Minnesota’s Iron Range helped create modern America by providing the ore that became the nation’s steel. With most of the jobs of that era long gone, can this culturally distinct region forge a new way forward?
EDITOR’S NOTE: Today we welcome a new Daily Yonder contributor, Aaron Brown, who will be covering the people and places of northern Minnesota. Aaron’s first article for the Yonder introduces us to his home region – the Mesabi Iron Range. Read more about Aaron in the biographical note below.
The story of northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range may be neatly summarized as a human struggle of digging holes in rare earth with increasingly complicated shovels. The shovels still turn, now pitting the region deep into a political and cultural rut, and perhaps one day back out again. But Mesabi, or Missabe, or other variations of the name for this place all refer to the area’s role as a sleeping giant, one that could be awoken.
The long version of the story scrolls back billions of years to the explosion of a distant star, casting out the iron that formed in our nascent planet, a substantial portion of which settled at what would become a rare three-way watershed dead center of the North American continent in northern Minnesota. This unique formation of land, its surrounding waters, timbers and animals have attracted human settlement since people first flowed south over the continent as the glaciers receded north 10,000 years ago.
The mound-building ancients, whose names we don’t know, arrived first. We have only their settlements and artifacts to guide us to the conclusion they simply became the native peoples who came later, whose names we do know — the Dakota of Minnesota and, later, the Great Plains among them. They named the state Minnesota, and the 130-mile earthen iron formation in the north Missabe, or “Big Man Hills,” or “sleeping giant” in other native tongues.
The Ojibwe, or Anishinabe, people of the East would later displace the Dakota from Iron Range region, the “Hill of Three Waters” chief among their strategic and spiritual gathering places. The Anishinabe refer to this meeting of the Laurentian and St. Lawrence Seaway divides near Hibbing, Minnesota, as the Top of the World, and the name proves apt through the ages.
The Iron Range’s modern age began just over a century ago, and had less to do with the Hill of Three Waters and more with the iron ore around it, cast out eons ago by that old star and others like it. The Iron Range produced most of the domestic iron ore used to make steel for World War I, World War II, and America’s 20th-century economic boom. Though Minnesota’s iron ranges have never held many more than 100,000 people at one time, spread along what historian Pam Brunfelt calls an “industrial frontier,” “The Iron Range” provided the key materials necessary to build America as we know it today.
Put simply, America is America because steel, the most important man-made element in all forms of manufacturing and construction, was relatively easy to produce with the abnormally rich and abundant iron ore of northern Minnesota. But that ore would not have emerged from the ground where the stars left it without the labor of thousands of hungry, poor, often radical, mostly European immigrants who arrived at the turn of the 20th century, making the Iron Range as diverse as New York city for two decades. And here is where the story takes a remarkably recent and dramatic turn.
Until 1907, the Range was a true frontier. Loggers poured through the vast white pine forests in the late 1800s, bringing about the discovery of rich hematite iron ore. Towns cropped up by ramshackle underground mining operations with no true knowledge of their long-range fate. (Indeed, many were abandoned or removed for more mining, while others celebrated their centennials just a few years ago).
Initial mining was done by pioneering families like the Merritt Brothers, later aided by experienced Cornish, Scandinavian and German-Americans who came through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. But that wasn’t enough labor, so soon more immigrants from 43 countries — virtually all of Europe — were beckoned by the promise of jobs and eventual citizenship.
Political tumult ensued through two major strikes in 1907 and 1916. Both failed, but the latter secured concessions from mine bosses that placated miners until the Depression, when the mines rumbled to stops and furtive starts.
World War II changed everything, flinging open the doors of the mines for exhausting shifts that ran nonstop through the war and after. Unions were rather quickly accepted at this time as the country couldn’t afford work stoppages. Political power soon followed, and labor candidates would dominate the region’s politics thereafter. Iron Range schools and communities solidified their immigrant parents’ dreams – world class schools and amenities for working families.
It is the geographic isolation of northern Minnesota that allows its unique qualities. The Iron Range sits 80 miles from Duluth, the far western port of the Great Lakes and 240 miles from Minneapolis and St. Paul, vibrant cities nevertheless considered northern outposts by some.
This isolation has allowed the Range to remain politically distinct (majority Catholic, socially conservative, fiscally liberal) and culturally significant (Bob Dylan is from here, where he played downtown Hibbing polka bars as a teenager). The Iron Range even has its own dialect, observed by many scholars as a mash of the Minne-SOH-ta Canadian influence and ethnic European accents. The Iron Range being an island unto itself also allowed the region to endure the booms and busts of a mining industry that went from mining rich, pure iron ore to a lower grade ore called taconite.
But the bright flash of history that occurred here in the 20th century has given way to precipitous decline in the 21st. The Range lost 40 percent of its population after the crushing job losses in the 1980s (a factor that partially explains the region’s failure to adopt Reagan conservatism like other rural regions). More than half of all mining jobs have been lost to automation and attrition since then, and while the region’s taconite mines produce great tonnage today, they do so with fewer workers, although better educated and paid than ever before.
The result is a region frozen in economic stasis. The mines remain too important to ignore, and most local leaders owe something to the region’s mining history. Yet 90% of the region’s workers aren’t miners; increasingly they work in health care and service industries, often making wages equivalent in today’s dollars to the early immigrant miners arriving by train from Ellis Island. Unemployment varies greatly with the mines, but underemployment is a huge problem and poverty rates have crept up. Retirees moving to the area’s beautiful lakes and forests stratify the region and slow demand for change or innovation.
Like many rural areas or Rust Belt cities (the Iron Range is better considered as a Rust Belt city spread out over a long, thin line), young people have fled the region in recent decades, though not entirely. Many have accepted lower pay and more job insecurity to stay in this unique place and culture. Further, the proximity of thousands of lakes and acres of forest create a true sense of wild amid smokestacks and rail loads of steaming taconite pellets. It’s hard to imagine the region disappearing from the map.
The challenge for the Iron Range now is in the minds of its people, not the mines they once worked. Cultural isolation has made it difficult to welcome new people, but a gradual thaw continues to push open the gates. Many (though not all) have even forgiven Bob Dylan for saying he was from New Mexico in the 1960s. Dylan seems to have forgiven the locals for pulling the curtain on his band at a talent show in the 1950s.
Economic diversification coupled with a more stable mining sector could wake the sleeping giant Missabe to a new purpose. Or perhaps he will keep sleeping. With fresh water, cheap real estate and a cool climate in the face of global warming, one doubts that he will sleep forever.
Aaron J. Brown is an author from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range and instructor at Hibbing Community College. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show, a music and storytelling variety program on Northern Community Radio and other public stations. He lives in the woods north of the western Mesabi Range with his wife and three young sons.