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Mesabi Iron Range

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The Hull-Rust-Mahoning mine in Hibbing, Minnesota, is the largest open-pit iron mine in Minnesota. As of 2020, material is still mined from the complex by Hibbing Taconite, or HibTac. Photograph by Wikimedia Commons user Chipcity, August 7, 2010. CC BY-SA 3.0.

The Hull-Rust-Mahoning mine in Hibbing, Minnesota, is the largest open-pit iron mine in Minnesota. As of 2020, material is still mined from the complex by Hibbing Taconite, or HibTac. Photograph by Wikimedia Commons user Chipcity, August 7, 2010. CC BY-SA 3.0.

The Mesabi Iron Range wasn’t the first iron range to be mined in Minnesota, but it has arguably been the most prolific. Since the 1890s, the Mesabi has produced iron ore that boosted the national economy, contributed to the Allied victory in World War II, and cultivated a multiethnic regional culture in northeast Minnesota.

The Mesabi Iron Range’s history as a mining district begins well before ore was unearthed. More than two billion years ago, an era of mountain building known as the Algoman orogeny occurred. High mountains were built in northern Minnesota and, later, a large shallow sea covered much of the upper midwest. This waterbody eroded the iron-rich rock of the mountain range, and the resulting sediment settled to the bottom of the sea. As the sea dried up and oxygen was produced in the atmosphere, the iron sediment was compacted by layers of silt that formed iron and taconite deposits throughout the Mesabi. The iron formation is called the Biwabik Iron Formation, and the long ridge is the Giants Range Batholith, which is all that is left of the high peaks of the Algoman Mountains. The term Mesabi comes from the Ojibwe name for the Giants Range Batholith: Misaabe Wajiw, or Big Man Mountain.

While it is documented that the Ojibwe were aware of iron ore on the nearby Vermilion Range, it is difficult to determine if they knew of the more obscured iron deposits on the Mesabi Range. Nevertheless, the Misaabe Wajiw is an important place for the Ojibwe, as the long ridge is said to be the body of a sleeping giant that forms part of a Thunderbird’s tail. The Thunderbird (binesi) is regarded as one of the most powerful spiritual beings of the Ojibwe.

The Mesabi Range was visited by Europeans and white Americans well before it was found to be one of the world’s largest iron ore deposits. Although they noted the hills of the Mesabi as early as 1810, it wasn’t until 1866 that Henry Eames and Christian Wieland of Ontonagon, Michigan, recognized the presence of iron ore. Wieland, optimistic about what he observed, helped organize the Ontonagon Syndicate to mine the area. However, the syndicate failed to materialize and produce any ore.

Even though Eames and Wieland found that the Mesabi Range had ore, few prospectors pursued it. The ore on the Vermilion Iron Range just to the north of the Mesabi was more accessible. However, the Merritt family from Duluth spent countless hours prospecting on the Mesabi. Their efforts paid off in 1890 when they encountered a large hematite ore deposit near current-day Mountain Iron. Soon after, the Merritt family began mining, and the Mesabi Range was opened for operations.

Since the Mesabi Range was so remote, heavy investment was necessary to transport the ore to steel-processing facilities. The Merritt family understood this challenge, so they formed the Duluth, Missabe and Northern Railroad (DMNR) in 1891 (later part of the Duluth, Missabe and Iron Range Railway). While this facilitated the Merritts’ first successful shipment of ore, in 1892, it was also the family’s financial undoing. Soon after the DMNR was formed, other railroads were built by competitors. Because they didn’t have the capital to improve the DMNR, the Merritt family sought investment from other sources. After many complicated financial transactions, the DMNR and the Merritt mines were consolidated into one company managed by power broker John D. Rockefeller. The Merritt family was pushed out of Minnesota’s mining industry in 1894.

Rockefeller didn’t control the Mesabi without competition, though. Because Rockefeller didn’t own steel mills but financier Andrew Carnegie did, Rockefeller would have to sell his ore to Carnegie at some point in production. Also competing with Rockefeller and Carnegie, industrialist Henry Oliver of the Oliver Iron Mining Company controlled multiple mines on valuable deposits. To maximize everyone’s profits, they made a deal: Oliver would mine the ore, Rockefeller would transport it via railroad to the ore docks, and Carnegie would ship it to the steel mills. This agreement was eventually formalized into the world’s first billion dollar corporation, United States Steel.

Developments on the early Mesabi Iron Range shaped its cultural legacy. Two early strikes—in 1907 and 1916—catalyzed a long heritage of organized labor. The 1907 strikers were generally unsuccessful, but the 1916 strikers received some raised wages and improved working conditions. In the modern taconite. On November 16, 1890, a large deposit of soft hematite ore is found in Mountain Iron by Leonidas Merritt and J. A. Nichols. This deposit catalyzes an era of natural iron ore mining lasting over fifty years, which allowed for the development of unique communities along the long ridge known as Misaabe Wajiw, the Big Man Mountain, and the Mesabi Iron Range. industry, all but one of the operating mines are union-based. Immigration, too, has played a major role on the Mesabi Range. Mining jobs attracted migrants from different parts of the United States and Scandinavia, but during and after the 1907 strike, Eastern and Southern European immigrants arrived to work in the mines—some as “scabs” to replace striking miners. The multiethnic character of the region is still visible, especially in cuisine. Dishes like Cornish pasties, Italian porketta, and Slovenian potica are served in Iron Range restaurants and are commonly found in family cookbooks.

National industrial developments and World War II assured that there was demand for Minnesota’s ore. However, after the war, reserves of natural ore were mostly depleted. Faced with the possibility of a total industrial decline in the region, scientists and engineers—especially Dr. Edward W. Davis of the University of Minnesota—began developing methods to mine and process taconite, a low-grade iron ore that was plentiful throughout the Range. However, since it was weaker than natural ore, it required much more processing, which made it more costly to produce. To remedy this, Davis and Iron Range lawmakers sought to change the way taconite mines were taxed. This effort was successful, and the Taconite Amendment of 1964 passed a statewide referendum with 86 percent of Minnesota voters approving the plan.

The first taconite plant was Reserve Mining Company in Babbitt, soon followed by Erie Mining Company in Hoyt Lakes. Both Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes were built for their respective taconite facilities as full-service company towns with modern amenities developed out of dense forest. After the Taconite Amendment passed, other mining companies invested in taconite production plants and opened facilities, including Eveleth Taconite (EVTAC) in 1964, and both Minntac and Butler Taconite in 1967. The massive investments pumped into these plants signaled a transition in the Mesabi Range’s primary export that still allowed the region to retain its mining heritage.

The steel industry faced global challenges in the 1980s, which led to layoffs, idling, and automation on the Mesabi. Of the taconite mines that were in operation at the Iron Range’s peak, as of 2020, two have permanently closed and all have been idled at various points ever since. The taconite mines employ fewer people than they did at peak operations, which has had major effects on the communities and schools throughout the region. In 2020, the Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert school districts voted to consolidate, which had already occurred in many other Iron Range school districts, but Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert were two of the Iron Range’s largest school districts before consolidation plans were proposed.

Even with school consolidation and diminishing populations, the Mesabi Iron Range has continued to mine taconite, and copper-nickel mining may start in the near future. While the Range is still enduring a long transformation, the mining industry has left an indelible mark on the region’s economy, landscape, and regional culture.

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Bois Forte Band of Chippewa Indians, Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, Landscape Research LLC, and Barr Engineering. “NorthMet Project Cultural Landscape Study.” September 15, 2012. https://www.leg.state.mn.us/docs/2015/other/150681/PFEISref_2/Zellie%202012.pdf

Carlson, Christine. “Posey Family.” Nahgahchiwanong Dibahjimowinnan, June 12, 2012. http://www.fdlrez.com/newspaper/archive/June12.pdf

Chester, Albert Huntington. Explorations of the Iron Regions of Northern Minnesota During the Years 1875 and 1880. Typescript. 1902. Available at the Minnesota Historical Society library as TN403.M6 C44 1902.

Drier, Roy Ward, and Octave Joseph Du Temple. Prehistoric Copper Mining in the Lake Superior Region: A Collection of Reference Articles. Calumet, MI: N.p., 1961.

Eames, Henry H. Geological Reconnoissance [sic] of the Northern, Middle, and Other Counties of Minnesota. St. Paul: Pioneer, 1866.

——— . Report of the State Geologist, Henry H. Eames, on the Metalliferous Region Bordering on Lake Superior. St. Paul: F. Driscoll, 1866.

Lamppa, Marvin G. Minnesota’s Iron Country: Rich Ore, Rich Lives. Duluth: Lake Superior Port Cities Press, 2004.

La Vérendrye, Pierre Gaultier de Varennes de. Journals and Letters of Pierre Gaultier de Varennes de La Vérendrye and His Sons: With Correspondence Between the Governors of Canada and the French Court, Touching the Search for the Western Sea. Toronto: Champlain Society, 1927.

Leith, C. K. The Mesabi Iron-Bearing District of Minnesota. Washington: United States Geological Survey, 1903.

Manuel, Jeffrey T. Taconite Dreams: the Struggle to Sustain Mining on Minnesota’s Iron Range, 1915–2000. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.

Upham, Warren. Minnesota Place Names: A Geographical Encyclopedia. Third edition. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001.

Walker, David A. Iron Frontier: the Discovery and Early Development of Minnesota’s Three Ranges. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1979.

Related Images

The Hull-Rust-Mahoning mine in Hibbing, Minnesota, is the largest open-pit iron mine in Minnesota. As of 2020, material is still mined from the complex by Hibbing Taconite, or HibTac. Photograph by Wikimedia Commons user Chipcity, August 7, 2010. CC BY-SA 3.0.
The Hull-Rust-Mahoning mine in Hibbing, Minnesota, is the largest open-pit iron mine in Minnesota. As of 2020, material is still mined from the complex by Hibbing Taconite, or HibTac. Photograph by Wikimedia Commons user Chipcity, August 7, 2010. CC BY-SA 3.0.
Map showing the locations of the Vermillion, Mesabi, and Cuyuna Iron Ranges of Minnesota.
Map showing the locations of the Vermillion, Mesabi, and Cuyuna Iron Ranges of Minnesota.
Taconite prospectors at Sulphur Camp, ca. 1916. To access Sulphur Camp, prospectors would have to take a rail cart, pictured here, from Mesaba Station. Seated to the far left is E. W. Davis.
Taconite prospectors at Sulphur Camp, ca. 1916. To access Sulphur Camp, prospectors would have to take a rail cart, pictured here, from Mesaba Station. Seated to the far left is E. W. Davis.
First Train of Taconite to Silver Bay, Minnesota, 1955. The first train of taconite from Reserve Mining Company’s Peter Mitchell Pit was shipped to the concentration facilities in Silver Bay in 1955.
First Train of Taconite to Silver Bay, Minnesota, 1955. The first train of taconite from Reserve Mining Company’s Peter Mitchell Pit was shipped to the concentration facilities in Silver Bay in 1955.
Mining townsite one mile east of Biwabik (St. Louis County), 1892.
Mining townsite one mile east of Biwabik (St. Louis County), 1892.
Underground mining on the Mesabi Range, 1906. Photo by Underwood & Underwood.
Underground mining on the Mesabi Range, 1906. Photo by Underwood & Underwood.
First mine on the Mesabi Range, near Mountain Iron, ca. 1892.
First mine on the Mesabi Range, near Mountain Iron, ca. 1892.
Locomotive that hauled the first car of iron ore to the Duluth docks, 1934.
Locomotive that hauled the first car of iron ore to the Duluth docks, 1934.
Black and white pro-I.W.W. cartoon printed in the newspaper Solidarity on July 1, 1916.
Black and white pro-I.W.W. cartoon printed in the newspaper Solidarity on July 1, 1916.
 Sons of Italy Fourth of July float, Hibbing, 1930.
 Sons of Italy Fourth of July float, Hibbing, 1930.
Black and white photograph of Suomalainen Raittiustalo, Virginia, 1910.
Black and white photograph of Suomalainen Raittiustalo, Virginia, 1910.
Trout Lake Concentrator,  Oliver Iron Mining Company, ca. 1940. Photo by Zweifel-Roleff Studio.
Trout Lake Concentrator,  Oliver Iron Mining Company, ca. 1940. Photo by Zweifel-Roleff Studio.
Taconite pellets, ca. 1950.
Taconite pellets, ca. 1950.
Pilotac, an experimental taconite concentrating plant built by the Oliver Mining Division of United States Steel. The plant went into operation at Mountain Iron in 1953 as Minnesota Ore Operation’s Minntac plant.
Pilotac, an experimental taconite concentrating plant built by the Oliver Mining Division of United States Steel. The plant went into operation at Mountain Iron in 1953 as Minnesota Ore Operation’s Minntac plant.
Bird's-eye view photograph of Eveleth
Bird's-eye view photograph of Eveleth
Northshore Mining, formerly Reserve Mining, is located in both Babbitt and Silver Bay.  The processing plant is located in Silver Bay. In this picture, the plant is visible along with a placard describing the taconite beneficiation process. Photo by Tony Webster, March 10, 2018. CC BY-SA 2.0.
Northshore Mining, formerly Reserve Mining, is located in both Babbitt and Silver Bay.  The processing plant is located in Silver Bay. In this picture, the plant is visible along with a placard describing the taconite beneficiation process. Photo by Tony Webster, March 10, 2018. CC BY-SA 2.0.
Steel Workers Organizing Committee dues button, 1941.
Steel Workers Organizing Committee dues button, 1941.
A piece of drill core used by E. J. Longyear near Mesabi station, ca. 1890. The piece measures approximately two and a half inches long and about one and an eighth inches in diameter.
A piece of drill core used by E. J. Longyear near Mesabi station, ca. 1890. The piece measures approximately two and a half inches long and about one and an eighth inches in diameter.

Turning Point

On November 16, 1890, a large deposit of soft hematite ore is found in Mountain Iron by Leonidas Merritt and J. A. Nichols. This deposit catalyzes an era of natural iron ore mining lasting over fifty years, which allowed for the development of unique communities along the long ridge known as Misaabe Wajiw, the Big Man Mountain, and the Mesabi Iron Range.Joseph Nicollet maps the Upper Mississippi River basin based on his expeditions through the region. His map features the “Missabay Heights,” a ridge from the Mississippi River at Grand Rapids to Thunder Bay, Canada.

Chronology

1841

Joseph Nicollet maps the Upper Mississippi River basin based on his expeditions through the region. His map features the “Missabay Heights,” a ridge from the Mississippi River at Grand Rapids to Thunder Bay, Canada.

1866

Henry H. Eames, a geologist, outlines his expedition from the St. Louis River’s mouth to the Height of Land Portage. He notes the “immense bodies of the ores of iron,” which becomes the first published evidence of iron ore in the region.

1875

Alfred Huntington Chester, a geology professor, leads the first documented expedition on the Mesabi Range in search of iron ore. He spends much of his time between the Embarrass River and Birch Lake on the eastern edge of the Range.

1890

Leonidas Merritt and J. A. Nichols find the first deposit of soft hematite ore in present-day Mountain Iron. A few years later, they open the first mine on the Mesabi Iron Range.

1901

John D. Rockefeller’s railroads, Henry Oliver’s mines, and J. P. Morgan/Andrew Carnegie’s ships are consolidated into one large corporation—United States Steel.

1907

Miners all across the Iron Range strike against mine operators for better wages and working conditions. This strike fails without concessions from the mining companies, and many workers are blacklisted from the mines.

1909

Oliver Iron Mining Company opens the Trout Lake Concentrator near present-day Coleraine. This concentrator allowed the natural ore on the western edge of the Mesabi Range to be processed and profitably mined.

1916

Miners go on strike once again and receive better wages and a more favorable work schedule. However, this strike breeds violence across the Range as skirmishes between mine guards and strikers turn deadly.

1956

Reserve Mining Company opens its taconite mine and plant after decades of planning and engineering to make taconite mining a profitable alternative to rapidly diminishing natural ore deposits.

1964

The Taconite Amendment, which changes the way taconite mining operations are taxed, passes after a statewide referendum. Soon after, more taconite facilities open across the Mesabi.

1972

The Environmental Protection Agency accuses Reserve Mining of widespread pollution in Lake Superior from taconite tailings. The Department of Justice soon files a lawsuit against the company.

1986

After a challenging decade for the taconite mining industry, Reserve Mining goes bankrupt as other facilities lay off workers, idle production lines, and reduce their workforces to stay competitive in a globalized market.

1988

Lois Jenson and other female EVTAC employees sue their employer for failing to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. This is the first successful sexual harassment class action case in American history.

2001

LTV Mining Company (formerly Erie) goes bankrupt, and hundreds of east Range miners are suddenly unemployed.

2019

PolyMet Mining receives state and federal permits to open Minnesota’s first copper-nickel mine. The company will repurpose LTV Mining Company’s facilities in Hoyt Lakes that have stood idle since 2001.