Mining for Dinosaurs

James Field painting of late Cretaceous encounter between tyrannosaurus.

This James Field painting of a late Cretaceous encounter between tyrannosauruses might have occurred near modern day Calumet, Minnesota. They were probably arguing about pickup trucks or hockey.

Aaron J. Brown

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

For decades, Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range has labored under the belief that most of our fossils were walking around above ground, not buried below. Now scientists exploring a state park on the western Mesabi seek to turn this notion on its head.

Most Iron Rangers know the Hill Annex Mine State Park in Calumet as another destination exploring the history of mining on the Mesabi Iron Range. And it is. Often overlooked, however, is the fact that Hill Annex’s location also provides access to untouched ancient fossils depicting a natural world that existed long before any shovel struck hard rock. In fact, you can take a fossil tour at Hill Annex that might put a shark’s tooth or an ancient water creature in your pocket to take home.

See, 86 million years ago the Mesabi Iron Range wasn’t the red ridge peeking above the forests of Northern Minnesota that it is today. It was the bottom of a massive inland sea that covered much of modern-day North America. In fact, it was the sediments of this sea, coupled with the Ice Age movement of the glaciers, that made this part of the world so rich in natural resources during the relatively recent age of humans.

In a providential act of geology, the Coleraine Formation — evidence of which you can see at Hill Annex — contained these fossils for millennia, only revealing them now after centuries of erosion and 20th Century mining activity. Now a project by the Science Museum of Minnesota and the Hill Annex Mine State Park seeks to explore this unique formation, perhaps prompting extraordinary new discoveries.

In the brief prepared by Doug Hanks, Becky Huset, Mark Ryan and John Westgaard, the authors describe the goal of the Hill Annex Mine Paleontology Project.

“This location could be as good as any in the state to yield an ancient beast of the Age of Dinosaurs, perhaps even the first confirmed Minnesota dinosaur fossil,” write the authors. “There is enormous potential here for scientific discovery and revelation of Minnesota’s Cretaceous past.”

There’s your headline. Dinosaurs on the Iron Range. The Cretaceous was a pretty exciting time, vis a vis North American dinosaurs, too, including your popular Tyrannosaurus Rex and Triceratops, among others.

“During this prehistoric period, Minnesota was on the eastern edge of a great seaway that extended from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean, cutting North America in two,” explain the authors. “As sea levels rose and fell, many different environments existed along this ocean shoreline. The Mesabi Iron Range was believed to be a giant estuary river system flowing from east to west.”

Exploring this area, then, would yield the possibility of finding evidence of land or sea creatures in areas they would likely have congregated.

The project is, at first, only a beginning, with more of an eye toward education than actually digging. One of the chief aims, according to the paper, is to get people’s attention. Once people starting thinking of the location as more than just a mine, but also a worksite for budding paleontologists, perhaps more ambitious projects could be funded.

It’s hard to miss the irony of yet another exciting new project on the Iron Range based on unseen treasurers beneath the earth, reliant on yet unknown sources of capital funding. I will say, however, that dinosaurs seem less controversial than nonferrous mining and less expensive than the Highway 53 rerouting project.

Even if we don’t extract the femur of a mighty Tyrannosaurus on the north side of Calumet, it’s always good to remember that the “Iron Range” isn’t as old as some people like to think. We were certainly not the first creatures to lumber across this land in search of a cold drink and a hot meal.

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. 13, 2015 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.



  1. 86 million years ago ? Which Perpich was in office then ?

  2. I expect they will turn up a minotaur.

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