Residents of northern Minnesota’s Iron Range know the iconic image of the Iron Man Memorial situated along Highway 169 in Chisholm.
This statue, the third-tallest free-standing statue in America (a very distant third, behind the Statue of Liberty and the Arch of St. Louis), was dedicated in 1987. It took 11 years to commission and complete the statue, the concept of which was actually proposed as early as 1947. The goal was to honor the iron miners of northern Minnesota who had immigrated from almost four dozen nations to build the American empire of the 20th century.
And it is a great tribute, though I’ve never been a fan of a creative choice made by the sculptor at the behest of local backers. The Iron Man is slumped over, to show the weariness miners felt as they left the mines to return home. This was meant to show the burden placed upon workers, the physical toll of their labor.
To me, born in 1979 as the Iron Range economy was beginning to crumble, the Iron Man always seemed to reflect the decay of the region itself: Sad, defeated, standing on past accomplishments with little to look forward to. It didn’t help that in the ’90s they built a McDonald’s in Chisholm whereby the Golden Arches now frame the Iron Man as you approach from Hibbing. The original intent of the statue always has to be explained; the actual impression given to countless tourists and commuters is entirely different.
But over the weekend I encountered an image at the historical photography clearinghouse Shorpy that bears the same name, a photograph titled “Iron Man 1941,” that conveys an impression I very much prefer:
This image depicts a miner standing at the edge of Hibbing’s Hull Rust Mine in August 1941. He holds a lunch box bearing his name “S Dolz” (not clear whether that’s his full last name or an abbreviation). A steam shovel loads a steam train down in the pit. I’m not sure whether that’s Hibbing or a location in the background. I suspect it’s a location town, one that is probably long gone now.
This photo was taken at the start of World War II, the most intense period of northern Minnesota iron mining in our history. Modern mining owes much of its vital technology to the ferocious demand for iron that existed then, whether it’s taconite or scram mining, both of which were explored heavily at that time. The demand for labor cemented much of what workers had fought for in 50 years of labor struggle. Mine bosses finally gave workers respect, pay and safer working conditions, because they finally had no choice. So today we have modern taconite mines and miners that are among the best paid people on the Range. A strongly Republican region flipped to solid DFL at this same time, for the same reasons. (This guy and his peers, first generation immigrants, finally got to vote).
And we owe it to people like this guy, standing on the edge of not just a mine, but American history. That is the Iron Man in my view. We also owe it to the women who also worked the mines during the war and later reintegrated the mines in the ’70s and ’80s. We owe it to the families of people like this man, who demanded better schools and created the best educated workforce in the nation. Even as iron mining struggled through the ’80s and ’90s, when the Iron Man statue was dedicated, these accomplishments continued to yield dividends, evidenced by the fine education I received as recently as 1998.
But those dividends have paid out, now. Any hope for the future now rests with the question, “How will remember our history and create our future? Standing straight or slumping?”