COLUMN: Iron Range 1969

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, July 25, 2010 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Thanks to Bill Lah for connecting me with the report mentioned in this column.

Iron Range 1969
By Aaron J. Brown

(Chorus) Back in Summer of ’69

Man we were killin’ time.
We were young and restless.
We needed to unwind.
I guess nothin’ can last forever, no.

And now the times are changing,’
Look at everything that’s come and gone.
Sometimes when I play that old six-string
I think about ya, wonder what went wrong.

These words come from Bryan Adams 1984 song, co-written by Jim Vallance. “Summer of ‘69”came out just after northern Minnesota’s Iron Range fell into its most notable of recent economic recessions and began losing what would become half its young families. Meantime, the actual summer of ’69, an economic boom time on the Iron Range, was 41 years ago. It was a long time ago, and yet, not so long.

In 1969, the Aguar Jying Whiteman Moser, Inc., agency of Duluth and Hibbing, the forerunner of today’s Architectural Resources, released the “Regional Development Plan: Mesabi and Vermilion Ranges,” a study commissioned by several agencies. This study, available to read at places like the Iron Range Research Library, charted a path for a region beleaguered by the booms and busts of a mineral-based economy. Today’s studies and consultants do largely the same thing, but probably for a lot more money and with a lot less gusto.

Some pretty dramatic nuggets emerge among the chief predictions/suggestions forwarded by this 1969 study, which was led by Charles Aguar, Robert T. Scott, Richard Loraas and others. For one, the Iron Range of 1969’s future (you would know it as “today”) could be traversed by a four lane highway from Grand Rapids to Ely. Scenic recreational opportunities would abound. The Range, from Grand Rapids to Ely, would be served by three school districts and a handful of regional centers that delivered services to an increasingly connected, growing population. The 21st century would bring a new era of mining and commerce to the whole region.

These findings are notable only because one could conceivably type these ideas into a new report (or newspaper column!) and they’d be just as relevant, appropriate and important as they were in 1969. The only truly pie-in-the-sky items in the study was the creation of a new town south of Pengilly that would replace Nashwauk and Keewatin (to be consumed by mining operations) and a canal that connected the Range to the St. Lawrence Seaway. This canal, according to artwork inside the report, would feature hovercraft. As a child of the 1980s Iron Range bust I cannot help asking, where is the hovercraft I was promised? And now that new development in Nashwauk and Keewatin has utterly spilled over the iron formation, moving the towns is even more unlikely. Oh, and it’s probable that the offshore oil drilling in Lake Superior, forecast in the report, is also off the table. But those are just bullet points in what is otherwise a fascinating document.

I connected with Larry Sommer, a research analyst on the 1969 report, now residing in the Twin Cities after a long career in planning and development. This project was his first major endeavor after graduating from college in the 1960s. Many of the major players in the project have passed on, but others are still working or retired. Sommer said the predictions of the report were marred by only one major problem.

“We missed on the population forecasting,” said Sommer. Indeed, the crash of the 1980s disrupted what would have been a reasonable assumption of growth back then. The reduced numbers of people made some of the findings less feasible (though not impossible).

“What struck me in re-reading this is how so many of the things actually happened,” said Sommer. “Some of the recommendations have happened and others are happening, and what’s interesting is that they’re almost happening by default.”

For instance, while the Highway 169 expressway is not yet complete (and is under construction in Itasca County this summer), it is very nearly complete, certainly by 1969 standards. The report calls for a major recreational facility not unlike Giants Ridge and some would argue that idea has not only been done but almost overdone. And you can look at today’s Mesabi Trail and easily see how it’s compatible with the reports demand for more recreational trails and alternative transportation connections.

Perhaps most importantly to current policy discussion is the report’s call for three primary Iron Range school districts, centered around Grand Rapids, Hibbing and Virginia. These districts would administer elementary schools all over the region while supporting one world class high school in each area. Though controversial and politically difficult, it is an absolute tragedy to a generation of Iron Range students – indeed, today’s students – that this never happened. Hundreds in this area graduate unprepared for college or the 21st century economy while their home districts struggle merely to stay afloat, and this must be corrected.

If 1969 is part of the past, and the hopes of this report are the future, to succeed we must assume a present quite unlike the one we today passively, sluggishly assume is inevitable and unchangeable. Indeed, half of creating a future is writing it down before it arrives. The other half is making it happen. It’s time to become young and restless again.

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range writer, blogger and instructor at Hibbing Community College. Read more at or in his book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.”


  1. Awesome – I’d love to read this plan!

    Thanks Aaron, this was enjoyable to read. I may be overly nostalgic about this era of planning, especially since I was not actually alive, but I have this image of people actually talking about issues and coming up with solutions. While they may not have been 100% right, they were going to do something that would move them in a positive direction.

    I can’t tell you how many plans have been written over the past two decades that have resulted in nothing. You are right – we need to do better.

    I’m feeling restless. You?

    -Chuck Marohn

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