Rock and a hard place, change coming to the Iron Range

The ever expanding and deepening Hull Rust Mahoning Mine Pit located just north of Hibbing, Minnesota. (PHOTO: Lars Hammar, Creative Commons license)

The ever expanding and deepening Hull Rust Mahoning Mine Pit located just north of Hibbing, Minnesota. (PHOTO: Lars Hammar, Flickr Creative Commons license)

Iron Range news

Some of life’s biggest myths are that 30 years is a long time, that today doesn’t matter, and that anything is permanent. Here on Northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range, the lessons of change that come from digging out the ground beneath our very feet have been hard learned. But what’s learned is so easily forgotten after those paltry 30 years. We also forget that daily complacency compounds into crisis.

Today’s post is about remembering the past and planning a world for our children through action today. This is the same goal immigrants had walking off the train into the cold winds of the Laurentian Divide. It’s the same goal of the Ojibwe ricers, or Dakota hunting parties centuries before. Today, we’re not Whigs or Tories, Democrats or Republicans, pro-mining or anti-mining. Today, we in Northern Minnesota are just humans.

That is, we’re humans who might have to move all our stuff and change most of what we know in the next ten years. No pressure.

Arguably the biggest story of 2014 on the Iron Range might be the announcement that a $220 million bridge will be needed to reroute Highway 53 between Eveleth and Virginia to open land that United Taconite seeks to mine. The move, at state taxpayer expense, is required because of an agreement forged in the mid-1960s between Minnesota and the mining fee holders granting an easement to use the land if the state agreed to move the mine “if and when” mining ever reached that point.

At that time the deal was signed (during the Johnson Administration) no one was certain that the relatively new taconite process — which involves mining and processing lower grade ores after the rich Mesabi red ore had been depleted — would be successful or not. Well, it was immensely successful, to the point that not only does the highway now need to be moved 50 years later, at monumental expense, but we can safely turn our eyes across the Iron Range to see areas where towns, roads and development patterns are lying on parts of the iron formation that city founders never predicted would be mined.

Of course, this is nothing new. Nor is it something that wasn’t specifically predicted by mining engineers decades ago. Many cities on the Iron Range are now located, at least in part, somewhere other than where they were first plotted. Look out over those wide, expansive mine pits and imagine them filled with earth, a town plopped atop the invisible mountain. Many times there really was a town there. Before that, white pines tall as California sequoias, swaying in the wind.

If humankind could move earth, timber and entire cities, you’d better believe there is absolutely nothing special about our contemporary gas stations or office workshops dressed up in 30-by-50 steel pole buildings. If anything, our architecture has become less permanent and significant in the last 40 years.

The Taconite Tax Relief Area is the legally defined "Iron Range." Cultural interpretations of where the Range starts and ends, however, remain in dispute.

The Taconite Tax Relief Area is the legally defined “Iron Range.” Cultural interpretations of where the Range starts and ends, however, remain in dispute.

I did some checking last week and found a short list of areas on the Mesabi Iron Range where mining and townsites or development might conflict with one another:

Keewatin, Nashwauk and Highway 169

In a Hibbing Daily Tribune story this month, Keewatin officials bristled at a DNR report advising the city to be careful with future development because of the location of minerals around the town. Of course, Keewatin is penned on all sides by the iron formation. The town is literally built into a zig in the zagging iron formation.

This severely limits the town’s ability to expand, which is what frustrates the city leaders. But this was long ago predicted, and relates to the towns western neighbor as well.

Keewatin’s neighbor Nashwauk also built right up to and even over the iron formation. In the 1990s, Nashwauk began expanding into a new area along Highway 169 on the town’s eastern entrance. Houses, a few businesses, a bank, clinic and assisted living facility all sit there now. The problem is that this entire area, including the 1960s and ’70s vintage highway, all sit over the iron formation.

In 1969, a comprehensive planning report that I mentioned a few years ago predicted these two factors, even as Highway 169 was being built, controversially bypassing Keewatin and many other Range towns (my grandpa lost a council seat over that decades ago). What that report rather fantastically suggested was for the two towns to vacate their current location and become an entirely new town south of Pengilly. That never happened, so now we will face in our lifetimes the question of whether we want to mine eastern Nashwauk and move Highway 169, or reopen the taconite reserves found just a few feet from downtown Nashwauk. If the economy is diverse and favorable the people will not allow their towns to be consumed, but in hard times? That new town south of Pengilly might not be as far-fetched as one would think.

Hibbing, the Town that Moved

Many know the story of how Hibbing, the Iron Range’s largest town, was moved a few miles south in the 1910s, ’20s and ’30s as the Hull-Rust/Mahoning Pit consumed the old townsite in North Hibbing. This is the process that allowed the city to levy the mines for its iconic high school and ornate auditorium where Bob Dylan drew early inspiration. There remains ore in North Hibbing, which could one day affect the viewing stand and parks you find up there today. But the town has also struggled with its water supply as Cliffs Natural Resources has drained pits where the city drew its water in order to mine certain areas.

In between Hibbing and Chisholm, Highway 5 — the artery that connects the Range to the Side Lake/Sturgeon Lake community — also crosses the iron formation. There is even more pressing talk that this highway will need to move in the next decade or so to accommodate Hibbing Taconite.

Not only that, but the Minnesota Discovery Center (formerly, and still known locally, as “Ironworld”) is built astride huge supplies of taconite. To mine these areas, not only would Ironworld have to move elsewhere, but they’d need a system of getting the ore back over Highway 169, through Chisholm and up to the HibTac processing plant.

In the long picture, Hibbing Taconite is viewed as among the more vulnerable mines to closure just because of the complications involved in matters like these.

Meantime, we already talked about the Highway 53 bridge by Virginia. That project would vacate mine land for the next 10-15 years, but would still place the route of the highway over the iron formation. The only way to avoid that would have been to built one of the very controversial “Western Routes” that people in Eveleth and Virginia vehemently opposed.

On another front, all across the western Mesabi, Magnetation is reclaiming old mining waste materials to create a viable iron ore product used in new kinds of steel mills. Magnetation has eyes on actually mining reserves near Bovey, however, and will need to move into areas that some local have long regarded as “natural” (even though they aren’t).

None of this speaks of the proposed nonferrous mines east of the Iron Range in the Duluth complex and up near Ely. That is another matter entirely, but poses the same question: what are we willing to do to keep mining?

This list is probably incomplete, so I welcome comments. If there’s one thing that has been well documented about the Iron Range, it’s the precise location of the ore. All that remains is the mining companies’ determination whether they see value in mining a given location.

In these and most matters, we find a ledger showing debits and assets. Should the benefits outweigh the costs, mining companies will move in, and move decisively. In this process, however, companies look out for their own interests. Of course they do; that’s how capitalism works. But in a capitalist democracy it is also the duty of community leaders and citizens to stand up of the value of communities, or — if a move or trade-off is amendable — negotiate a fair price for the our children who will live in this new world.

Here is where many of you will begin to disagree with each other, or me. Some will say that the mining could or should be stopped, or that it could or should be continued no matter what. All of that is a worthy discussion. I bring this up as a practical reminder: “500 years of mining” means that towns and roads will need to move at great expense and that we’ll need to adjust for the fact that mines will continue to automate, hiring fewer, albeit more educated and higher paid workers. “Ending mining” means developing new industries, innovation and entirely changing our economy. To put it bluntly, immense change is coming to the Iron Range one way or another. 

If it’s too expensive to root up towns, some mines will not continue. Others will, but with fewer workers over time. If the value of the minerals rises, mines might clamor for access to the ore beneath cities and roads. What then of the towns? The strength and vibrancy of these towns is a matter any resident of Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range should consider now. Iron Range towns could become husks (indeed, many of them already are). Or, they could birth new enterprise. Perhaps some towns and schools should consolidate now. If that happens to coincide with the need to actually move the town, perhaps the solution that Kiruna, Sweden found would work?

Humans living near the three-way watershed of modern-day Northern Minnesota have always lived transient to resources. If we are to craft permanent cities, let us do so with resolution and an eye for stable progress. Make no mistake, the early mining engineers of the Iron Range knew this day would come. It ticks nearer and nearer.


  1. 30 yrs is a long time if you’re making 75,000 a yr working in the mines or 20,000 a yr working a $10 an hour job. That is $2,250,000 vs $600,000. Throw in benefits and that is called a nice middle class lifestyle. I totally agree with you on towns and highway’s getting squeezed by the industry, not an ideal situation at all. Where I disagree with you is on the N Minn ability to change our economy in today’s business climate. This is where IRRRB (with it’s millions) could but hasn’t helped. Take away the quality of life index and just look at profitability, Minn doesn’t match up with low tax states or places like up state New York that give huge property and other tax breaks for start up businesses. Take it from a guy who has started businesses- it is all about profitability when starting a new venture. Most new businesses fold in 1st few yrs. That is why I’m a huge supporter of Polymet, Magnetation and any other industry that goes for our minerals and ore. That along with logging is what we have available to us here. Let’s use it.

  2. Regarding the Hwy 53 reroute plan and “the very controversial “Western Routes” that people in Eveleth and Virginia vehemently opposed.” Understandable, if you own real estate in either place. But the “Western Routes” were really the only actually economical and practical solutions. Even Wal-Mart has figured that out. Virginia businesses are moving west, regardless of Hwy 53 route.

    That bridge is going to cost taxpayers more than they imagine, just take a look at the billions spent on the bridge crossing the Colorado near Boulder Dam in NV. Likely, it’s going to require some sort of federal financial support, meaning even I will have to shell out to pay for it, even though I live in another state. Preservation at any cost seems to be the motto on The Range these days. At some point, it’s necessary and smarter to chuck the old and bring in the new. I include new mining in that statement, in case anyone is wondering, but I also agree with Aaron that business diversification should also be pursued when possible.

  3. I was in New England at the time the Fed had to bailout the “Big Dig” in Boston. The project had so much cost over run that the city and state ran outta money. I laughed at my friends here on the Range for helping make my road trips to Boston more enjoyable with their tax dollars. I am sure the bridge deal will end up the same way.

  4. Having lived on the range all but seven of my 65 years (I highly recommend leaving the area- it’s the only way to see how others live and what other communities are doing. It’s called perspective. Whether you come back to the range is your business).- it finally dawned on me that the entire iron range is still just a string of mining camps. Of course there was the high water mark in mining camp chic- I’m referring to the 1960’s – but for all practical purposes this area is mostly company towns. Same old same old. The only variation being logging. In which case there are just large tracks of land owned by large corporations. Logging camp circa 2015.
    This is what an area looks like that relies on extraction industries for its identity. Once I realized this I stopped complaining about dirty air, destruction to roads by heavy machinery, ruined rivers and streams and vast deserts of land left in the wake of loggers
    I say now ” it’s just a mining camp. What do you expect.”.
    This is not new Hampshire where 100 years ago they realized that manufacturing and industry over 250 years had destroyed damn near all the land and waterways. And they said..time to do this the right way…they’ve been cleaning up the rivers, reforesting on a massive scale and severely limiting the incursion of big box business and industry. When you fly into new Hampshire from overhead you see mile after mile of 100 year old hardwood forests. And no logging. No smokestacks.
    But in northern Minnesota? We’re still high on the fumes from some mythical past where moving towns and roads and polluting streams is what separates the men from the boys.
    No hope in sight.

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