.

The Merritts’ discovery has been widely celebrated. Public buildings, parks, and businesses bear the family’s name. On important anniversaries, the opening of the Mesabi has been commemorated with train rides to Mountain Iron. There, a statue of Leonidas Merritt stands at the center of town. The Merritts’ most enduring legacy is Minnesota’s mining industry itself, which has been a large part of the state’s economy since the 1890s.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.