Hill of Three Waters

This is my Sunday column for the May 20, 2012 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. My visit to the Hill of Three Waters took place a year ago. While photography is forbidden at the site, I did snap this photo of the entrance to the hill to show what the forest looks like.

PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown

Hill of Three Waters
By Aaron J. Brown

I donned the white safety helmet establishing my status as a visitor at Hibbing Taconite. I was a guest in more ways than one. It wasn’t just that I didn’t work at the mine. I was also an egghead academic wandering into a playground for machines. This son of Iron Range gear heads still finds machinery as mystifying as the concept of an omnipotent God, but that is the sort of thing you don’t discuss in the HibTac guard shack, especially when you are a visitor.

We watched the mandatory video reminding us to mind the haul trucks and avoid drinking alcohol from colorful Clip Art bottles and martini glasses. The lecture was designed for people planning to observe the mining activity, which I’d already seen many times in my life. I was there to see something else, something a little older: the Hill of Three Waters.

Smack dab in the middle of the second largest mining operation in Minnesota stands this odd, wooded hill – a time capsule, off the iron formation, untouched by a century of mining. This is partly by design. An unofficial understanding has long existed between the various mining companies and local Ojibwe people that allowed the three-way watershed to remain untouched. The location’s mystical, spiritual power has been recognized by centuries of peoples, quite possibly an eon’s worth. It shows a rare point where the watershed breaks three ways: north to Hudson Bay, south to the Mississippi River and East to the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway.

Though the Ojibwe have gathered there for hundreds of years, the Dakota before them and other peoples dating back to the mound builders, have used this location as place for important meetings. The hill is marked by several unusual features.

First, considering that the Iron Range itself represents a topographical elevation, this location is an even more pronounced ridge – made all the more interesting by the fact that there isn’t any iron below its surface, just hard granite. In the watershed you can see, quite literally, the way that the glaciers pressed the land together during the last Ice Age. The unusual soil and rock formation also provides for slightly different vegetation, mostly deciduous trees spaced intermittently on a bed of some kind of springy grass I didn’t recognize. Few pines.

Second, though scientists determined the precise location of the watershed in 1953, erecting a plaque, the site has been marked by an unusual natural landmark for all of recorded time. A huge boulder, 10 feet tall and 25 feet wide at one point, stands just down the ridge from the plaque. The Ice Age carried this rock, a so-called glacial erratic, eight miles from Shannon Lake thousands of years ago. It is around this rock that people have gathered for time immemorial, Ojibwe warriors camped amid the unusual trees during their war with the Dakota before Europeans arrived in the territory. There were other rocks like this scattered around the region, though many have long since been moved or blown up in mining activities. This one remains.

Finally, there is the sense that in the combination of these features, the unique hill, unusual forest and otherworldly boulder, you are standing somewhere special. Even with the haul trucks blaring in the background, you find is stillness there. So seldom do history, geography, geology, hydrology and anthropology collide in such a way.

Indeed I am a visitor. We are all visitors, in some way. Though the destination of our winding path is not known in our time, we can find comfort knowing that it does lead *back* somewhere. The origin is a place touched uniquely by the seasons and time, molded by forces humans can’t match.

NOTE: My visit to the mine was coordinated at the start of Dylan Days last year. Dylan Days 2012 brings visitors from all over the world to Hibbing this upcoming week, May 24-27. Many come to celebrate our town’s famous son, Bob Dylan, and many also come to play music, read poetry, and find inspiration in the interesting world we call the Iron Range. Find more at www.dylandays.org.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and instructor at Hibbing Community College. He writes the blog MinnesoaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on public stations like 91.7 KAXE.


  1. Very cool!

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