Another giant awakens

This 2007 photo shows an iron ore deposit on Pic de Fon near the Simandou Mine in Guinea. PHOTO: Leo Klemm, Flickr CC
Aaron J. Brown

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

Photographs of early Mesabi Iron Range mining are in black and white. We may identify the gray material in the rail cars as iron because, well, why else would those sturdy mustachioed gentlemen have shoveled it up?

But the early open pit and underground mines were very much driven by color — bright, vibrant hues of red, pink, steel blue, and gunmetal gray. Mining engineers like my great-grandfather plied their craft by sight as well as by drilling and assaying.

I know this because I’ve seen a vast hematite reserve in modern photographs. In fact, the soft, rich iron ore that built Hibbing, Chisholm and all the towns of the Iron Range still exists. But its abundance lies on the other side of the same ocean people crossed to extract the ore here.

The largest untapped iron ore reserve in the world may be found at the Simandou mine in the mountainous west African nation of Guinea. Two billion tons of high quality ore rest under a jungle mountain range deep in the country’s interior. Reports list the iron content of the ore there at 65-66 percent. This is notably higher than the industry standard of 62 percent. For steelmakers, it’s the difference between racing fuel and 87 octane from the local Spur station.

Big mining companies have known about the iron ore in Guinea for a long time. Simandou merely represents the richest of of several mountains of iron. The problem — and it’s one Iron Range historians know well — is in transportation.

Not only do you have to dig the ore out of a densely forested region, but you have to get it through a jungle to the Atlantic Ocean some 400 miles away. Remember, when the Merritt Brothers discovered Mesabi iron ore in 1890 they were nearly ruined moving it less than 85 miles to Duluth.

Brazilian giant Rio Tinto has been developing mines at Simandou for the last ten years. But the company hit several snags with the Guinean government, a barely democratic regime with a history of corruption in mining leases. Rio Tinto was dealt a further blow when Guinea parceled off the Simandou reserve and gave a state-owned Chinese company rights to almost half the ore.

Just last month, the Chinese government approved the construction of a 400-mile railroad and new port. Their companies will pull iron out of Guinea, around Cape Horn, and off to hungry mills in China.

Now, this might not directly impact our local iron mining industry. Rather, we see another example of the complex international dynamic that keeps our mining economy in a holding pattern.

The Mesabi Range’s chief advantage is that expensive taconite plants already operate here alongside a robust system of shipping iron ore to market. The plants are getting older, but upgrading them would be easier than building new ones. This region will continue serving North American markets for decades. Probably not with the same number of mines and mining jobs, but that’s another topic.

But these mining facilities are only as nimble and innovative as the companies that own them. And this has proven a mixed bag.

Cleveland-Cliffs developed iron nugget technology at Northshore and new varieties of pellets at United Taconite, all with an eye for the newer electric arc furnace markets. By contrast, U.S. Steel seems permanently wedded to older blast furnace technology. Their stockholders want profits now, not billions in new costs. And as we’ve seen this year, any collapse in demand sends all mines reeling backward.

I’m the fifth generation of my family to live on the Mesabi Iron Range, the first in my father’s line to never work in a mine. Steeped in the history of this place one might assume that the gods of iron ordained the Mesabi as the global pinnacle of iron ore production. But that hasn’t been true in half a century. We’re a regional mining center now. Our mines feed a mature economy that won’t repeat the meteoric growth of the 20th Century anytime soon.

Iron ore comes from more and more places, sometimes at higher quality than it does here. The goal of our region — in mining and everything else — should be stability and sustainability. We must make better product, not necessarily more. We should profit equally from the knowledge in our heads as we do from the minerals beneath our feet.

If we fail in these modest goals we’ll watch it all slip away far sooner than most would like. Iron colors the whole world, not just our little corner of it.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and is the creator of the Great Northern Radio Show which aired for eight years on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, May 10, 2020 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.




  1. Brazil and Australia have equally large deposits that are already well developed. It’s hard to believe but back in the 50’s Geologists generally believed that there would never be another Mesabi type deposit and were mainly concentrating their efforts on low grade taconite type deposits in places like Labrador. Now the Mesabi deposit is relatively small by comparison.

    Iron ore is all over the globe.

  2. Pretty sad that a West African nation was co-opted by Chinese loans so easily. China routinely gets the upper hand over Australian companies. That continent should not have been forgotten about in the 20th century. China will dredge that continent clean for it’s own geopolitical domination.

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