The places of the Range, bypassed, bygone, but not to be ignored

The other night Christina and I went out to dinner and took our time getting home, driving around the towns of the western Mesabi. For as long as I’ve lived and worked around this part of the state there are still corners I’ve never had happenstance to visit. One of those places was Marble.

If you go from Hibbing to Grand Rapids you drive by Marble all the time. It’s one of the bypassed towns, like most of the Range. You’ve got Grand Rapids, Hibbing and Ely that snare you completely. Virginia and Eveleth, Calumet, Coleraine and Tower will slow you down a little. Everything else, a couple dozen neat little towns, can be seen at 65 miles an hour, if you bother to look.

Marble’s a nice little town; declining of course, but what isn’t these days? You can pick up a decent little house here for $40,000. You’ve got a gas station, bar and restaurant, a nice ballfield and access to the Mesabi Trail out the back side of town. One could easily move here, but few do. A quick glance explains that the people who live here are either retirees or young families without much money. They will move out when they can or must, to be replaced by the same. This town will not change much for another 100 years.

I was attracted by the view of an old mine dump beginning to green up with the spring, so we took a stroll down the Mesabi Trail at sunset. That trail is smooth and sharp-looking. A decade of development, aided by the advocacy and clout of former Rep. and House transportation chair Jim Oberstar, had a lot to do with that. We wondered aloud if we were seeing the trail in as good a condition as it ever would appear. I sure hope not.

The main street of Marble looks about the same after 100 years. Looks, but isn’t. One wonders about the future of places like this. I see possibilities here. Walk up the trail toward the mountain that our immigrant ancestors built from scratch. You will see something special, not like the flatland towns or hollow exurbs. This is a hard rock place with trees and water, and our history is lying around in staining red dirt that you couldn’t remove if you tried.

Stop and look for yourself.


  1. Nice post. I was in Marble for their centennial parade a couple years ago. You adequately summarize it up pretty well — and like you, I hope that the Mesabi Trail isn’t in the best shape it will ever be.

  2. Nice article Aaron…giving credit (where credit is justified), I’m curious of the details backing up your statement “it’s an Oberstar trail”.

  3. Aaron –

    No one goes through Hibbing, they go around it. Hibbing was bypassed a long time ago. The economic center has had time to move out to the Highway 169 strip.

    As you point out, Marble and the other small towns have things going for them. But not many people want to live in a town with a gas station, a bar, a restaurant and a ballfield. Without any ability to grab attention and traffic from the highway, other services can’t survive, much less thrive.

    But Marble and the other small towns along the highway have a different problem. People from around the town that used to shop in the local stores, can now drive a few minutes further to Hibbing or Grand Rapids for a lot more variety. The four lane highways have extended the market reach of those large towns and that is draining the smaller towns of their local businesses.

    The solution, if there is one, is to attract more people to actually live in town. That means adding amenities for people who live there, not for people who drive through. The Mesabi Trail fits that.

    I knew Oberstar could be in trouble when I saw the pictures of him posing with school children in Portland Oregon. He was being feted there for his leadership of safe routes to school and bicycle infrastructure. That was in September, when he could/should have been posing on the Range for his contributions to the same programs here. That is often how powerful congressman get brought down.

  4. In 9th grade baseball I pitched vs Marble and half their team had a 5 o’clock shadow, I was intimidated when I saw them in warm ups and realized they had more hair on their face than I had on my whole body. There were brothers named Polusso I believe, great hockey players also.

  5. Read quickly Lake Country Blogger, for Aaron deleted my early post (posted again below) confirming Oberstar had nothing to do with the Mesabi Trail..As stated in the Mesabi Trail web site:

    “The St. Louis & Lake Counties Regional Railroad Authority was established in 1985 after it was made public that the Duluth Mesaba & Iron Range (DM&IR) Railroad planned to sell the railway line between Two Harbors MN and Duluth MN, known as the “Lake Front Line”. Reacting to this situation, St. Louis County Commissioners and Lake County Commissioners met to determine what could be done to preserve this historic, scenic railway line along the shores of Lake Superior.

    The St. Louis and Lake Counties Board of County Commissioners signed a joint powers agreement and established themselves as a Regional Railroad Authority (RRA), which is a political subdivision of the State of Minnesota, organized under M.S. 398A. The board is composed of three commissioners from St. Louis County and two commissioners from Lake County. The chairperson of their respective county boards appoints these commissioners annually each January. Regional Railroad Authorities have both levying and bonding power. The statutory mission of Regional Railroad Authorities is “to protect and preserve abandoned railway for future transportation purposes”.

    The St. Louis & Lake Counties Regional Railroad Authority was successful in securing the title to and the refurbishing of the Lake Front Line. Since 1990, the RRA, through private contractors, has leased the rail line for operation as a tourist train known as the North Shore Scenic Railroad which operates during warm weather months between Duluth and Two Harbors.

    Shortly thereafter, the RRA began to look at other opportunities to preserve railway for future transportation purposes. At the same time several companies which operated railways on the Iron Range area of northern Minnesota were looking at abandonment of their lines. In an effort to preserve the right-of-way before the line became parceled off, the RRA began to research the possibility of a rail-to-trail alignment. With strong community interest and support, the concept of a trail connecting the communities between Grand Rapids and Ely commenced”.

  6. Hold on, 47. I did not delete your comment. I just got home and don’t have energy for the rest. The post says what it says. I am well aware of the rail authority. I could say more but it is absolutely not worth our time.

  7. Aaron…the truth is always short and doesn’t take much time to state.

    Oberstar had nothing to do with the Mesabi Trail. It was led by St. Louis and Lake county commissioners, local & city leaders and funded with state/local money..our taxes. Not a dime was given by Oberstar personally.

    It’s when we try to deceive that we weave a tangled web…and that takes time and energy.

    As you state, it’s a nice idea, nice trail…amen.

  8. If the truth is so short then why do your comments get lost because they are too long for the Blogger platform to handle?

    The trail was indeed built as you describe by the rail authority. The $2.7 million in federal grants to cities to help build the trail probably helped. Individual towns are responsible for the maintenance of their section of trail into the future. This was always a concern by some as the trail was being built. Folks used to say, ‘don’t worry, Jim Oberstar wouldn’t let us run out of money to fix the trail.’ Now Jim Oberstar is not in office and neither Cravaack nor any potential successor will ever have the ability to deliver money for pavement the way Oberstar could. I’m not putting a value judgment on that fact; just stating it as what I believe to be a valid piece of policy analysis. With cities struggling to pave their streets much less their trails, I think the fiscal demands of maintaining a long road over a railroad bed in a harsh climate will be great.

    I hope that the trail is maintained. That’s what I said. I do not believe we need to belabor the point, nor am I interested in expanding the conversation at this time.

    It is indeed a nice trail, and the folks who put it together did a great job.

  9. @K Edwards: There were a lot of great baseball players from postwar to the ’80s in this western Mesabi region. Your stories match my grandfather’s from the ’50s. Wonderful ballfields all over this county. Far fewer teams to play on them.

  10. WOW. My cousin and his family just bought a home in Marble, I will let them know…..”they will move out when they can or must.”

  11. Cyndy, I sense some umbrage. I would compare the town to Keewatin, a town very dear to my heart, and a good place to live. My grandparents have been there 50 years, my grandpa for his whole life except for the air force. They are wondering how long they can stay in the old house with stairs. A lot of the people in the neighborhood have passed on; the young families there are much more transient. This is just how Range bedroom towns are now. It’s not a bad thing. It is a real thing.

  12. Aaron, my cousin and his family chose Marble, they wanted a small town to raise their family in. Small town values…small community…etc…. They are happy with their home, with the location and with the nearby churches!!!

  13. Aaron, How about you move to Marble and live there for a year. My Sister has lived there for YEARS! And will continue to live there because it is a save, fun little town. Maybe you should just focus on Balsam (wait is that even a town?) Laurie

  14. Cyndy and Laurie, I live in Balsam now. You know where that is. I grew up in several Range towns and townships. I certainly don’t know everything about all our towns, less about Marble than many (as stated above). But I know Range towns generally quite well. I don’t do Pollyanna chamber of commerce for anyone. Marble is a great little town (again, as stated). But it’s problems and fate are tied with those of the Range as a whole. I wrote about these feelings. I did not intend offense.

  15. I have lived in marble my entire life, as well as my family. It is a great place to live, you can let your kids run a muck, but they have to be back by the 9 o’clock whistle. Small town living, its the best!

  16. You guys bring up fond memories of my childhood days…growing up in a small Range town near Marble. It’s warming to hear it’s still a “great place to live”. It certainly was then..

  17. We heard the whistle when we were there! I wasn’t sure if I could believe my ears. Keewatin used to have one when I was a kid visiting my grandparents. I completely forgot to mention it here. Thanks for the comment!

  18. I lived in Marble from 2000 to 2006 as a Middle/High School student. Coming from my point of view, Marble had very little to offer me. All the things Marble had, gas station, bar, restaraunt, ball field, could all be found in larger neighboring towns with much more people to interact with. Marble has only those 3 economical resources and that hurts the town a lot. A town needs resources for its’ residents in order to thrive. Marble is a great little town, but with so little to offer anyone able to go elsewhere. The town will never be more than a dot on a map. Great article Aaron. I love Marble, but I would never move back when there are a lot better choices on the Range.

  19. I have never read anything from this blog, but was told to check this out from a friend who reads this regularly. I am from Marble, I am an 18 year old college student who now studies at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth. My parents bought the house my GREAT GRANDPARENTS lived in years ago, my dad worked hard and restored the house. It is an absolutely gorgeous house which would make my grandparents proud. I found extreme offense when you said that the only residents are retirees and ‘young families without much money’. Excuse me? This house has been in my family for decades, but you would never know because of the work done. My family is young, but by no means is ‘without money’. I believe it is time to stop judging a book by its cover, and not make assumptions that one size fits all.

  20. Raeann,
    As a young person on the Range you surely understand the challenges facing the region. It’s hard to find a job. It’s a challenge to maintain the culture that you and I both obviously care about. I hope that you are able to move back to the region, maybe even to your family’s house. That’s what I was able to do and I’m very grateful.

    Of course I wasn’t talking about your great grandparents house. I was talking about the houses I saw driving in to town from the east entrance after turning into town. Obviously there is a meme now being passed around that I was attacking Marble. I wasn’t. And if you look at what I wrote, you’ll see I didn’t say anything that wouldn’t be a reasonable impression by a person new to the region doing the same as me. We do ourselves no favors ignoring obvious problems in our communities. If it seemed like I was picking on Marble that’s unintentional. The same analysis can be applied to most any town on the Range and the 2010 census data backs this up. As I live here and will not move, I hope you now understand my true intention in writing what I wrote.

  21. I know quite a few families that are not hurting financially, and also many families that have lived there for a very long time. Marble must be doing something right to keep generations of families there who, over time, have different ideas of success. Being young there isn’t ant work in marble, but it is a safe town, with very trustworthy people. Isn’t that what families want for the children? I agree with raeanne, don’t judge a book by its cover.

  22. Brilliant, Tony. You even got the colors right on the shirt. I think this is something that everyone here can get behind. Am I allowed to post this? Because I will. This needs to go viral.

  23. I would be honored.

  24. “The trail was indeed built as you describe by the rail authority. The $2.7 million in federal grants to cities to help build the trail probably helped.”

    Ya’ think!?

    Here is a link from 2205:


    “The biggest beneficiary of the federal funding will be Northeast Minnesota, which is represented by Rep. Jim Oberstar, the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation Committee and avid bicyclist… The Mesabi Trail will get $2.7 million to complete 50 miles of the trail which when finished will extend from Grand Rapids to Ely. Another $1.3 million was allocated to build the Mesabi Station, a trailhead building in Virginia with lockers and changing areas, restrooms, vending conference rooms, an information center, retail space, bike and roller blade rental, campgrounds, a picnic area, and secure parking.”

    (emphasis added)

    BTW, the Minnesota legislature is considering a bill to cancel $950 thousand in bond funding to help complete the Mesabi Trail. So we need to worry not only about maintaining the trail, but finishing it.

  25. “As a young person on the Range you surely understand the challenges facing the region. It’s hard to find a job.”

    I am not sure that is really true. Jobs are available. What’s hard to have is a career.

    “It’s a challenge to maintain the culture that you and I both obviously care about. “

    I am not sure that the “culture” isn’t a part of the problem. This “no se puede” fatalism permeates Range policy discussions:

    “This is just how Range bedroom towns are now. It’s not a bad thing. It is a real thing.”

    People are more transient. But the reason young families move on is that the advantages of living in town aren’t there to keep them.

    When the only services in town are a bar, restaurant and gas station, you have to drive everywhere anyway. Why not live out in the country. Or move to a suburb close to a larger community. Its not that towns like Marble can’t be great places to live. But they need people with vision and energy who really believe in them and are determined to see their vision a reality. Because the culture of the Range says “it can’t be done”.

  26. Thanks LCB…it appears Oberstar did play a role…along with many others not mentioned. My apologies.
    Let’s see what role and subsequent credit Cravaack plays going forth..

    According to Bob Manzoline, Executive Director of the St. Louis and Lake Counties Regional Railroad Authority, who’s responsible for the trail, funds are available for maintainance…

    “Hi, funding for the trail came from a variety of sources such as Federal Enhancement, State Bond & LCCMR, IRR, County, Blandin. We have in place about $200,000 to maintain the trail annually for mowing, bituminous repair, sweeping and so forth. Annual maintenance is paid for by Itasca County (about $50,000) and St. Louis & Lake Rail Authority (about $150,000). The user fee or Wheel Pass funds are used to offset these costs. User fees generate about $15,000 per year. Cities along the trail also assist with mowing and sweeping. We have one, full time maintenance person; four summer interns; and one part time maintenance worker who perform maintenance. Equipment consists of 2 pick-up trucks and a variety of mowers, weed control, trimmers, saws and stuff like that.

    A Long- term maintenance fund is set up to reconstruct/overlay the trail as needed such as the trail resurfacing project between Hibbing and Chisholm done last year”.

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