Reading coded language of Iron Range landscape

Aaron J. Brown

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

The youngest parts of the Mesabi Iron Range are the century-old towns spotted along its back like so many pimples. The geology, the nature and even human occupation go back millennia. Nevertheless, most people who live here see “local history” as a mysterious narrative that begins suddenly during the Grover Cleveland Administration.

It’s not hard to see why. It’s been a helluva 120 years, after all. A brawny forest of tall white pines clear cut to stumps. Iron ore found beneath those stumps. Tens of thousands of immigrants beckoned to work the mines. Untold fortunes wheeled away to the mahogany-trimmed halls of high commerce. The founders dead. Their children dead. Both my grandpas worked in the mines, but then they got a TV. And since then the good old days were over.

The kids say nothing ever happens here. That’s all part of the illusion. When you walk around the Wal-Mart hoping it turns into a nightclub, you fail to notice the mountains moving on the horizon.

This notion that the Iron Range is old and slow to adjust vexes me as both a writer and as a lifelong denizen of the Mesabi. In historical terms, the region changed so much and so quickly that it feels like we drank from the wrong grail at the end of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”

No one said change was pretty.

But it can be.

“Post-mining landscapes are dynamic and evocative cultural legacies,” writes John Baeten. “They reflect technological change, environmental impact, and human displacement and are the cultural remains that I find most intriguing.”

That’s at the heart of Baeten’s fascinating project, “Industrial Landscapes: Culture, Nature, Memory.”

This spyglass image from John Baeten’s story map shows a 1947 image of Hibbing over a modern satellite image of the town. (IMAGE: Industrial Landscapes.org)

Baeten conducted his doctoral research at Michigan Tech University in the U.P. His academic work now documents the historical impact of mining on the physical and human landscapes of what insiders call the Lake Superior District. You can see the work for yourself at IndustrialLandscapes.org.

Baeten writes that few people study industrial landscapes because they see them as blighted or ruined. Instead, he argues these sites have something to teach us about humankind.

The patterns of mine development first drew Baeten’s eyes to regions like ours.

“No two mining landscapes are the same,” he writes, “but they all share similarities — patterns of development, extraction, and abandonment that can be read in alignments of shovel-dug pits, rows of alder, and piles of discards.”

Baeten produced a story map called “The Lake Superior Iron District: Changing Landscapes of Water and Waste.”

Among the fascinating graphics in this story map you will find a color satellite image of modern day Hibbing. The reader directs a spyglass image over the map, showing a 1947 aerial photograph of the same town.

The Beltline fades away. Highland Park once again becomes Boy Scout Hill. The race track remains in place, but the campus of Hibbing Community College turns to grass. The Hull Rust pit shrinks. Hibbing Taconite’s tailings pond drains away like an April flood.

Old style processing plants and foundries smoke in memory. Gone now, their bones rest like fossils in the earth.

Those are obvious differences, but there’s more. Land that today cuts a green profile of trees and brush once burned red with mining scars. In other words, time doesn’t just create new holes on the Iron Range, but it also sluffs the dumps into hills. Plants move in. Nature counterattacks.

None of this is finished.

The biggest mistake we could make is believing that the past doesn’t matter or that this place has no future. Quite clearly the future is of our making.

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, Oct. 7, 2018 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


Comments

  1. Veda Zuponcic says:

    I liked this very much. I have always found the dumps beautiful…when they are red, and now, when they are green. Industry here creates a dynamic landscape…..much more interesting and beautiful than shopping strips!

  2. Stumbled upon John’s blog a year or two ago and found it very compelling too. I even contributed some intel on one of the articles. Glad you covered it here and in the Trib!

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