COLUMN: When a mining town disappears

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, Feb. 20, 2011 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

When a mining town disappears
By Aaron J. Brown

When you think of a website you don’t imagine permanence. You imagine something fleeting, changing, soon to be buried by the past. My first website was on the old GeoCities network, which Yahoo closed down just a couple years ago. I remember reading the Jesse Ventura for Governor website in 1998 at college in Iowa, the message boards raw with a heretofore unimaginable energy of online youth and passion. A few years later that website was gone, wiped clean. All that remains of Gov. Ventura now is the official record, AP stories and a faint notion that something odd happened back then. Not even a decade has passed.

This week I saw a website that might challenge your assumptions about the medium. Its artistic subject winks at the very nature of permanence, for it is a website about a mining town that closed with its mine.

The Canadian Film Board recently released a web project called “Welcome to Pine Point” ( by the Goggles, a Vancouver creative team consisting of Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons. They present what is essentially a documentary in an interactive web format, told from the point of view of Simons who as a youth hockey player once visited Pine Point in the Northwest Territories.

The city was meticulously planned as a modern center for family life when it was plopped next to a zinc mine in the late 1960s. By the late 1980s after a full generation of human life the mine closed and the residents of Pine Point in the Northwest Territory scrubbed their small city from the face of the earth.

Though “Welcome to Pine Point” should be viewed on its own merits, a few specific ideas from the film reminded me of issues here on the Iron Range, a mining region luckier in fate and location.

The people of Pine Point and the government of Canada recognized that with no mine and no employment, leaving a city there was only a recipe for crime and social problems. They willingly abandoned their town even though doing so broke their hearts. Pine Point now exists as a fond memory, forever remembered at its best moments. As the authors state, no one had to watch the downtown become replaced with fast food restaurants, or the school shrink into irrelevance over a period of years.

One thing about watching the Iron Range go through its ups and downs is that because we’ve never died, and because some semblance of a future always remains, we are unable to walk away in the same way. The collision between our nostalgia and our problems creates great friction, slowing our progress.

The experience of creating, then destroying a town in just one generation also provided another unexpected gift, almost photographic memory of the town’s past by its former residents. One man, racked by illness in middle age, dedicates his life documenting the existence of Pine Point for its former citizens on a simple website. It was this website and its contents that inspired The Goggles to create the resulting project. Looking at the pictures of people displaying their fresh caught fish and adult beverages, sporting sideburns and thick red moustaches, big ‘80s hair and hard hats from the mine, you can’t help but recognize an element of our past, too. There, by the grace of God, we go too.

It’s perhaps fitting that this extraordinary online project is best viewed on a high speed internet connection. Northern Minnesota struggles not only with internet speeds, especially in rural areas, but corresponding internet usage and economic integration. “Welcome to Pine Point” is a cautionary tale, not because it is a story of an abandoned mining town, but because this version of the story is very difficult for most people in our mining region to see in the first place.

Nevertheless, you should check out this extraordinary project, yes for the incredible storytelling, but also for the reminder that nostalgia is a powerful force.

Aaron J. Brown is a writer and community college instructor from the Iron Range. Read more at his blog or in his book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.”

Below is the trailer for “Welcome to Pine Point.”

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