Ore Fathers

Precise, inventive, and politically well-connected, William Burt and his sons surveyed the Upper Peninsula and discovered mineral deposits to fuel Detroit’s industrial development.
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typeface William Burt introduced the “typographer,” a forerunner of the typewriter, in 1829. // Courtesy of Alamy
Typeface – William Burt introduced the “typographer,” a forerunner of the typewriter, in 1829. // Courtesy of Alamy

As deputy surveyor for the Northwest Territory, which in 1833 included all the lands north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River, William Burt kept running into the same problem with his magnetic compass.

“The aberrations of the needle are truly perplexing,” Burt wrote. With assistance from his five sons, he started work on a solar compass to calculate a given location based on the sun’s direction. It was a timely invention, as he became the first to survey township lines in the Upper Peninsula, where iron deposits rendered the magnetic compass next to useless.

The 10-year surveying project started in January 1840. Douglas Houghton, state geologist, was already doing geological work, and the two men linked efforts. Alas, Houghton drowned in 1845 after his boat capsized, but Burt continued the work. He told his wife, Phoebe, “We have found five very extensive beds of iron ore, of an excellent quality, enough, I think, if worked, to build a railroad around the world.”

Born in Massachusetts in 1792, Burt grew up studying stenography, navigation, land surveying, and music. He first visited Detroit in 1817. Seven years later, when — as the Detroit Free Press put it — Michigan “was then little else than a howling wilderness,” he settled with his young family at Mount Vernon in Macomb County.

He established himself as a brilliant inventor in 1829 by patenting the “typographer,” America’s first typewriting machine. Work on the compass culminated with Burt’s Improved Solar Compass, which was exhibited at the 1851 London World’s Fair and became a standard instrument worldwide.

Meanwhile, Burt applied himself to the problem of moving large quantities of ore out of the U.P. Joining the Michigan Legislature in 1852, he advocated for construction of the Sault Ste. Marie ship canal, through which millions of tons would pass. A devout Baptist with a clean-shaven face, Burt next applied himself to creating the equatorial sextant for more precise maritime navigation, and demonstrated its effectiveness in 1855 aboard the first ship to pass through the canal. He was in Detroit three years later, teaching lake captains how to use his device, when he died of a heart attack.

All of Burt’s five sons acquired surveying skills and, in particular, Wells and John carried on and extended their father’s work. Wells Burt, the fourth son, launched the Union Iron Co. of Detroit in 1872, serving as president for 10 years. He had interests in the Peninsular Iron Co. of Detroit and the Lake Superior Iron Co. of Ishpeming, as well as in banking. He built an elaborate, three-story house in the Queen Anne style at 1077 Woodward Ave.

John Burt, the oldest son, acquired ore lands for $1.25 per acre. In 1851 he dammed the Carp River in Marquette and built the first sawmill there. Next, he had a hand in starting the Iron Mountain Railroad, and served as its president. He went to Washington, D.C., and lobbied for support of the ship canal. In 1855, after it was completed for $1 million, Burt himself became the canal’s first superintendent. When a larger lock was needed he created a patented design, which was finished in 1881.

Pursuing further technical innovations, John Burt was awarded at least five patents for refinements in iron production. His Detroit house was at 1073 Woodward Ave. A few months after celebrating his golden wedding anniversary at home with his wife, Julia, he was “taken down with rheumatism” and passed away. The Free Press said the death “closed the career of one of the oldest, most successful, and best known of the early settlers in Michigan.” 

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