Feeding the insatiable demands of a modern superpower and consumer culture requires resources, and many of those resources are buried under the earth. There aren’t many places where meeting those demands has had a more in-your-face impact than Minnesota’s Iron Range. A landscape of pine forests and shallow lakes that was scraped flat by thousands of years of crawling ice sheets has, in just one century of human activity, been transformed into a region of deep lakes–pits dug by human beings to remove iron ore–and hills built high from the soil after the ore was removed. This is a fascinating region to explore and easily accessible from the Mississippi River town of Grand Rapids.
Minnesota’s Iron Range is actually three distinct areas: the Vermillion Range, the Mesabi Range, and the Cuyuna Range. The Mississippi River skirts around the edge of two of those: the Mesabi and Cuyuna Ranges.
The Merritt brothers discovered iron ore on the Mesabi Range in 1890 (near the city of Mountain Iron), and within a short time mining created a boom economy. The first iron ore mine opened in 1892, and just 20 years later there were 150 operating mines. The industry did very well in the early years because the iron ore required little processing and was close to the surface, so it was cheap to extract. The mines were near major transportation routes (the harbor of Duluth was a short distance away by rail), and they had a vast resource of cheap labor as thousands of immigrants poured into the area (70% were from Finland, Sweden, Slovenia, and Croatia).
From 1900 to 1980, 60% of the US supply of iron ore came from the Mesabi Range. Much of the steel that fueled our war machine during World War II was produced from Minnesota iron ore. Iron ore production peaked during the war years, then gradually declined until the supply of high grade iron ore was essentially depleted by the 1960s.
In the 1970s a new process was employed that made it economical to process rock with a lower percentage of iron ore like taconite, which usually has a 15-35% iron ore content.. While high grade iron ore could just be dug out and shipped directly to steel mills, taconite has to go through several steps to make it mill-ready. After it was removed from the ground, the material has to be crushed, ground, screened, and baked to turn it into pellets that are about 67% iron. These pellets are then shipped to the steel mills.
Work in the mines has never been easy, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Iron Range has seen some major battles between management and labor. At the end of July 1907, thousands of miners went on strike at the Oliver Iron Mining Company (a subsidiary of US Steel), but the effort failed to win any concessions largely because there was a sufficient supply of new immigrants ready to work who were hired, even if many of those new immigrants were brought in by the company from east coast ports right after arriving in the US. By 1908, Oliver Mining dominated the range, controlling nearly three-quarters of the ore resources.
In the decade after the strike, over 700 men died in the mines, many of them new immigrants. Even though the work day had been reduced to eight hours from ten in 1912, management made it clear that they expected miners to produce the same amount. Most miners were paid a contract rate that was akin to a piece-rate; the more ore they dug out, the more they got paid, regardless of the number of hours worked. A typical contract worker in 1916 earned around $3 a day, which was a little higher than workers at open pit mines who were not on the contract system. The system was rife with abuse, though, as the rates were determined by mining captains who often demanded bribes for working prime spots and, at the end of the day, workers were charged for the supplies they used, things like fuses and blasting caps. Oliver Mining vigorously opposed formation of unions and hired spies to monitor its workers; anyone suspected of trying to organize was fired.
As discontent with the pay system grew in 1916, scattered strikes broke out, many led by men from the group of new immigrants hired in 1906. Mainstream labor organization weren’t willing to help, so the workers turned to the more radical Industrial Workers of the World, who were eager to assist. The IWW helped organize a widespread strike of thousands of miners and drew up a list of demands that included better pay, abolishing the contract system, and ending 4-hour shifts on Saturdays.
Striking miners survived for a while on funds from the IWW, but many also had to go out west and work in seasonal harvesting to support their families. Because of World War I, the company couldn’t rely on a supply of new immigrants to break the strike, so they instead worked with local authorities to slow down the union leadership by arresting and charging them with trumped-up violations. The company also hired a large network of security forces, that, with the blessing of the Governor, were deputized in St. Louis County. Those forces were later implicated in the escalation of violence (four people were killed during the strike) that at the time was blamed on the IWW and striking miners.
After 3½ months the strike ended, largely because of financial pressures on the striking miners as IWW funds dried up and seasonal work out west ended. Many returned to work in the mines. Within a month of the end of the strike, Oliver raised wages 15-20% and adopted many of the reforms sought by the union; although contract work wasn’t ended, more oversight and protections for workers were added. Oliver continued to fight union organizing and managed to keep them out of the mines until 1943.
While folks on the Iron Range have a long history of pro-union politics, many are also socially conservative. When the mines began hiring women in the 1970s, the new employees were subjected to daily harassment and humiliation from male coworkers; management didn’t intervene, implying that the female workers brought it on themselves. A successful class action lawsuit was settled against Eveleth Mines in the late 1990s (Jensen v. Eveleth Taconite Company), setting a landmark for future sexual harassment claims.
Even with an increase in tourism-related jobs, the mines are still a reliable employer, although the number of jobs is much less than it once was. While those new jobs in the service sector often pay minimum wage or just above, a job in the mines will typically pay 2-3 times as much.
Exploring the Area
There are a number of places to visit in the Mesabi Range that will give you a good overview of the mining industry. When visiting the area, keep in mind that folks in the Iron Range don’t necessarily warm to strangers quickly, but hang in there. When I went to a Slovenian bar in Chisholm for happy hour, two guys talked around me for half an hour before one of them turned to me and said “I didn’t catch your name.” I was involved in the conversation after that. Don’t give up just because someone doesn’t want to hear all about your family vacation in the first five minutes after they met you.
Chisholm (2010 population = 4,976)
The Minnesota Discovery Center is a good place to get an overview of the history of mining in the Iron Range. Think of it as a mining theme park, complete with mini-golf, an amphitheater, a 19th century village, museum, and archives. The museum has a number of good displays, including the Hall of Geology with lots of cool rocks and lively (but creepy) displays about the early immigrants who worked in the mines 10-12 hours a day, six days a week. The museum also has an informative video that shows the whole mining process, but all the technical jargon does get to be a bit too much. In summer, tours of an active mine operated by Hibbing Taconite depart from the Minnesota Discovery Center; check the website for tour times.
Across the highway from the Minnesota Discovery Center, the Iron Ore Miner Statue was dedicated in 1981. At 81 feet tall, it is the third tallest freestanding sculpture in the US (behind the Arch and the Statue of Liberty). Sculptor Jack Anderson created the massive art work from Corten steel covered with brass, copper, and bronze. Each of the miner’s boots weighs 220 pounds.
The Minnesota Mining Museum has an impressive collection of large mining equipment like the 1910-era Atlantic Steam Shovel; check out the railroad diorama in the depot crafted by renowned artist Francis L. Jaques. The museum is in the center of town.
Hibbing (2010 population = 16,361)
Hibbing was founded in 1893 by Frank Hibbing, but the original site (known as North Hibbing) had to be abandoned beginning in the 1910s to accommodate an expanding mine. Nearly two hundred buildings were moved south over the course of several decades to the neighboring village of Alice (now part of Hibbing). North Hibbing is now a park where you can play disc golf around the streetscape and foundations of the original village.
You can get dramatic views of that expanding mine from the Hull Rust Mahoning Mine View, one of the largest operating open pit mines in the world. The pit is 3½ miles long by 1½ miles wide and as deep as 535 feet deep. It has been an active mine since 1895, operated today by Hibbing Taconite Company. Since 1895, 1.4 billion tons of earth have been removed, yielding 800 million gross tons of iron ore; during WWII, as much as one-quarter of the US production of iron ore came from this one mine. Views from the parking lot are free and accessible during daylight hours. NOTE: This site closed temporarily in October 2017 so it could be relocated; call 218-749-8161 for updates on the status of the new location.
The Greyhound Bus Company began as Mesaba Transportation Company; they provided transportation to miners and their families from home to work, primarily between Alice and Hibbing (North and South Hibbing). You can read all about this at the Greyhound Museum. The highlight of the museum is the collection of restored busses that showcase bus travel across eras. If you have any memories of long-distance bus travel, this place will stir up the nostalgia, like the time I took a long a bus trip to bowling camp and the folks sitting behind me were nearly kicked off for smoking marijuana.
Bob Dylan grew up in Hibbing, graduating from Hibbing High School in 1959 when he was still known as Bobby Zimmerman. You can pick up a brochure with a walking tour of Dylan sites at the library or download here. The highlights include the house where he grew up (2425 7th Ave. E.) and the Dylan collection at the Hibbing Public Library.
Calumet (2010 population = 367)
There is one more place where you can tour a mine, in this case one that has been closed for a while. At Hill Annex Mine State Park you can tour a former open pit iron ore mine that operated from 1912-1978. Call the park for current times and to make a reservation (218.247.7215). The ninety-minute tours focus either on fossil hunting or the historic mine.
Grand Rapids is a convenient base for exploring the area. Otherwise, you’ll find the most variety of lodging and dining options in Hibbing and Virginia.
Next stop downriver: Jacobson
Next stop upriver: Grand Rapids