MN iron ore: changing history for 130 years

Boys explore the crusher works above ground at the Soudan Underground Mine State Park.

Boys explore the crusher works above ground at the Soudan Underground Mine State Park.

Iron Range news

William Henry Brown was born in Northern Michigan during the peak of copper and iron mining in the Upper Peninsula. He was the son of a Cornish immigrant whose family had perhaps known mining since the Roman Empire. When he was a child he would have heard about new iron mining to the west in Northern Minnesota, not knowing that he, his son, grandson and great-grandson would all work those mines. His great-great-grandson, yours truly, writes this blog. I’m pretty sure Mr. W. H. Brown damn sure didn’t know that was going to happen.

I bring this up because my puny little 34-year-old life has overlapped all but my great-great-grandfather’s, the man who moved the family from Michigan to Minnesota. And that’s exactly how long the Mesabi Iron Range has been mining iron ore. When you put it that way it doesn’t seem very long, does it? Except when you know that the industrial age, WWI, WWII and the post-war expansion of American highways, cities and economy all share this same timeline.

On Thursday, Minnesota’s iron mining industry celebrates the 130th anniversary of its first shipment of ore. Local leaders and the public will honor the anniversary at 10 a.m., July 31, at Breitung Town Hall in Soudan, Minn., not far from Soudan Underground Mine State Park where you can still see the shafts and drifts of those early days of MN iron ore mining.

The Iron Mining Association of Minnesota is organizing the event, and explains more about the history:

In current-day Soudan, federal surveyor George Stuntz found what he called a “mountain of iron,” which would someday become Minnesota’s first iron mine – the Breitung mine. In 1865, Stuntz wrote “when this country is developed, that big mount of iron will do it.”

The land lay dormant for 15 years due to difficulties in shipping and securing mineral rights, until Charlegmane Tower gained a title to the land in 1880.

Shipments were set to begin as soon as the rail road from Soudan to Lake Superior was finished, and the first rail car left Soudan on July 31, 1884 – just hours after the last rail spike was driven.

Ten eight-wheeled, 20-ton ore cars were sent for this first shipment out of what is now Two Harbors, and in that first season, 62,124 tons were shipped to Cleveland to be made into steel.

Because of the Iron Range’s topsy-turvy economy, it’s often assumed by those from outside the area that the mines all closed. It’s true that there are fewer mines today, and many fewer people working in mining, but MN iron ore mines are very much still open and the production from these remaining mines remains extremely significant:

130yearsofironminingToday, Minnesota’s 10 iron mining facilities and processing plants account for 80% of the first pour steel in the United States and are capable of shipping more than 40,000,000 tons of iron ore and concentrate a year out of Minnesota ports and on rails. Two new mining facilities are under construction.

These millions of tons of ore are sent to steel-making facilities where they become the buildings, bridges, vehicles, appliances, and infrastructure we use in our daily lives. Considering these kinds of historical and personal impacts on Minnesota jobs, infrastructure, and everyday life, IMA President Craig Pagel says this anniversary is more than a look back.

“Minnesota still has large deposits of iron, and with the industry continuing to evolve technically, environmentally, and economically, we should be a player in the global and regional economy for hundreds of years,” he said.

For more about the MN iron ore mining industry, the IMA has more at

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