Modern Times: still moving for mines, destination uncertain

The vast iron mine at Kiruna, Sweden, is the world's largest active underground iron mine. The mine and city are working together to move the town to access vast iron reserves, just as Hibbing, Minnesota did almost 100 years ago. PHOTO: James Losey, Flickr Creative Commons license

The vast iron mine at Kiruna, Sweden, is the world’s largest active underground iron mine. The mine and city are working together to move the town to access vast iron reserves, just as Hibbing, Minnesota did almost 100 years ago. PHOTO: James Losey, Flickr Creative Commons license

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

The ethos of Minnesota’s Iron Range is change even if its peoples’ reputation is one of stubbornness. The ups and downs of the mining industry and cultural melding trained a whole region to eye warily that which rolls around the bend, even though we know that water, minerals and even mountains can be moved, whether we like it or not.

So the Range seems to feel a sort of resignation in accepting the monumental change occurring between Eveleth and Virginia, where Highway 53 is being rerouted per an old agreement between the state and mineral rights holders in that area. The Iron Range’s most traveled north-south artery will be wholly reshaped in the next few years to allow United Taconite to continue operating for an unknown amount of time.

In this, local leaders attempt to balance two angry wet alley cats in each hand. The first cat is a cadre of civil engineers with sharp pencils and the second is the convoluted political system behind transportation funding, where numbers grow zeros in their sleep.

An engineer's rendering of a possible U.S. Highway 53 bridge across the Rouchleau Mine pit in Virginia, Minn. Tests this summer will determine if the bridge is viable option for relocating the highway. (PHOTO: MNDOT)

An engineer’s rendering of a possible U.S. Highway 53 bridge across the Rouchleau Mine pit in Virginia, Minn. Tests this summer will determine if the bridge is viable option for relocating the highway. (PHOTO: MNDOT)

Recent reports indicate that if the basin of the Rouchleau Pit is deemed stable, something engineers are researching right now, the state’s tallest bridge might be constructed. This mighty, broad-shoulder span will whisk the lowliest pizza delivery driver, the passing tourist and the transient millionaire on a stunning spin over the blood red rocks, flashing green leaves and deep blue waters. From there, the future dumps us out on the existing highway somewhere near Target. And while this does not necessarily score well in aesthetics, it is something to “aim for.” (Hey, at least they didn’t hit a “brick Wal-Mart”). Kidding aside, it will cost taxpayers nine figures.

I’ve suggested that this entire project represents a rather substantial failure of an entire generation. The only question is whether it was the past generation for failing to have faith in the new taconite technology of that time, or the new one for assuming that the next fifty years will produce better results than last 50 years with no effort or imagination. Perhaps both. What is even more troublesome is the fact that, more than ever, the Iron Range is watching important events happen to us, not leading the change ourselves.

When Hibbing was moved a few miles south 80-90 years ago, the same economic motives existed, but city leaders were active in negotiating an outcome that benefited both mines and communities — recognizing that these are, in fact, different things, even though they were intertwined. What if they had moved Hibbing without building the high school? What if middle class people had to pay to move their own houses? There would be no Hibbing to speak of; not one we’d want to see, anyhow.

The city of Kiruna, Sweden looks a lot like towns in northern Minnesota's Iron Range region. Many of those towns were moved last century for mining, but Kiruna is actually doing so in the year 2014, reminding us all of the constant change of natural resource towns.

The city of Kiruna, Sweden looks a lot like towns in northern Minnesota’s Iron Range region (maybe even nicer). Many Iron Range towns were moved last century for mining, but Kiruna is actually doing so in the year 2014, reminding us all of the constant change that besets natural resource towns and of the choices communities face when change happens. PHOTO: weisserstier, Flickr Creative Commons license

I read with interest last week the story of Kiruna, Sweden, an iron ore mining city about the size of Hibbing located north of the Arctic Circle in the Lapland region. There you find the world’s largest underground iron mine, and a city in transition. New mining will dig under the town and cause structural problems in the city’s most important buildings. So Kiruna, like Hibbing before, must move. It’s a monumental task for a very old city isolated from its country’s capital and population base in the far north. But something from the city’s website about the project struck me:

“The planners of Kiruna have therefore no partners to dialogue with, which they can share similar experiences with,” writes Lisbeth Pekkari at kiruna.se. “But perhaps Kiruna can be a model for other cities in the future, considering the climate change and the threat of rising sea levels that perhaps will force cities to move to safer ground.”

Kiruna is nestled into the Laplands; it’s very cold there and winter is endless night, but Kiruna is thinking about the world in this action, not just itself. Even so, it has a clear vision for what it wants to do:

“The proposal aims to make Kiruna a sustainable and coherent city where nature is never more than three blocks away,” writes Marianne Nordmark at kiruna.se.

If you don’t believe them, check out the website. From 2004 to now, the city has carefully planned its future: one that will include a charming modern city next to an enormous mine and what we like to call the “great outdoors.” They are doing what the Iron Range hasn’t done yet; develop a mature relationship with its natural resource economy that involves technology, strong sense of community and economic diversification.

Like Kiruna, we on Minnesota’s Iron Range must not only demand more of the mining companies that profit from running efficient mines with far less labor than before; we must demand more of ourselves and our communities. We must aspire. The bridge to the future must go somewhere, and not just to box stores and pawn shops. Not for my kids. Not for your kids. We can do better. Let’s try.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This post first appeared in the Sunday, July 27, 2014 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

 (h/t Tim Sullivan for the story about Kiruna’s big move)

Comments

  1. Your last paragraph says it all, Aaron. The handwriting is on the wall, if attitudes don’t change.

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