The Iron Range is dead; long live the Range

Alan Stone's model railroad version of the Iron Range location of Cooley, now lost to time and mining activity. (Alan Stone).

Alan Stone’s model railroad version of the Iron Range location of Cooley, now lost to time. (Alan Stone).

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is the author of the Iron Range blog

“The king is dead; long live the king.” This saying from the height of European monarchies meant when the person at a nation’s helm physically died, the title lived on with the next person in the royal line. Massive change could be seen as mere progression. This simple continuity kept order even at a time when the best actresses were men and premium health care plans included copious bleeding.

More than 1,000 Iron Range miners await layoffs next month, with the potential of more to follow in 2015 and 2016 amid falling global iron ore prices. This situation provides no shortage of wistful stories about glory days or defensive diatribes avowing that a back alley slurry of the status quo and hope will bring them back.

Instead I bring some bad, old news. Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range already died. Past tense. Maybe it was 1982 and maybe it was 1999, but what came before has become something else. People here survived the 1980s and ‘90s, and so did about a quarter of the mining jobs, but the *idea* of the Iron Range that so many still cling to is increasingly tied to an irretrievable past. Full mining employment, even when added to the overly optimistic estimates of new mining projects, will not make the Range economy as strong as it was before. That’s not mining’s fault. That’s how the world is now. Nevertheless, failure to adjust to this reality is entirely on us.

We are residents of a place still called the Iron Range, though some call it Northern Minnesota, Mesabi, ‘Da Raych, or Up North. What it’s called is less important that who we are and what we aim to do.

We are hard-working, loving, thinking, real people. We are as alive as can be; fatigued perhaps, but alive and well. We are in a position now to make life better for our children and grandchildren, and those of our neighbors. Many of our ancestors crossed an ocean at great personal and financial risk, sacrificing their very lives for a chance at America. Other suffered great injustices in losing their land, being sent to boarding schools, scarred culture, only to carry on the belief that it could be better for the children. We simply have to set down our phones, talk to each other, and build a new world on top of the old. Difficult perhaps, but certainly possible.

We live in an economy of independent contractors. Broadband infrastructure is the public utility of our time, connecting the workers of tomorrow to points around the globe. People may choose to live here, even if they work somewhere else.

Our nation lost scores of manufacturing jobs in recent decades, but we see signs of growth in niche manufacturing of quality, customizable products. In this, our proximity to wood products and iron could serve to create opportunities for these industries to locate near the materials they need. Need a special piece of metal? 3-D print it with Mesabi iron.

Duluth is a growing city with a diversifying economy. Where once our mining industry dictated their fate, too, they now thrive without us. As this city grows, our nearby region becomes an alternative and expansion opportunity for entrepreneurs in the Zenith City.

As the West scorches away its water, ours is fresh and abundant. No, we shouldn’t sell it. We should protect it and watch as people realize that living here truly is much better than our winters would suggest.

Finally, for a generation mining industry advocates and environmentalists have performed a battle dance. We now enter a period in history where green energy and environmental controls are becoming cost-effective and even profitable. We are in a prime location to generate jobs making technology that helps the environment — mitigating damage done by mining in the past and protecting our water, air and land from future damage.

What we need is wise public investment in economic diversity, brave entrepreneurs, and schools and colleges that can carry the load. Difficult, yes, but as real a possibility as U.S. Steel, as inspiring as the Hibbing High School auditorium.

The Iron Range is dead. Long live the Range. Accepting and adapting to the changes coming our way will create exciting new opportunities and another more prosperous generation on the Mesabi. To quote rock ’n’ roll royalty Bruce Springsteen, “Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact, but maybe everything that dies someday comes back.”

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This post first appeared in the Sunday, April 26, 2015 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Cooley, Minnesota was an Iron Range location town near present-day Nashwauk, depicted here in Alan Stone's railroad model.

Cooley, Minnesota was an Iron Range location town near present-day Nashwauk, depicted here in Alan Stone’s railroad model.


  1. David Gray says

    I will admit to not knowing the latest census figures. Is Duluth’s population climbing again?

  2. Same old song, new year. The IRRRB could help by using their millions in production taxes to help new businesses locate here. New businesses need help starting out and starting up. New York State , no home to conservatives, have tax free zones and are helping new businesses get started with all kinds of State sponsored programs to bring jobs to their State. Since our State won’t do it,(why??) the IRRRB should for any start ups or relocating business on the Range. We are so screwed up that we think a call center, paying minimum wage,lobbying for the same corrupt DFL politicians that are paying them with IRRRB money is creating jobs. Please folks from the Range demand more from the people you elected. The silence on the wasted spending of IRRRB just because they are DFL’ers is sad.

    What industries or businesses are driving the growth inDuluth? Are the jobs minimum wage jobs or real jobs that you can raise a family on? We have hundreds of good paying jobs waiting on permits to mine copper/nickel right now. Just saying…….

  3. Great description. Great way of wording all of this. I sound jaded lately here in the comments section. A lot of us probably have some sort of negative emotions in relation to our past on the Iron Range.

    Every town, county, and city in the United States has the same story. I could never figure that out. How is the immigrant story, or the World War II story, or the industrial story any different than all of the United States? None of that is unique to anywhere in America. That is an American story. What does it look like when Range politicians are whining and bringing up World War production as an argument? Every little town in Wisconsin has the exact same story.

    The best resource on the Iron Range are the community colleges. That is unique. That is where the future lies. That is a different experience than other American communities. That is something to be proud of. That is what could change things.

    People move to a place for the place and then work to survive today. People do not move for jobs. The trick is attracting people, not industries. That is what separates places. Most people earn very little money in comparison to the past.

  4. (Tough to be too hard on the place today … absolutely beautiful outside – sunny, mid-60s – no bugs yet – sunny and light out until 8 pm – perfect, really.)

    I tend to agree with Trevor’s note about all the little towns in the US being somewhat similar in certain ways. But when I think about it that way, I consider it’s probably not “so great” anywhere else all the time, either.

    Maybe the more frequent ups and downs of the economy around here just make us appreciate, talk about, and want “good times” more than they do in other places. It’s like the weather around here – if we didn’t have horrible cold, long winters, we wouldn’t appreciate days like this near as much as we do.

  5. Patrick Quigley says

    AB- excerpt from a thread of my comments on Pro-Hibbing Facebook page awhile back regarding the new Hampton Suites Inn in Bing. There are more comments I posted to explain my dream…
    Nice that Goldfines, et al see a future in our fair city. I live in Hood River, OR now, and back in the 70’s things looked relatively dismal for our future with the shrinking of the timber industry and other economic challenges. But now things are thriving with other industries, including recreation, taking root. For Hibbing, the problems started in the 60’s. That’s when we changed the name of the Androy Hotel to ‘Motor Inn’ to compete with the Kahler Motel. The renaissance converting the Androy into a more sustaining biz as apartments has been sustaining. Kinda ironic for me: in 2016 we will have a brand spanking new Hampton Suites Inn on the waterfront. And out front will be a cable park for kiteboarders & wakeboarders. Recreation might not be the ‘answer’ for Hibbing, but I dream that one day we could leverage the BEST earth movers in the world (folks from the Range with our heavy duty shovels and euclids) and take some of that overburden we see lying around and dump on the edge of the Hull Rust pit to an elevation of 1k feet. The total vertical drop (from summit to the lake at the bottom of the pit) would be approximately 1,500 feet. Put a chairlift in and a lodge at the top of the pit and you’d have the highest ski area in not only Minnesota, but all of the Midwest. Just a dream of course…
    Patrick William Quigley

  6. The never alive can’t die. The “Range”, though people think of it as a community because they were born, lived, died and left there, was never that. It was a resource colony, as much as any mining town or sawmill town based on a cheaply available resource. The reality is, however, that until the Roosevelt reforms and the tax deal the state made in 1964, life for ordinary people was difficult. The attempt by the state to make the corporations add value to the resource goes all the way back to the Duluth Steel plant, which United States Steel built under threat of having the ore taxed. It was never truly run at a profit, and when its horrifying pollution came into question, was happily shutdown. The Range was built on pure theft and exploitation, first with lumber, then at first accidentally by iron, then by state development and subsidy of the taconite industry. The dirty words connected to the boom, never spoken in public but known by anyone remotely honest, were featherbedding, theft, graft and cost-plus contracts. It was an artificial boom which provided a decent living for some and allowed the elite to wet their beaks, but it was not and never would be an actual economy. Combined with the baby boom and the artificial cities of Hoyt Lakes, Babbitt and distant Silver Bay, it was all illusory. The problem is the locals have long since become co-opted and spend most of their time dipping their beaks, fighting outsiders and supporting what ever thief comes along with a promise and the possibility of wealth for them and their friends. It would be interesting to know how many projects have been stopped simply because some locals didn’t want the competition or weren’t going to be bribed enough by gifts and positions. The same is true with Polymet, where a handful of locals using public money and some promises plan to sell off land and water to a multinational with the track record of a South African gold company, in order to further their own wealth with the promise of a couple hundred jobs that might last 20 years to the remaining populace who refuse to get up and leave from the industrial brownfield they choose to live near. It’s not dead. It was never alive. It was never meant to be.

    • Independent says

      Paul, I am curious what “real” community you are from. You speak like a man who philosophizes much but has created (produced) very little. That’s ok, you can leave the true heavy lifting that enables your utopian existence to those of us who come from towns that are not real.

  7. Aaron, what industry or businesses is driving Duluth to be growing and diversifying? If it was a solar panel plant going up in N Minn that was going to employ hundreds of locals with jobs paying 3-5 times minimum wage and promising to be in business 20-30 years would we be so dismissive of them as we are to Polymet?

    • Hi Ken. People that do basically what Aaron does on this website are what is driving Duluth, and other places. Thing is, Aaron seems to be the only one doing it on the Iron Range. That is basically why I come here. People have their own outlets. For example, Aaron writes and makes a show. Other people are musicians, or visual artists. That is what drives Pittsburgh, Duluth, the Twin Cities. Healthcare, education, and information are important industries as well.

      David Byrne made a movie in 1986 which explains all of this. The movie is titled True Stories. The information David Byrne delivers in that movie describes how the modern economy functions. Also, the movie stars John Goodman in an early role.

  8. Fred Schumacher says

    The world is littered with abandoned mining towns. Mining, as an extractive industry, always has a finite life. It is not sustainable; however, for a while it can increase the population density and income of a region that is essentially a frontier. Mining, originally of old growth timber and then of iron ore, made it possible for the Arrowhead to exceed the natural carrying capacity of the land for a while. Even with economic development to replace mining, it probably will not be possible for this area to maintain the population it has. Geography and climate are the determining factors.

  9. In response.
    As Mr. Schumacher states well, which is mine also, is that this area developed as a resource colony. Through state subsidy, it has lasted longer than most, but as he points out, most other resources are shipped in here. This is true in most places, but especially true here. It also needs to be said, in defense of any arguments for diversification ,that macroeconomic factors have pushed wages down and increased inequality as part of a plan by the wealthy and other interests, whether wall street or those profiting from maintaining the empire that is bankrupting us. My argument is simply this, that until there is some public truth spoken on the range, nothing will change. As long as the same dishonest system of public subsidies and corruption exists, the range will look more and more iike the third world colony/nursing home it is now. I was born there, have lived, left, returned and done it twice. What strikes me now is the almost complete isolation from the realities outside that now exists there. There is an assumption that any questioning of mining’s environmental consequences is tied to a desire to drive ranger’s into poverty. If you aren’t a full on board supporter, one is a heretic to be pilloried. And here is where the divide starts…rangers, whether elite or unions, haven’t done a damned thing out of concern for any wider group in decades. The world, lest I remind you, is now a much browner, different and better educated place, not consisting of 57 year old white people dunking wings in Side Lake while at the cabin. Welcome to it. And welcome to the end of the subsidy/featherbedded/get drunk at work and steal things system the range white men got away with for decades. You will now be competing with the rest of the world’s hungry. The population of ex-rangers is now larger than those who live there. Perhaps that is a piece of information that should be examined.

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