Cuyuna Range mining talk hails old ghosts

Mining activity ended on Minnesota's Cuyuna Iron Range more than 50 years ago. Now completely reclaimed, old mining dumps have become an international mountain biking hotspot. Talk of scram mining the dumps is raising concern for the new tourism economy. PHOTO: Aaron Hautala for

Mining activity ended on Minnesota’s Cuyuna Iron Range more than 50 years ago. Now completely reclaimed, old mining dumps have become an international mountain biking hotspot. Talk of scram mining the dumps is raising concern for the new tourism economy. PHOTO: Aaron Hautala for

Iron Range news

What would you do if an old girlfriend or boyfriend called? Would you take them back? What if you haven’t talked in 10 years. Or 20? Try 50. This is the discussion going on in Northern Minnesota these days and it isn’t about love; it’s about mining.

There were three active iron mining ranges in Northern Minnesota through the 20th Century, though only one of them is still in production today. If you hear about the “Iron Range” nowadays, you’re probably talking about the Mesabi Range, which stretches from the edge of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, in the west and runs through Babbitt in the east — about 100 miles in total. Several thousand miners still work here, generating nearly as much ore as any time since WWII.

But there were two other ranges, the Vermilion between Soudan and Ely, and the Cuyuna, down near Crosby, Ironton and Deerwood closer to Brainerd. These ranges were also extremely productive and important to American steel interests through WWI, WWII and the post-war boom, though they are silent today. For now.

Of the three, the one that has been shut down the longest is the Cuyuna Range, where mining ceased in the late 1950s. My great-grandfather and grandfather worked those last mines before heading back up to the Mesabi. Crosby and Ironton went through the cycle of decline that most Iron Range towns experienced, only they did so earlier and, unlike the Mesabi, were not included in the rise of low-grade taconite mining that boomed in the ’60s and ’70s and continues today. The result was a pair of old mining towns that orbited Brainerd-Baxter’s sphere of influence, eventually developing a new identity as ideal outdoors-oriented communities.

People all over the world now know the red dirt of the Cuyuna as garnish on one of the most esteemed mountain biking trails in the country. Local trail organizer and regional booster Aaron Hautala appeared on the Great Northern Radio Show we did from Crosby last year, and what struck me about his comments was the sense that the Cuyuna Range had truly succeeded in finding a new post-mining identity and economy.

But where there is red dirt, there is iron. And where there is any amount of iron, there is a person in a suit who thinks money can be made, somehow. In a Saturday, July 12, 2014 story by Renee Richardson in the Brainerd Dispatch, the question is asked “Could mountain biking and mining co-exist?

At issue is a local push to mine, or more accurately “scram” the stockpiles of ore found in the old waste piles from the acme of the iron mining days on the Cuyuna Range. This process is significantly less invasive than traditional blasting and crushing found in today’s taconite mines. Magnetation on the western Mesabi Range is finding tremendous success with this kind of business, and in a few short years has built four separation plants in Northern Minnesota and an iron-producing plant in Indiana, creating several hundred jobs.

But here’s the problem: the Cuyuna Range’s mountain bike trail system is built almost exclusively into the reclaimed stockpiles of Cuyuna mine dumps, now greened over and perched adjacent to deep, clear pit lakes: in short, a bountiful recreational space. Though some stockpiles might be accessible without disrupting trails, it’s not clear how long that would be the case. Furthermore, as Richardson reports, it’s unclear how the mineral rights now apply so many years after the last mines closed.

In my reading of the story, I see a number of sources from regional economic development circles talking about the potential, and I see a number of concerns from local recreation advocates. What I don’t see is a financed mining company talking about footing the bill for mining activities. Some of this seems much more a gambit to attract the economic activity that comes from mining, rather than a sure-footed proposal.

It’s certainly worth discussion; but I can’t say I blame the mountain bike people for wanting to keep the gains they’ve made. Finding a way to grow after mining left your region behind is a monumental achievement; one that shouldn’t be abandoned for the promise of a little more of the good old (not so good) days.

So maybe this conversation about new mining on the Cuyuna Range really isn’t like an old boyfriend or girlfriend calling. Maybe it’s more like a voice in your own head telling you to call your old flame. Should you?

What do you think? Anyone from that area have an opinion?


  1. It’s Gorgeous in that area, they are lucky to have those areas for recreation… Mining would most likely ruin that, or impact it enough to make it much less attractive. I see the impacts mining does to our area, and if they can survive without having mining, I’d say leave it be! I say the same when it comes to the gogebic project. Sure, mining is fine, we need it, but it’s what WE do and we can’t turn back…. They did, so be it!

  2. David Gray says

    We need the good jobs that any mining activity would provide. Tourist related jobs are primarily low paying and keep families on the margins. This can be seen by simply driving through Crosby and Ironton (as I do regularly as I live 3 miles outside Crosby). We need a diversified economy, not one wholly subservient to tourism. The question of mineral rights is an interesting one but whoever holds those rights doesn’t lose them because a mountain bike trail is there and mountain bikers don’t care about the local economy.

  3. I’m biased towards biking, and you couldn’t be more wrong in you assumption that “mountain bikers bikers don’t care about the local economy.”
    All throughout the country there’s story after story of biking of all forms bringing life back to communities that other jobs/companies left years ago, for dead….. To fend for themselves.
    I think the Crosby/Ironton area should be proud they picked themselves up BY their own boot straps.
    As history has shown……. The mining industry doesn’t care……. When they’re done….. They’re done…. And just leave. Period!!
    Peace, Joboo

  4. Chance Glasford says

    Here is a great article about the economical impact mountain biking and the tourism it brings can make to a local economy.

  5. I disagree with David on the point that mountain bikers don’t care about the local economy. I believe mountain bikers have done much to boost the local economy. Although I agree with the point that it is purely tourism based. What you have going on in Crosby is phenomenal and I would love to see it be able to coexist with the local mining. I grew up on the Mesabi Range (Chisholm) and have been witness to the ups and downs of the mining industry. For the last couple of years I’ve thought about and dreamed about how wonderful it would be to have a trail system like the Cuyuna system, but the mining industry is continuing to grow and with the local magnetation plant going strong it is unlikely to happen. Maybe Cuyuna could set a precedent and have both. Then again…maybe not. Either way, it would be a shame to lose what you folks have going on there right now. I’m also wondering if there is a push for this current mining technology in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan which could greatly affect mountain biking in that area also.

    • David Gray says

      Certainly some bikers care about the local economy, primarily local folks who bike. I use the trail with some regularity and greatly appreciate it. But most use is from outside the area and for those folks our local economy is not that high a priority.

      • CuyunaMTBForever says

        @David Gray – If you are from the area and spent time on the trails, you certainly know that the local mountain bikers work very hard to make sure those that come the area spend money here. While the average non-Cuyuna-ite might not be thinking about the local economy per se, every time they go out to eat or shop in town they are helping. There are visitation figures and a expenditure survey released at the end of the season. Its available to the public. You would probably be shocked at the amount of money flowing in from those “uncaring” outsiders.

        Visiting an area is not about charity. If that was the case, Detroit would the number one vacation spot. Its about coming to place because of some attraction. In doing that money gets spent in the area around the attraction. When mining within the boundaries of the Rec area is being discussed what is really being discussed is destruction of the very thing drawing people to the area.

        Mining and recreation (including mountain biking) can co-exist. But they won’t co-exist if we believe that every preserved area is just one wad of sweaty money away from getting tore up. Those pushing mining could target many areas outside the Rec area and receive no opposition from recreation enthusiasts (and probably much support, the mountain bikers would love to have more tailing piles to work on). Instead, they are choosing to target the jewel of the area and honk off the very people they need to support them.

        • David Gray says

          I’m not arguing tourists, including bikers, don’t spend money. I’m arguing that isn’t the basis for a good local economy by itself. It is a great supplement to other factors. We need a diversified economy and at this point mining would make a huge contribution to precisely that. Mining shouldn’t take place willy nilly without any regard to the mountain biking trails but they also aren’t something sacred and untouchable. Particularly if the law on mineral rights permits them to proceed (and both I and the Brainerd Dispatch seem unclear on that point). That is the $100K question that needs answering.

          • Chance Glasford says

            Well, even if they aren’t untouchable how could it be considered a good idea to touch them if your end goal is to diversify the economy? we all know with certainty that the mines will not be here for long but the mountain bike trails and tourism could be if nurtured and excepted. As others have said the mining companies could give two shits less about your community and economy, they are in it for themselves and will be out of there giving zero f’s when they leave.
            Tourism if done correctly can be your main industry, look at places like Moab Utah, Whistler Canada and many other towns and cities out west. A close example is Wisconsin Dells. They have learned to embrace recreational tourism and work to diversify with in that industry. Providing other opportunities and drawing the families of the mountain bikers to come with and encouraging them to make it a vacation instead of a trip and stay longer. Personally I think the area needs to get creative, think out side the box and start providing other adventure/outdoor recreational opportunities that will draw people and encourage them to vacation there. Think 4 seasons as well. If people are coming in and out there will be other opportunities that will come from that.

  6. Chance Glasford says

    The local economy might not be in the fore front of the thought process but the area is spoke of frequently and in high regard through out the region. Coming from the Metro area it is almost impossible to find a camp ground on weekends. Seems like riders are constantly traveling north to ride, now Cuyuna will start to see some competition with Duluth who also lost most of its industrial stuff and has decided to embrace and expand its tourist based economy. The Cuyuna area if done right and marketed properly could pull a solid and consistent draw. XC skiing could also be a way to secure funds through the winter. Recreational tourism isn’t going anywhere but up.

  7. Im not sure that “minerals…yes, or no” is the right way to phrase the question.

    The Cuyuna area rolled over for minerals exploitation starting about 1917, if I recall. It was an area of poor soil for farming, heavily forested, and populated by a few hardy souls that were unable to afford better land to farm. When Iron was discovered, many of them eagerly grabbed the cash floating around. Immigrants from many lands came to the area attracted by the opportunity to transform their labor into a foothold in America. Some stayed in Cuyuna, others did not.

    In 1917 it was minerals..yes.

    Today it might not be minerals..NO!, But it must be “what is the best for every stakeholder?”

    Will a grandchild, 60 years from now, be approving of our decisions…especially if his grandparents weren’t one of the ones able to cash out, cut and run?

    the question really must be: Can we gain from minerals exploitation without ANY, even temporary, loss of recreational opportunity? Would a minerals firm willingly create replacement opportunity BEFORE co-opting existing features…then when done extracting ore, rebuild more on the overburden? Will the minerals employees live in the area, shop in the area, worship in area churches send their children to area schools, fish in area lakes, volunteer in area missions, ride with locals on area trails?

    If the answer is yes, then we listen when they ask. And if we grant permission, we watch them like hawks. And if they hold up their end of the bargain, we hold ours, without a sense of entitlement, only grateful for having the wisdom to create a new paradigm.

  8. 15 to 20 years of glory…3 generations of pain…Booom to bust! The math is easy for me.

    • David Gray says

      Boom and bust is better than just bust and antique stores.

    • By the way…I live here, I don’t own a mountain bike. My great grandfather, both grandparents and bunch of other relatives mined in the Cuyuna Range…none retired wealthy. There will only be a few suits that get cash fat from this.

  9. Much is unknown at this point, and it seems to me that minerals interests believe they are well-served to keep as much unknown as possible. I suggested that minerals interests BECOME stakeholders and local stakeholders take the long view.

    We saw this play out in the 1950’s.
    We are watching it play out in North Dakota.
    “Yes or no” is the wrong question unless it really amounts to “Yes, if…” and “No, unless…”

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