Lake Superior Division, 1882–1922

A Brief History


map of geology in the Lake Superior area

Roland D. Irving, Wisconsin’s first true geologist, established the Lake Superior Division of the USGS in 1882 in Madison, Wisconsin. As head of the Division, Irving began a detailed survey of the Upper Midwest during which he pioneered the application of microscopic petrography (thin sections). After Irving’s untimely death in 1888, the Division’s fieldwork continued under subsequent directors C.R. Van Hise and C.K. Leith as geologists from Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan studied the geology of the Lake Superior area and laid the groundwork for all later investigations of the region’s Precambrian rocks (Dott, 2001).

Roland Duer IrvingRoland Duer Irving
Charles R. Van HiseCharles R. Van Hise

In 1905, the Lake Superior Division was discontinued as a separate unit, but Division geologists carried out intermittent work for almost another 20 years.

Mineral exploration was one of the primary drivers for the survey, and much of the Lake Superior Division’s work was concentrated in copper- and iron-rich areas of the Lake Superior area, including the Marquette region of Michigan, the Menominee and Gogebic regions of Michigan and Wisconsin, the Lake Vermilion and Mesabi regions of Minnesota, and the Sault Ste. Marie and Sudbury areas of Ontario. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a thriving area for iron mining in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, received the most attention. Parts of the peninsula were mapped in highly detailed large-scale, hand drawn maps, and of the 35,000 hand samples described in the field notebooks, more than half were taken from there.

Iron ranges of the Lake Superior Region, Aldrich 1929
Map of the area around Rapid City, South DakotaMap of area around Rapid City, South Dakota, from notebook 83

Geologists from the Division, especially Charles Van Hise and C.K. Leith also traveled widely throughout the United States and even overseas. Some of the samples and field notes cover Appalachia, New England, Utah, Colorado, eastern Canada and even Germany and the United Kingdom. However, metadata for many of these samples is vague. One of the products of this research was a massive volume on the Precambrian geology of the United States (Bulletin 360, Van Hise and Leith).

Over the years, the Division produced a large number of publications, including nine monographs, four bulletins, and a professional paper.

The physical samples and paper records used to produce these publications comprise the Lake Superior Legacy Collection. A complete list of what we possess, compared to what, as much as we know, was in the original collection, can be found in the collection page. (Some of the thin sections are from samples taken outside of the Lake Superior area. These will not appear in the data viewer, but can be found in the data set downloads.)

Publications of the Lake Superior Division

Publication NumberTitleAuthorYear
Monograph 5The Copper-Bearing Rocks of Lake SuperiorRoland Duer Irving1883
Bulletin 62The Greenstone Schist Areas of the Menominee and Marquette Regions of MichiganGeorge Huntington Williams and Roland Duer Irving1890
Bulletin 86Correlation Papers: Archaen and AlgonkianCharles Richard Van Hise1892
Monograph 19The Penokee Iron-Bearing Series of Michigan and WisconsinRoland Duer Irving and Charles Richard Van Hise1892
Annual ReportPrinciples of North American Pre-Cambrian geology (not available online from the USGS Publications Warehouse)Charles Richard Van Hise1896
Monograph 28The Marquette Iron-Bearing District of Michigan, with AtlasCharles Richard Van Hise, Wiliam Shirley Bayley, and Henry Lloyd Smith1897
Monograph 36The Crystal Falls Iron-Bearing District of MichiganJulius Morgan Clements, Henry Lloyd Smith, William Shirley Bayley, and Charles Richard Van Hise1899
Monograph 43The Mesabi Iron-Bearing District of MinnesotaCharles Kenneth Leith1903
Monograph 45The Vermilion Iron-Bearing District of Minnesota, with an AtlasJulius Morgan Clements1903
Monograph 46The Menominee Iron-Bearing District of MichiganWilliam Shirley Bayley1904
Monograph 47A Treatise on MetamorphismCharles Richard Van Hise1904
Bulletin 239Rock CleavageCharles Kenneth Leith1905
Bulletin 360Pre-Cambrian Geology of North AmericaCharles Richard Van Hise and Charles Kenneth Leith1909
Monograph 52The Geology of the Lake Superior RegionCharles Richard Van Hise and Charles Kenneth Leith1911
Professional Paper 184Pre-Cambrian Rocks of the Lake Superior Region, a Review of Newly Discovered Geologic Features, with a Revised Geologic MapCharles Kenneth Leith, Richard J. Lund, and Andrew Leith1935