Rumors of iron ore deposits in this area were floating around as early as the 1850s, but no one began to explore the possibilities until the late 1800s. Henry Pajari, a surveyor for the Van Hise Company, located iron ore belts in the north and south Cuyuna Range and tried to map the deposits, but his efforts failed because they were deeper than he could dig. A few years later, though, Cuyler Adams arrived and finished the job, going on to found the Orelands Mining Company and open one of the first underground mines. Adams is also responsible for naming the range, which, in spite of how it may sound, is not derived from a Native American word for this or that. Adams simply combined letters from his first name and the name of his St. Bernard (Una) to come up with Cuyuna.
The first shipment of ore went out in 1911–147,649 tons from the Kennedy Mine via the Soo Line railroad. By 1910 there were more than a thousand miners at eleven active mines. In 1919, the nineteen active mines employed over 2,700 miners and shipped over two million tons of ore.
Workers at the Armour and Kennedy mines organized a major strike that began on April 12, 1913. The 900 miners wanted an eight-hour work day, overtime pay, a minimum wage, and health benefits. The strike was settled in about two weeks when workers and management sat down at the same table and negotiated directly with each other; the miners received improved working conditions and a minimum wage. The prevailing view among folks today is that relations between management and the miners were generally good when everyone (including managers) was local. Eventually, though, the big companies started bringing in out of town managers who imported heavy-handed oversight of the workers; conflict between labor and management escalated after that.
The Cuyuna Range didn’t have the lasting power of the other ranges. The Kennedy Mine closed in 1925; the last underground mine in Minnesota (Inland Armour Number 2) closed June 1, 1967. The Cuyuna Range’s last open pit mine closed in 1982. The towns lost some residents, and the folks who stayed either worked at small manufacturing plants in the area or had to commute to work in other places.
Those abandoned open pit mines and piles of rocks have turned out to have an unexpected benefit, however. Many of them have been turned into recreation areas, with deep blue lakes and challenging mountain biking trails that attract visitors from across the country. While tourism hasn’t replaced the old mining economy, it has helped many Cuyuna Range communities bounce back and stabilize.
Below are brief bios of a few towns in the Cuyuna Range.
(2010 population = 532)
Deerwood was the first village founded in the area. It was originally called Withington but the name was changed in 1882 because it sometimes was confused with Worthington, Minnesota. Deerwood is located along an old portage route that connected the Mississippi River to Mille Lacs Lake.
The loamy soil wasn’t too good for most types of farming, but it was well-suited for fruit crops like apples, grapes, and raspberries, as well as potatoes; by the Depression years, though, few people were left who raised those crops. The area around Deerwood had a lot of resorts in the early years, but, like at Sandy Lake, many were eventually sold and converted to private lake homes.
(2010 population = 2,386)
The village’s namesake and founder, George Crosby, chose this site for a town at least in part because there were no known iron ore deposits underneath. The explosive growth of the mining industry created an early housing crunch as miners flooded into the newly developing towns. Some boarding houses rented “hot beds”, which were shared by two men just at different times of day; Joe had the bed during the day, while Boris used it at night. George Crosby built houses in the village that he leased to the mining companies who in turn rented them to miners; as miners gained seniority they could move up to a bigger house for the same rent.
Many of the first residents were immigrants from the Balkans, Italy, Germany, Finland, Sweden, and Norway. Crosby’s early residents settled into ethnic neighborhoods, just like in bigger cities. The northeast part of town was Scandinavian; Lakeview was home for the Finns; and further west was Balkan Street. If you walked along Main Street on a Saturday night, you might feel like you had just arrived a meeting of the United Nations.
In winter, coal dust from the mining equipment and home stoves coated the snow black. The town would also take on a red hue at times because of iron ore-tinted dust; if you hung your clothes out to dry, you had to check the wind direction first or risk having them dyed against your will.
In 1933, in the midst of the Depression, Crosby’s residents, which included a number of immigrants from liberal European countries, elected a communist mayor, Emil Nygard; he was the first communist mayor in the US. At the time he was elected, Nygard, whose father worked as a miner for 51 years, was 26 years old and unemployed.
(2010 population = 572)
Ironton was founded around the same time as neighboring Crosby but developed into the place where people went for entertainment, especially if it involved alcohol. The town had a lot of bars that served 3.2 beer when establishments that served it were allowed to stay open two hours later than other bars.
In 1912, the part of town that had been developed the most had to be moved because iron ore was discovered underneath. The Spina Hotel, built in 1913, was one of the best in the area. The building is still around but needs a little help to bring it back to its glory days.
(2010 population = 117)
Riverton is located on Little Rabbit Lake, which is really just a section of the Little Rabbit River that enlarged after the Mississippi River dam was built downstream at Brainerd. The town was developed by the Williams Carlson Ore Company beginning around 1912. The town was at the terminus of the Soo Line that connected to the Lake Superior port cities of Duluth and Superior.
(2010 population = 332)
The village of Cuyuna popped up in 1908, one mile west of the Kennedy Mine, making it the second oldest in the area (only Deerwood is older). By 1910, it had 700 residents. The Rogers and Brown Mining Company built nice-sized houses hoping to attract families, which they felt would provide a more stable workforce than single men. The mining company also provided free entertainment at the Cuyuna Theater. Many of the early miners were immigrants from southeast Europe or Scandinavia and many had previously worked mines on the Mesabi Range or in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. After the Kennedy mine closed in 1925, many families moved to Ironton or Crosby to be closer to other mines.