The distant barons of Duluth and the Iron Range

Puck magazine cartoon of John D. Rockefeller, 1901

Puck magazine cartoon of John D. Rockefeller, 1901

As readers here know, we in Northern Minnesota are living in a time of speculation and bewilderment over the machinations of distant industrial powers. The regional economy of the Iron Range is dangling on a bouncing string pulled by unseen actors.

But this is nothing new. Same now as it ever was.

Zenith City Online, a tremendous resource of historical features about Duluth and the Iron Range, recently published a fascinating history of the titans of American industry who created Duluth and Iron Range as we know them today. Tony Dierckins wrote the piece with help from Dan Hartman, former Duluth City Councilor and curator at the Glensheen Mansion.

From the well-known story of the Merritts and Mountain Iron, to John D. Rockefeller’s shrewd takeover of their operations, to the battles between Rockefeller and Carnegie and J.P. Morgan’s eventual domination through the Oliver Mining Company and U.S. Steel, the Iron Range of 100 years ago was a battleground of corporate treachery and triumph. Duluth was, for a time, the outpost where the upper crust planned their deeds. Dierckins’ account is an eye-opening description of how things became the way they are.

The [Rockefeller/Carnegie] rivalry was proving too much for the overall economy and caught the attention of the country’s most influential banker, J. P. Morgan, whose wealth and power rivaled that of Rockefeller and Carnegie. Morgan saw how the Rockefeller/Carnegie monopoly influenced other industries in which he was heavily invested. The monopoly/rivalry had become a problem for Morgan, so in 1900 he set about eliminating it through the creation of the United States Steel Corporation. The plan included taking over not only all of Rockefeller’s properties, but Carnegie’s and [Henry] Oliver’s as well. 

Morgan began by buying up smaller steel manufacturers, then moved on to larger ones. Eventually this tactic led him to Carnegie Steel. At about this same time, Carnegie was looking to retire and turn his attention to philanthropy. He offered to sell Carnegie Steel to Morgan for $480  million—about $13.5 billion today—assuming Morgan would never agree to the price. Morgan shocked everyone by accepting the offer. Carnegie became the wealthiest man in the world and would go on to use his money to help build public libraries across the country, including three in Duluth.

Morgan would name his Iron Range operations for Oliver, and the Oliver Mines would become a de facto monopolistic force on the Iron Range for a number of years. Locals called it “The Oliver” and, honestly, they still do.

Today, corporations and their leaders still do battle over the stuff beneath our ground, but their battle orders come from farther away, and the titans of the 21st century aren’t building any mansions or libraries out of their personal fortunes. Nevertheless, the notion that power comes from afar is still baked into the culture of the region, something that must be changed for this dynamic to ever correct itself.

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