From a 1922 issue of The American Magazine:
How the Needle of a Compass Pointed the Way to Fortune
The story of Cuyler Adams, who discovered one of the greatest deposits of iron ore in the world. A true romance of business, of science, and of human nature
by Neil M. Clark
As the sidewheel steamer “Keeweenaw” nosed into harbor on one of her infrequent trips to the head of Lake Superior in the year 1870, a lad of eighteen eagerly watched the unfolding of hill and forest behind the little frontier town of Duluth. The lad had fed upon the romances of Fenimore Cooper; and he had been told that a scant hundred miles away, under the shadowing forest of tamarack and spruce, Indians trapped and hunted and fished, much as they had in the times when Cooper had written about them.
The lad’s name was Cuyler Adams. In his pocket was fifty dollars, the gift of his grandfather, and his stake for a fortune. And in the fifty years that have passed since that day, his life has been as full of romance as that of any of the characters created by Cooper.
His career has been extraordinarily varied. He is known as a mining engineer. But he has also, at one time or another, been Indian trader, trapper, railroad president, freighting contractor, sawmill operator, prospector, farmer, and real-estate operator on a grand scale.
From this it might appear that Adams lacked the knack of sticking to things. But the fact is that perhaps the chief interest in his career lies in the way he stuck, through thick and thin and in spite of merciless ridicule, to an idea the truth of which he had proved to his own satisfaction. Incidentally, because of sticking, the fifty-dollar stake has been multiplied many, many times. Cuyler Adams is to-day probably the largest individual owner of iron-ore property in the country.
The arrival of the “Keeweenaw” at Duluth was an event, for in 1870 this sidewheeler was the only steamer regularly plying between Buffalo and Duluth. At that time, Duluth had only a few hundred people. There were still plenty of stumps up and down the main street, and the development of a great distributing and shipping center had scarcely been visioned.
Adams, when he reached the village, brought with him the handicap of wretched health. As a boy, his education had been rather casual, sometimes at boarding-schools, sometimes with tutors, and finally at a military academy in New York, from which he was removed to go West. It was so often interrupted because of poor health.
He looked forward to the woods, with their promise of health, of romance, of opportunity — and he found all three.
For the first few months, the boy spent his time in the woods, hunting and fishing. Then, one day, he met Basile Denis. Denis was a half-breed, trading with the Indians and the fur dealers; and he proposed to Adams that they go together into the Indians’ country as fur traders.
In those days anybody in that country with a fair reputation and average intelligence could get himself grub-staked for food and supplies to trade among the Indians, and Adams easily induced a merchant to advance him the traps, ammunition, and other supplies to be exchanged for furs among the Indians. But when it came to transporting the supplies he found that he was not strong enough for the long tramp through the woods with a pack on his back. Denis, however, arranged that by taking the whole burden himself.
They struck into the woods for Lake Vermilion, where the Bois Fort tribe of Chippewas had their camp. From an old Chippewa Bible, Adams picked up a smattering of their language and this helped him to make friends among the tribe. The chief, Rainy Lake, assigned him a wigwam, and for a paltry fifty pounds of pork and a sack of flour sold him the services of his own daughter as cook and maid of all work.
Adams, who had gone merely to trade, remained for a whole year. During that time he did not see a white man. Gradually he gained in strength and endurance, until he was able to tramp thirty miles a day, with a fifty-pound pack on his back. Many a time, in the dead of the cold North winter, he went alone on long trips through the woods, when the loss of an ax, or a broken ax handle, would have meant freezing to death.
And the woods gave him much more than rugged health. They taught him intimately the nature of the country.
He heard, for instance, of mineral deposits. One of the Indians, speaking more freely before Adams than he would have spoken before most white men, told of camping with his squaw on a ledge of rock in the snow. The great fire they built melted not only the snow — but something else as well. And the Indian exhibited a sample of the white stuff that had oozed out of the rock like sap out of a tree.
It was silver. And later, upon the site of the Indian’s bonfire, was located a rich silver mine.
Another spot, about which Adams heard from the Indians, later became the Beaver Mine, from which at one time was taken a single chunk of silver worth eight hundred thousand dollars. Adams himself was one of the first white men to stand on the site of what is now the great Missabe Mines.
“I have been many other things in my life,” he says; “but the guiding activity throughout has been the locating and developing of mining properties.”
He had no training that would fit him for mining engineering. But after his year with the Indians he began to study geology, mathematics, mining practice — everything, in short, that he needed for his purpose.
When he had saved about five hundred dollars, Adams gave up trading to go into railroading with the Northern Pacific, then just forging westward from Duluth. He started as a rodman, and in the course of a few years held a variety of positions, finally becoming a land examiner for the railroad; work which took him through Minnesota and North Dakota along the line of the railroad.
The Northern Pacific, like several other of the pioneer roads, had been granted every alternate section of land along the right of way, by the Government. Hundreds of thousands of acres of undeveloped land were acquired thus; and Adams, as land examiner became thoroughly familiar with them. He knew which sections were good, which were more or less useless. And later this knowledge helped him.
In the year 1873 Jay Cooke failed, starting one of the most severe financial panics in this country’s history. The Northern Pacific was hard hit: its common stock, with a par value of one hundred dollars, sold for as little as one dollar a share; and preferred, with the same par value, sold for twelve or fourteen dollars a share.
Men who merely go along with the crowd, who buy wildly when everybody else is buying, and who sell wildly when everybody else is selling, do not win the largest rewards in business, or anywhere else, as a rule. Such rewards are reserved for the man with enough courage and vision to see opportunities when everybody else is hunting for cover. Adams, as a result of his experience with the railroad, knew there was a clause in the preferred stock provision which allowed the holder of a share to present it to the company, and to receive in exchange the equivalent of its face value in any unoccupied lands which he might choose from those granted to the railroad by the Government.
As the price of the preferred stock fell lower and lower, Adams saw an excellent opportunity. He went to Philadelphia, in 1876, and there laid his idea before a group of men who had the money he lacked. He urged them to buy as much of the preferred stock of the Northern Pacific as they could, and he would exchange it for them for lands which he would select. He was to have full charge of the venture and to receive one fourth of the profits from the sale of these lands.
His offer was accepted. The men got together something like $70,000, with which they purchased in the market about $500,000 worth of Northern Pacific preferred stock.
Adams, in the meantime, located one hundred thousand acres of rich land in eastern Dakota, worth at that time an average of about five dollars an acre. Then, one day, he walked into the offices of the Northern Pacific with a huge bundle of preferred stock certificates, and the list of lands for which he wished to exchange them.
“We can’t do that!” exploded the man in charge.
“Why not?” Adams inquired. “You said you would when you sold the stock.”
The matter caused a small tempest at railroad headquarters. Bur there was no doubt that the provision existed in the preferred stock certificates, that it had been used as an argument in disposing of the stock to the public, and that some small blocks of stock had already been used to pay for land on that basis.
“If you won’t do it,” said Adams at last, “just put your refusal in writing. State that on this date, although you have allowed some holders of preferred stock to change their holdings into land, you now refuse to abide by your agreement, and will not transfer the title to these hundred thousand acres.”
They knew they could not do this; and Adams got title to the lands. But he knew it would take time to dispose of all of them, and he believed it would be profitable to farm some of them. Consequently, he became a “bonanza farmer.”
Bonanza farming, as it was practiced in various sections of the country when the land was new, consisted in operating on a very large scale, with a large amount of land. The usual farm, worked by a farmer going it alone, seldom was larger than one hundred and sixty acres. But Adams undertook to farm something like five thousand acres.
The men who had financed him thus far advanced about fifty thousand dollars for this project. With this sum he bought a great number of mules, wagons, plows, reapers, and binders. The soil he had chosen to cultivate was clear of trees. It had never been turned by a plow. All that was needed to make it yield huge crops — bonanza crops — was cultivation and seed. Adams planted something like a thousand acres each of wheat, oats, and flax, turning the ground one year and taking off the first crop the next year.
One year he contracted with the Government to deliver one hundred thousand bushels of oats to Fort Totten, and he undertook to raise it all himself. He planted two thousand acres; and the virgin soil yielded an average of fifty bushels to the acre. He teamed it in the winter across the plains a hundred miles or more to Fort Totten.
Meantime, he was selling land to new settlers, who had similar experiences. Many a farmer to whom he sold, paid for his property in a single year with the immensely rich crops.
If the rewards were great, the risks were great, too. But Adams eventually took them all himself. He took over the sole ownership of the land, giving mortgages, which were assumed in turn by the men to whom he sold.
In about five years the whole tract was disposed of; and Adams, then scarcely thirty, had realized something like one hundred thousand dollars for himself as the reward for his vision and courage.
His undertakings did not always turn out profitably, however. While he was still a bonanza farmer, he undertook to keep his mules busy in the winter time by getting freighting contracts across country where there was no railroad, or by logging, or by getting out ties for the railroads.
One of these contracts called for the transportation of supplies from Mandan, where the Northern Pacific crossed the Missouri River, to the Black Hills, many miles away, then the scene of a mining boom. Adams, however, was not sufficiently careful in drawing up his contract. He agreed to do the work at a certain rate per pound, without specifying the kind of freight he would haul. And when his schooners backed up to the loading platform, he found that a choice selection of cargo had been reserved for him! There were huge barroom minors, each of which required almost a whole wagon to itself; boxes of cigars, which occupied a maximum of space with a minimum of weight; and rocking chairs and the like, which could not possibly be packed in a way to save space!
He had expected to transport wheat, oats, or some other cargo that would weigh up and not take space. In addition to having to carry a miscellaneous cargo like this, the weather was bitter cold and the trail led over rough country for a long distance. He lost heavily; but he fulfilled his contracts.
With the profits from his sale of Dakota land, he bought forest land for himself in Minnesota, around a point on the Northern Pacific which he platted, and called Deerwood. Here he planned to engage in logging, and to supply ties to the railroad.
One day he was surveying through the woods to determine his exact property lines and thus to avoid cutting down some other man’s timber. It was noon, and his shadow fell across his compass. He observed, at first casually and then with astonishment, that his shadow and the needle of the compass did not both point in the same direction, as they should have done at that hour. The needle was noticeably deflected from its true direction.
Puzzled, he walked a short distance back — and the needle corrected itself. He walked forward again — and once more it was deflected. He tried this over and over, selecting various places in the forest. And each time, as he approached a certain general locality, he found that the needle was always more or less deflected.
Adams knew that the magnetism exerted by a steel rail is sufficient to deflect the needle of a compass. And it occurred to him that a body of iron ore, vastly larger than a steel rail, but buried some distance under the ground, might cause the compass to act in the same way.
When that idea entered his head — the idea that he had located iron ore by means of his compass — he started upon an enterprise that involved years of work without any immediate reward, and that subjected him, subsequently, to immense ridicule. But it won him a fortune!
There was nothing in the character of the country about Deerwood to indicate the presence of iron underneath. It was slightly rolling and heavily wooded, without any outcropping rock at all and covered with glacial drift a hundred feet deep or more. The only thing Adams had to go by was the telltale needle of his compass; but on his faith in that he invested years of work and study.
For weeks and months after his initial discovery he spent his time in the woods, learning all that he could, on the basis of the knowledge he possessed. Then he packed up and went to New York.
For the greater part of a year he spent most of his waking hours in the Astor Library, studying books on mining — especially those that had anything to say about the location of minerals by magnetic means. Swedish experts, it developed, had written more than anybody else on this. Many of their best books had never been translated into English. So he hired translations made at his own expense.
When he had learned all that the books could teach him, he went back to Deerwood. There he again set to work, this time to map definitely the body of ore he firmly believed he had discovered. His only companion in this work was a big St. Bernard dog, named Una. His only confidant was his wife. People who saw him tramping everlastingly through the woods had no idea what he was about. Some of them began to suspect that he was good-for-nothing, or lazy.
In mapping the body of ore, Adams continued the use of his terrestrial compass. With it he determined the point where the ore started and its general strike or direction. He verified and supplemented his conclusions by means of a dip compass, which, as it approached the body of ore, pointed downward at a greater or less angle. With an aneroid barometer, he got the variations in topography of the country — in other words, the lay of the land. And he used, also, a pedometer, to measure distances.
These four instruments and a notebook, coupled with indefatigable patience, comprised his entire equipment. Day after day he tramped for miles; and each night he transferred his notebook observations to a drawing, in this way gradually building up a plat of the whole body of ore, determining where the deposits seemed to be richest or nearest the surface, and locating the best sites for mines.
In this way he spent the better part of three years, during which he went over every foot of ground in an area about twenty miles long, by about a quarter of a mile wide. And when the maps were completed, the work was just well begun!
He next had to find out, from courthouse records, who owned the land over his supposititious body of ore, and to get in touch with the various owners. This took almost a year. He believed so firmly in his discovery that he was willing to risk every cent of his own on it. Therefore he went out to buy the land or to get options on it.
He had made money, but a good deal of it was tied up in land elsewhere. And his four years of investigation had prevented him from adding much to his income. Therefore his supply of ready money was limited, and he had hard work getting more. An uncle had sometimes loaned him money for his various projects; but he had come to look upon his nephew’s abilities with some doubt, and he shook his head.
In one way or another, however, Adams managed to buy or to get options on a fair percentage of the land he wanted — although he still did not know that iron ore lay where his maps indicated, or that it would be worth mining if it were there.
When he finally told others of his “discovery” he was greeted with vociferous ridicule. One of the best-known mining men in Duluth laughed loud and long.
“Iron at Deerwood!” he exclaimed. “Impossible! You might as well sink a shaft under Superior Street! There isn’t any iron there; there can’t be!”
Adams had a similar reception in many other quarters. But it did not discourage him; and at last he found one man who believed him — not a mining man at all, but a lawyer, named W. C. White.
White was so impressed that he gave up his law practice, took up the fight with Adams, and, being a good salesman, succeeded in getting eight men to advance a thousand dollars each toward the purchase of the stock of a company capitalized at fifty thousand dollars. It was part of the agreement with each purchaser that Adams and White should each receive for his services an equal amount of stock along with the others.
With the eight thousand dollars thus provided, drilling was begun in May, 1903, nearly fifteen years after Adams had noticed that his shadow across his compass did not coincide with the needle. The drilling was the first real test of the theories on which he had acted through those arduous years.
In the first hundred feet there were no indications of ore. The drill hole was sunk to one hundred and twenty-five feet; then to one hundred and fifty feet — but still there were no favorable signs. It went to one hundred and sixty feet — and at that point the last penny of the eight thousand dollars was exhausted. Yet Adams and White did not lose faith; and, not even knowing how they were going to pay for the work, they told the workmen to keep on.
At one hundred and sixty-four feet the water pouring out of the drill hole, which had been a muddy brown color, turned black. The ore bed had been reached!
And analysis showed that it was ore which could be mined profitably.
After this proof had been furnished, there was no difficulty in interesting mining operators. To-day the Cuyuna Range — named by his wife from the first syllable of “Cuyler,” Adams’s first name, and “Una,” the St. Bernard that used to follow him through the forest — ships several million tons of ore a year through Duluth.
The finding of the Cuyuna Range was therefore an accident: a chance observation of the irregularity of a compass. But it was the same kind of accident that happens more or less often in every lifetime. Men who are made of one kind of stuff regard such happenings as accidents, and nothing more; but men of another stamp turn them into glorious opportunities. The only real difference between any accident and an opportunity, as a rule, is the way a man looks at it.
Some men, for example, would have regarded it as an accident, unfortunate but not to be altered, that the rate for hauling ore from the Cuyuna Range to Duluth was fixed by the railroad at a dollar a ton. Adams looked at it in another way:
The rate from the Missabe Range, which was about the same distance from Duluth as the Cuyuna Range, was also a dollar a ton. It was richer ore than that from Cuyuna, so Adams went to James J. Hill, then president of the Northern Pacific, and asked for a lower rate. Hill refused; and Adams was “in check,” but not “checkmated.” He immediately secured options on lake terminals at Duluth. He also secured an option on eighty acres of land for an ore terminal near Deerwood. He incorporated the “Cuyuna Iron Range Railway,” had a survey made for the new railroad, secured estimates of the cost of building it, and gave contracts for handling ten million tons of his ore to it.
Then he got in touch with O’Shaughnessy, head of the Canadian Pacific, and a competitor of James J. Hill and the Northern Pacific.
“Would you,” Adams asked, “build a hundred miles of railroad if you were guaranteed ten million tons of ore at sixty-five cents a ton?”
The railroad was built and for several years Adams was its president.
Cuyler Adams went into the country when it was new; and many persons think that a man has vastly greater opportunities under those conditions. So I asked him about that.
“Young men sometimes make me impatient,” he replied, “when they argue that we older men have used up all the great opportunities. There are about as many opportunities at one time as at another. I only wish that I were sure of living another twenty-five or thirty years, in order to do some of the things that I see crowding to be done right now!
“What men lack, at any time, is not opportunities — there are always plenty of those — but the knack of opening the door in their minds, if you can call it that, which gives them the courage to decide on something and to see it through.”
“What,” I asked, “are some of these opportunities that you see right now?”
“Well,” was the reply, “there are mining towns near Deerwood where some twenty thousand people live in busy times. There, if you want a homely example, is a chance for somebody to build up a market for chickens, eggs, and all kinds of farm produce. It would have to be done by somebody with enough nerve and vision to serve his customers better than anybody has yet taken the trouble to serve them.”
He also called my attention to the rolling lands of northern Minnesota, covered with second-growth timber through which the trunks of fire-deadened trees are to be seen.
“It is tiresome and difficult,” he said, “to get this land ready for cultivation. Therefore, much of it is scarcely used at all. But all through the woods you will find wild peas and other vegetation sufficient to feed thousands of sheep. And there are two ‘crops’ a year from sheep, the wool crop and the lamb crop.”
Adams scoffed at my suggestion that all the rich bodies of ore have been discovered. He pointed out that processes are yet to be developed which will make it profitable to mine ore that cannot now be taken from the ground except at a loss. He mentioned, too, an opportunity that is as much the stuff of dreams, as yet, as the Cuyuna Range was in 1890 — but no more fanciful.
“Iron smelted with charcoal,” he pointed out, “is better than iron smelted with coke. It contains less sulphur, and sells for about fifty cents a ton more. The forests of northern Minnesota contain vast quantities of timber. Much of it is of little or no value for lumber. Yet it is suited for making excellent charcoal. The ore is here. If we made charcoal locally, why not smelt the ore here? Why ship the ore by rail to Duluth, and by steamer to Cleveland, and by barge to Youngstown or Pittsburgh, when it might be shipped as pig iron smelted at the mine mouth?
“That is the sort of thing I mean when I say that there are still vast opportunities, and always will be. It needs only eyes to see them — and courage to see them through.”
Adams himself never had the opportunity to study at a college, but he is a practical mining engineer and a member of the American Institute of Mining Engineers.
“There is nothing so abstruse,” he says, “that anybody cannot learn it outside of a college — if he will. Of course I have regretted that my health prevented my going to college. But a college is, after all, merely one way of making the sources of certain kinds of study available to men. The information is all in the textbooks. If a man will study them, and if he will perform the experiments for himself faithfully and thoroughly, he can learn just as much outside of college as in.”
Adams made himself a mining engineer in that way. He taught himself enough chemistry to make assays of his own minerals — the walls of his office are lined with thousands of bottles containing samples of ore from his various mining properties. On his place in Deerwood he now has a powerful telescope and is studying astronomy. He is an expert mycologist, an authority on mushrooms.
“If a man wants to learn anything, or to do anything,” he said emphatically, “I can’t see why he doesn’t study.”
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