GUEST POST: Taconite Roads: what’s old is new

The following is part of an occasional series of guest posts from historian Jeff Manuel. Thanks, Jeff!

File this one under everything old is new again. Aaron’s recent post about a company hoping to use overburden and tailings as road construction material reminded me of several old efforts to use mining byproducts in road construction. While digging in the archive–the historian’s version of mining–I once found a 1963 story in the Two Harbors Chronicle about an engineer trying to use taconite tailings for road construction. I never learned what happened to this project. Maybe this was one of the four hundred paving projects cited in the Business North article?

My favorite example of using Iron Range mining materials for road building, however, was a 1930s project that used taconite to make cast iron roads. In the 1920s and 1930s, E.W. Davis and staff at the University of Minnesota’s Mines Experiment Station were, well, experimenting with taconite because they were stuck between the lab and the market. The process for concentrating taconite worked in the laboratory, but there was no market for the final product. So Davis and his staff tried turning taconite powder into cast iron paving blocks. They were hoping this might catch on and lead to a boom in cast iron roads (and taconite). As you can probably guess from today’s non-iron roadways, this didn’t really work out. Several sections of Minneapolis and Eveleth roads were paved with the iron blocks but the iron roads proved “too noisy for high-speed auto traffic, and they were not as skidproof as modern transportation required.”* I always imagine cars sliding down an icy iron road like eggs in a well-seasoned cast iron skillet.

A quick tour through business history illustrates that there’s very little new under the sun. Most good business ideas have already been thought of and the difference between success or failure is usually implementation, not the idea itself.

*For the full story, check out Edward W. Davis’s memoir, Pioneering With Taconite (pp.82-83).

Jeff Manuel is a history professor at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville who lives in St. Louis. He is working on a book based on his dissertation on the Iron Range’s recent history.


  1. If taconite tailings aren’t safe enough to dump into Lake Superior, why would taconite tailings be safe enough to put into our roadways, especially bituminous, where periodically top layers of the asphalt are ground off?

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