Moving mountains for an Iron Range future

The Hull Rust Mine pit, Hibbing, Minnesota; Summer 1998

The Hull Rust Mine pit, Hibbing, Minnesota; Summer 1998

Aaron J. Brown

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

Soon the Hull Rust Mine View in historic North Hibbing will be closed for good, set to reopen next year at a new location to the east. Shortly thereafter Hibbing Taconite will blow to bits the very mountain of taconite on which the viewing stand sits to send the iron ore on its way to become steel.

A quick review of Iron Range history shows that such displacement is hardly new. They call Hibbing, after all, “The Town That Moved,” relocated some ninety years ago to accommodate mining in the same North Hibbing area where Hibbing Taconite will expand its pit.

Similar movements happened this summer as the state relocated Highway 5 near Chisholm for mining. The highway out of Mountain Iron changed, too. And we can’t forget that the state built the tallest bridge in Minnesota on Highway 53 between Virginia and Eveleth as part of a near quarter-billion dollar multi-highway relocation. Again, we move infrastructure to access the long established Mesabi iron ore formation.

One of the struggles that seems to dog the people of the Iron Range is the sense that our towns are both permanent and temporary. What if the mines close? What if the mines move us entirely? It’s one of the reasons our best buildings were built pre-taconite. Most architecture since then is of the Morton building variety. Easy to build. Easy to move, or scrap if it comes to that.

Thus the struggle for the Iron Range is not for or against mining, for or against a political party or even for or against the Twin Cities. We instead strive for permanence in an impermanent world.

Let’s take a brief tour of the challenges facing Iron Range cities.

About a dozen local towns and many more small locations were built 100 years ago at the mouth of natural iron ore mines. Today, large taconite plants mine the same tonnage, usually located well outside of the towns. As automation reduced the mining workforce, it also reduced the number of workers in other related and spinoff industries. Our population is shrinking and aging.

Iron Range towns built big when the boomed — parks, streets and other infrastructure. In an attempt to spur the local economy more streets and sewers were built up over the last 40 years even as the population kept dropping. This will lead to catastrophic budget crisis as that infrastructure needs repair or replacement.

And now the taconite mines continue to follow the iron formation into places where our great-grandfathers could only dream of mining someday. Places where we have long since built towns, roads or other development.

Some western Iron Range cities like Nashwauk, Keewatin and Calumet sit directly atop the iron formation. Mt. Iron, too, and even more of Hibbing. Others, like Bovey and Coleraine, are so close they are practically the same town.

As citizens of the Iron Range mull their future, most assume mining will be a part of it. In fact, saying otherwise is often lumped with the crimes of heresy, skullduggery and, worst of all, environmentalism. That being the case, have we honestly considered what our plan will be? Because the mines know their plans. And their plans involve hitting a crossroads where either towns get out of the way or the mine closes at some point in the future.

What if instead we planned communities that will outlive, and maybe even aid those decisions? Why not prioritize development off the iron formation while planning communities — perhaps even merged towns — that cost less to maintain and welcome a more diverse economy? That’s what we want, right? A future for mining and a future after mining.

People who think they’ll live just a little bit longer make short term decisions. They blow their bank accounts and smash windows for fun. People who think they’ll live a long time make long term decisions.

It’s time for the Iron Range to play the long game. We’ve got water, wilderness and natural resources, towns capable of receiving new people and schools ready to educate them. People who feel they have no future feel hopeless. People who are confident in the idea of tomorrow build communities for a generation not yet born.

We don’t really know how long market conditions will keep a robust corps of mining jobs in Northern Minnesota. Decades? Centuries? Or until the robot trucks show up? We should expect that our towns and people will carry on long after. Longer than any mine. Longer than any building. Because that’s what people do when they care about each other and the place where they live. Living that way benefits everyone.

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 piece first appeared in the Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

The Hull Rust Mine pit, September 2017 (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

Comments

  1. Aaron
    Your vision of long range planning for our communities is noble. Until the mining companies sit at the table with us and share their long range plans on potential mine expansions, we are left guessing which direction is safe to develop.

  2. Well said ! I guess all i will have soon is pictures from the mine view. Maybe all of Bennet Park will be gone and onto Brooklyn. The golf course in between. Hell take it all. Hibbing never existed anyway. And yet we do not recycle what we could.

  3. Elanne Palcich says:

    Nice picture. What Chisholm, Hibbing, Mt. Iron, Virginia, and Eveleth will look like in 10-20 years.
    Thanks for the heads-up.

  4. The north edge of the ore formation is very well known and shown on lots of maps. North of this is where new development should occur.

    There is no south edge of the ore formation this side of Wisconsin, only economic limits. Every time a new generation of equipment comes along this changes.

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