A tale of two iron ranges

A daily scene in Luxembourg City. (PHOTO: Creative Commons).

A daily scene in Luxembourg City. (PHOTO: 55Laney69, Creative Commons).

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

In the middle to late 1800s, prospectors discovered iron ore in a remote land far from the big cities, a place utterly insignificant in world affairs. This discovery, however, could not be ignored. The ore was too plentiful and valuable. The events that followed would bring people of many languages and cultures together to mine the ore to make the steel for world wars and 21st Century economic expansion.

Sounds familiar right? I must be talking about Northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range.

But what if I told you that, in this story, the wealth doesn’t go “Out East,” to Cleveland, Pittsburgh or New York? The wealth stays just a few miles from where the ore was mined. The steel is made just a few miles from where the ore was mined. The profits stay just a few miles from the works and the workers who produced them. Every unit of currency was reinvested in the companies, communities and economies of the towns where the miners lived and worked, to the extent that the population of this place is now the second most prosperous per capita in the entire world.

That doesn’t sound like our Iron Range, does it? Not even with the new hotel next to the KFC. And that’s because I’m talking about Luxembourg.

For years, I’ve looked for an example of a mining community that diversified its economy to remain strong and prosperous after the mining was done. After scouring examples around the world, a clear pattern emerged: Wherever mining is a dominant industry, economic ruin awaits the moment those mines close, whenever that should occur. We’ve seen it happen here. We’ve been rescued only by the continued viability of mining.

That’s not what is happening in Luxembourg.

This tiny nation of less than 1,000 square miles nestles in the hills between Belgium, France and Germany. Since medieval times, the people of this land have farmed soil and smelted metals. My friend Andy Miller, a Hibbing native living in Alaska, was telling me about the exploits of his brother Austin, another Hibbingite now living in Luxembourg.

Austin toured the country and found many old mines and even an old mining heritage museum, not unlike the Minnesota Discovery Center (nee, Ironworld) here on the Iron Range. So much of the story was the same, except for that one important detail: Luxembourg, a small nation, kept its wealth, instead of trading it away.

And they did so amid challenges. The country was occupied by Germany twice during both WWI and WWII. Profitable ore reserves drew much lower in the 1970s, the classic death knell for a mining economy. At this point, however, Luxembourg possessed a vibrant banking industry, steeped on old steel deals, but now fully integrated with a diverse European economy. Luxembourg had a telecommunication system among the best in the world. And this mining region had even prepared itself for a tourism economy that co-existed peacefully with mining and industry, to the point that this nation built on mining bills itself as the “Green Heart of Europe.”

Luxembourg’s steel company, ARBED, merged with other European steel producers to become Arcelor about a decade ago, then became the world’s largest steel company ArcelorMittal after a hostile takeover in 2006.

And if that name sounds familiar, it’s because ArcelorMittal, still based in Luxembourg, owns the Minorca Mine and co-owns Hibbing Taconite right here on the Mesabi Iron Range. If you’d like to know why Luxembourg is considered one of the only truly diversified industrial nations, and why our region isn’t considered the same — there’s your answer. Luxembourg took what it could from mining, but prepared for a post-mining economy financed by the fruits of their labor and the lessons they learned. There, too, rests our economic challenge for the times ahead.

Never mind if we have 10 more years of iron mining or 100. We don’t get to decide that. Never mind whether we get a few hundred new nonferrous mining jobs or not. The market will determine that. We do, however, get to decide whether we’re ready: with broadband, with entrepreneurship, with education and quality of life.

We on Minnesota’s Iron Range aren’t ready. We have no good excuse for that. It is time to recognize the peril and possibilities of the next decade through actions big and small, right here in our own communities. We might not be Luxembourg. Wouldn’t hurt to act like it, though. It seems to be working.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This post first appeared in the Oct. 19, 2014 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.



  1. Bill Brown says

    In May, 2014, ArcelorMittal, citing economic self-interest, declared its opposition to sanctions on Russia.
    Also the Mittal part is certainly not anything from Luxembourg.
    The owner of this giant company sells to both sides of a coming world war.

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