A ‘vital’ life in the ‘Zone of Plenty’

One of the best things about writing a book like “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range” is all the stories, clippings and first hand accounts that people give you afterward that weren’t in my book. This little number arrived in the mail last week from a Mr. Earl Currie. It’s a 1943 advertisement for the Great Northern Railway that appeared in a magazine called Nations Business.
You probably can’t read the text. Here it is:

more Vital than gold

All the gold buried at Fort Knox, Ky., is less important to Victory than the rich iron ore deposits of the Mesabi, Cuyuna and Vermilion Ranges of Northern Minnesota.

The Mesabi Range alone contains the world’s largest developed deposits, and much of this ore lies in open pits.

From these pits giant shovels scoop the vital “red dust” into Great Northern cars, which dump it a few hours later into docks in Duluth and Superior, at the Head of the Lakes. There ore boats are swiftly loaded for delivery to the nation’s steel mills.

When the shipping season closed December 5, new mining records had been set on the Minnesota ranges, and Great Northern Railway handled nearly 29,000,000 long tons — a third of the Lake Superior district’s total production.

With the necessity of conserving equipment, Great Northern, between shipping seasons, is reconditioning motive power, cars, trackage, and its Allouez docks in Superior, making ready for a still bigger job in 1943.

The fabulous iron ore deposits in Minnesota are only part of the wealth contributed to America by the Zone of Plenty — and delivered by this vital artery of transportation.

Route of the Empire Builder — Between the Great Lakes and the Pacific

The map shows the 1943 routes of the Great Northern Railway, running across what the company terms “The Zone of Plenty.” The Zone of Plenty includes the northern plains states, the Northwest, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, Chicago and — lit up like a Christmas tree — the entire state of Minnesota. How many maps do you know that show Hibbing and Virginia in the same sized font as Chicago and New York?

What I love about this ad is that the vague wartime train propaganda actually does a great job of explaining, in the present tense, why the Iron Range is so significant to the nation’s economy and history. This rich value now stands in stark contrast to our beleaguered economic present, but I’d argue it may again be part of our future if we’re smart. And no, I don’t just mean more mining.

In 1999, at age 19, I purchased a Great Northern Railway hat at a model train show in Dyersville, Iowa. The guy asked me why I would do that, since there weren’t any Great Northern routes near there. “There are where I’m from,” I said. WHAT A FREAKING NERD! But I’m beginning to realize why I was destined to write this book.

Deep and sincere thanks to Earl Currie for sending this to me. He also included a fascinating article of research on the work that went into transporting the never-ending flow of iron ore that poured off the ranges down to Duluth and Superior during World War II. I’m hoping to incorporate aspects of his research into a future column.

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