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The Merritt Family and the Mesabi Iron Range

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Black and white photograph of the Merritt family some twenty years before they began mining operations on the Mesabi, 1871.

The Merritt family some twenty years before they began mining operations on the Mesabi, 1871.

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."

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 prompted the American Steel Barge Company, which was associated with John D. Rockefeller, to purchase 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 then-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.

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"A Big Verdict." Duluth News Tribune, June 14, 1895.

"Big Struggle is On." Saint Paul Daily Globe, June 6, 1895.
http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn90059522/1895-06-06/ed-1/seq-6/

"Big Suit Over." Duluth News Tribune, June 12, 1895.

"Brought On Again." Saint Paul Daily Globe, February 28, 1893.
http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn90059522/1893-02-28/ed-1/seq-2/

P1169-15
Burns, Manley P. History of Oneota Minnesota. N.p., [1962?].
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul

Chernow, Ron. Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr. New York: Vintage Books, 2004.

"Dreary Grind." Duluth News Tribune, June 8, 1895.

"First Car of Ore." Mesaba Range, October 20, 1892.

"First of Last." Duluth News Tribune, June 11, 1895.

Folwell, William Watts. A History of Minnesota. Vol. 4. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1969.

The Great Missabe Iron Range. N.p:. [1892?].

Ingersoll, Paul Baughman. "The Merritt Brothers and the Opening of the Mesaba Iron Range." Masters' Thesis, University of Chicago, 1928.

John D. Rockefeller, Plaintiff in Error v. Alfred Merritt, Plaintiff in Error, No. 707, U.S. District Court of Appeals (Eighth Cir. September 2, 1895).
Description: Transcript of the court case brought on by Rockefeller's appeal.

"Letters of Lon." Duluth News Tribune, June 7, 1895.

"Lon Merritt Talks of Early Days on Range; Shatters Tradition." Virginia Enterprise, July 9, 1915.
http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn90059180/1915-07-09/ed-1/seq-1/

"Lon On Stand." Duluth News Tribune, June 6, 1895.

M853
Alfred Merritt v. John D. Rockefeller, 1895–1900
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Proceedings of the court case in which the Alfred Merritt sued Rockefeller for fraud.

Merritt, Alfred. Reminiscences of Early Days of the Head of the Lakes. Duluth, MN: N.p., [1915?].

P2122
Merritt, Andrus. The Story of the Mesabi, 1934.
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: In this unpublished manuscript Andrus Merritt gives the most detailed account of the Merritts' version of events. It describes many of the claims the family made against Rockefeller.

The Merritt Family: Minnesota Pioneers. Typescript, [Duluth, MN: St. Louis County Historical Society, 1930].

"The Merritt Family: Seven Sons of One House." Duluth Daily Commonwealth, May 24, 1893.

"Merritts are Convinced." Saint Paul Globe, February 28, 1897.
http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn90059523/1897-02-28/ed-1/seq-9/

"Merritts are Out." Mesaba Range, February 8, 1894.

Nevins, Allan. John D. Rockefeller: The Heroic Age of American Enterprise. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1940.

"To Mountain Iron." Duluth News Tribune, October 17, 1895.

Van Brunt, Walter. Duluth and St. Louis County Minnesota: Their Story and People; An Authentic Narrative of the Past, with Particular Attention to the Modern Era in the Commercial, Industrial, Educational, Civic and Social Development. Vol. 1. Chicago and New York: American Historical Society, 1921.

Walker, David A. Iron Frontier: The Discovery and Early Development of Minnesota's Three Ranges. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1979.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of the Merritt family some twenty years before they began mining operations on the Mesabi, 1871.
Black and white photograph of the Merritt family some twenty years before they began mining operations on the Mesabi, 1871.
Black and white photograph of Lewis H. and Hephzibah J. Merritt, c.1880.
Black and white photograph of Lewis H. and Hephzibah J. Merritt, c.1880.
Black and white photograph of Leonidas and Elizabeth Merritt, around the time merchantable ore was discovered on the Mesabi, c.1890.
Black and white photograph of Leonidas and Elizabeth Merritt, around the time merchantable ore was discovered on the Mesabi, c.1890.
Black and white photograph of from left to right: Leonidas, John, and Bert Merritt exploring, 1890.
Black and white photograph of from left to right: Leonidas, John, and Bert Merritt exploring, 1890.
Black and white photograph of the Merritts' first mining operation on the Mesabi, c.1892.
Black and white photograph of the Merritts' first mining operation on the Mesabi, c.1892.
Black and white photograph of Leonidas Merritt on the Vermillion Trail, 1892.
Black and white photograph of Leonidas Merritt on the Vermillion Trail, 1892.
Black and white photograph of the boomtown of Merritt that sprang up near the Biwabik Mine, 1892.
Black and white photograph of the boomtown of Merritt that sprang up near the Biwabik Mine, 1892.
Black and white photograph of the first train depot, built by the Merritts at Mountain Iron, 1893.
Black and white photograph of the first train depot, built by the Merritts at Mountain Iron, 1893.
Black and white photograph of Alfred Merritt, and his wife Jane, c.1900.
Black and white photograph of Alfred Merritt, and his wife Jane, c.1900.
Black and white photograph of the ore docks at Duluth, 1903.
Black and white photograph of the ore docks at Duluth, 1903.
Black and white photograph of John E. Merritt, 1920.
Black and white photograph of John E. Merritt, 1920.
Black and white photograph of the statue of Leonidas Merritt in front of the public library in the town of Mountain Iron, 1940.
Black and white photograph of the statue of Leonidas Merritt in front of the public library in the town of Mountain Iron, 1940.

Turning Point

In 1890, after years of suspicion and searching, the Merritts discover merchantable iron ore deposits on the Mesabi Range.

Chronology

1854

With the second Treaty of La Pointe, the Ojibwe cede much of what becomes northeastern Minnesota to the United States.

1855

Lewis Merritt and his son Napoleon arrive in Minnesota Territory at the mouth of the St. Louis River.

1856

Hepziabeth and the rest of the Merritt family travel up the Great Lakes and join Lewis. The Merritts become some of the earliest settlers of Oneota and Duluth.

1865

Lewis Merritt participates in the Vermillion Gold Rush, which lasts into the next year. Like his peers, he finds nothing, but he is shown a sample of iron ore and predicts that a vast range will be found.

1884

Lewis' grandson John E. Merritt discovers a sample of iron ore.

1887

Cassius Merritt finds a promising sample of iron ore while timber cruising. The Merritts begin a determined search for large ore deposits.

1889

In March, Alfred Merritt leads a crew to the area where ore has been found. They begin digging test pits. Leonidas Merritt lobbies for the passage of the Braden Bill, which occurs on April 24.

1890

The Mountain Iron Company is incorporated on July 10 and the Biwabik Mountain Iron Company on October 9. On November 16 the future site of the Mountain Iron Mine is found. Under the Braden Bill, Leonidas Merritt leases 141 sections of land for mining.

1891

On February 11 the Merritts incorporate the Duluth, Missabe & Northern Railway Company.

December 24, 1892

Needing investors, the Merritts form a syndicate controlling the railway and mines with Charles Whetmore of the American Steel Barge Company.

1893

The railroad and largest ore docks in the world are completed. The Merritts organize an excursion to Mountain Iron where three hundred people celebrate. On August 28 the Merritts and John D. Rockefeller consolidate their mining interests.

1894

In February, the Merritts are forced to sell their interests in the consolidated mining company to Rockefeller. Cassius Merritt dies.

1895

Alfred Merritt sues John D. Rockefeller for fraud. Rockefeller appeals.

1897

On January 22 twenty members of the Merritt family sign a retraction of their accusations. They settle with Rockefeller out of court.

1900s

Several of the Merritts, including Leonidas and Alfred, organize the American Exploration Company. They explore the western United States, Mexico, and western Canada in search of minerals.

1911

Rockefeller is investigated by the United States Senate. Leonidas an Alfred Merritt's testimony reignites the feud between the Merritts and Rockefeller. The investigation finds no wrongdoing by Rockefeller.

1926

Leonidas and Alfred Merritt die.