Part One: Iron County Rich in Mining History, Poor Today - WBAY

Target 2 On Assignment

Part One: Iron County Rich in Mining History, Poor Today

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Iron County -

A Three-part Target 2 On Assignment Series
Tuesday: Life in Iron County
Wednesday: What All Sides Are Fighting For
Thursday: The Reality of a New Mine

In January, state lawmakers are expected to revisit legislation that could bring Wisconsin's mining industry back to life.

A proposed open-pit mine in Ashland and Iron counties is sparking as much hope as debate.

Earlier this year, Gogebic Taconite backed out of a plan that would create to 700 jobs on-site, the company had said.

But company leaders tell Action 2 News if new legislation helps streamline the process and is passed this session, the company will reconsider.

In part one of this Target 2 On Assignment series we explore Iron County, one rich in mining history, left poor decades later when the mines closed.

"But give 'er hell," 86-year-old Tom DeCarlo said. "Gotta make five feet a day."

Dressed in his old mining uniform, DeCarlo dresses for the best of times.

"I tell them what I went through to raise my three boys and my wife to pay my bills," DeCarlo said. "I went underground to work."

DeCarlo dresses for the best of times because Iron County has seen better days.

"Two of my grandfathers, both of my grandfathers, six of my uncles all work in the iron mine," Leslie Kolesar said driving through Iron County.

Like many here, Kolesar's long lineage starts and stops here.

"We're old, and we're poor, and we're few in number," Kolesar said.

The trains no longer stop outside Hurley, the county seat.

Decades ago, trails replaced the tracks that once shipped hundreds of millions of tons of iron ore across the country.

The minerals once rich in prosperity are now left only as a guide as Hurley's downtown traffic is maneuvered down Silver, Granite, and Copper streets.

Census data shows the population's decline:

1940: 10,049
1950: 8,714
1960: 7,830
1970: 6,533
1980: 6,730
1990: 6,153
2000: 6,861
2010: 5,916

"Maybe we kind of knew it," Kelly Klein said when he saw the 2010 Census data. Klein works to bring economic development to the county. "But when the real numbers hit you, it's like ugh, that hurts."

The elementary school in Hurley sees some incoming classes in the thirties.

Not many more are graduating from the high school -- sometimes half the size of the parent's class.

"Our greatest export is our youth," said Bob Walesewicz, chairman of the Town of Cary. "My family included."

Students cite numerous reasons for leaving.

"There's a lot more jobs in the city than there is back home," Cameron Rowe, a junior, said. "And as you can tell there's less kids in the classes, less parents having kids here, it's just shrinking."

In Iron County, those who have stayed make on average $25,000 a year, according to the Department of Workforce Development. Tourism and logging provide the few jobs available.

The county's unemployment rate is the second-highest in the state.

"Lots of people apply for the good jobs around here when they're available," said Sonni Lauren, whose family owns The Liberty Bell bar and restaurant in downtown Hurley.

The Liberty Bell has maintained a business since the 1920s and kept a family.

"We actually both left and went to school," Jerri Sokol said, "and we chose to come back."

For the first time in decades, hope rises from stories past that the job of their grandfathers could once again be theirs.

"If there was jobs around here, I definitely would want to stay just because I love the area," Rebekah Harrington, a high school junior, said.

As the red iron fades, left only to history, a new era of mining could return Hurley's Silver Street to gold.

"We've got some good talent," DeCarlo said. "The young kids here, they're gonna come back."

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