Blazing trails to sustainable Iron Range economy

Columnist Aaron Brown wrote an in-depth feature on the redevelopment of the former mining areas around the Cuyuna Iron Range in north central Minnesota for The Daily Yonder. He applies some of these ideas to the Mesabi Iron Range in today's Hibbing Daily Tribune column. (PHOTO: Aaron Hautala)

Columnist Aaron Brown penned an in-depth feature on the redevelopment of the former mining areas around the Cuyuna Iron Range in north central Minnesota for The Daily Yonder. He applies some of these ideas to the Mesabi Iron Range in today’s Hibbing Daily Tribune column. (PHOTO: Aaron Hautala)

Aaron J. Brown

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

To quote a line from William Blake, “Expect poison from the standing water.” True of water. True of spirit. True of Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range.

The kind of poison I’m talking about comes from hopelessness. Our Iron Range economy has suffered in recent months, years and decades. We have watched young people leave, and worse yet want to leave. We have seen the social effects of shrinking employment and population. So I think we’d agree that turning this around is the central challenge we face as a region.

It’s a monumental task, to be sure, but I have exciting news: It. Is. Possible.

This month I toured the trails and recreational areas near Crosby and Ironton on the Cuyuna Iron Range, where my great-grandfather and grandfather mined underground before returning to the Mesabi 50 years ago. And while my work has taught me far more than I ever expected to know about mining, I was utterly clueless about one of the fastest-growing recreational trends in the United States: mountain biking.

One thing my trip to the Cuyuna showed is that mining and mountain biking are more compatible than you’d think. Everything left behind when a mining company leaves an area is perfect for the start of a mountain biking trail. Hills, rocks, inclines, ledges along deep pits. And with effort to properly reclaim the piles of overburden, beautiful scenery can flourish in just a few years, improving further every year thereafter.

That was certainly true on the Cuyuna, already regarded as one of the nation’s fastest-growing year-round mountain biking destinations. But it’s true here on the Mesabi as well, where the Iron Range Off-Road Cyclist group is expanding trail systems near Maple Hill in Hibbing and Lookout Mountain near Virginia. Considering the vast amount of interesting terrain surrounding reclaimed waters in this region, the possibilities are nearly endless. You can find out more about IRORC at

The Cuyuna Iron Range, where mining principally ended in the late 1950s and early 1960s, is a test case for what happens when mining employment drops below the threshold where it no longer sustains a community on its own. We still have mining on the Mesabi, and will for decades or more, but the industry is going through a major contraction right now. Much ore to mine, fewer people needed to do the work. With this change comes the need to alter our economic orientation from a mining economy to an economy that happens to include mining.

One of the people I met in Crosby was Barb Grove, affectionately dubbed “Mama Cuyuna” for her role in local history projects and in building support for the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area, home to many of the region’s popular new trails.

Grove said the advice she’d have for the Mesabi is related to attitude. When a mining executive asked her how to keep people from jumping fences by abandoned pits and dumps years ago, she disappointed them with her response.

“Get rid of the fences,” said Grove. “Invite people in. Get good insurance, but invite them in. You get away from fear and get into joy. Fear is what the geezers were doing, afraid taxes will go up. Get rid of the fear, open up.”

Another early founder of the trail system on the Cuyuna Range is John Schaubach. He remembers the way it was in Crosby and Ironton.

“Every time there was an economic downturn the local TV station could just drive down to this town and tell the world that this is what it looks like,” said Schaubach. “Now it’s a total reversal. That’s what we’ve done, changed the way people view this community.”

Attracting mountain bikers has attracted younger people, not just for day trips but for second homes and even relocation. After decades of slow progress, recent expansion has grown exponentially.

Will mountain biking and outdoor recreation replace mining as an economic driver? Of course not. But it will create an environment where modern economic growth can grow as naturally as the foliage on the sides of the pit walls. Attractive communities attract entrepreneurship, and there’s evidence that’s starting to happen in Cuyuna Country. What people on the Cuyuna are doing is refusing to let outside forces shape their future, instead shaping their own.

True, the aging demographics and poverty rate struggles in Crow Wing County are similar to those here in St. Louis and Itasca counties. But the visible economic benefits of the new philosophy are striking to see in the bustling towns of Crosby and Ironton, the smiles on the faces of people on the street. The difference between hope and hopelessness is clear. Economic fruits are flowering in the form of real estate sales, new businesses and improved recruitment efforts at the big hospital and international graphics company nearby.

In the end mines will mine what they can, when they can, employing whomever they need. We know now that most of the people who live in the Iron Range region do not and will not work in mining, not even in the rosiest of scenarios. That doesn’t make mining unimportant. It makes our need for diversification more important. It is not, nor will it ever be, like the 1970s, ‘40s or ‘20s ever again.

So let’s make a world that has room for everyone on the Mesabi. The remarkable outcome will be a stronger, more independent Iron Range, bolstered by an awesome recreational network that keeps us healthy and energized in more ways than one. A healthy, secure mining industry has nothing to fear from this growth.

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 piece first appeared in the Sunday, Sept. 6, 2015 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.



  1. My husband’s comment was this piece is profound. This is good for any struggling town to consider. Thanks for food for thought!

  2. Toni Wilcox says

    And here’s what nurturing local “do it ourselves” talent can yield.
    Note, one of the two founders of this company got his can do attitude in Crosby, where he raised $100,000 for a skateboard park (while still in high school). The company in this article may be headquartered in St. Paul, but successful people have a way of giving back to their hometowns if they feel they were nurtured not tolerated then expelled.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.