Rich history, stark present, unknown future for iron and steel

worker takes a sample at steel company

A steelworker takes a sample from a blast furnace. (Stock image)

Aaron J. Brown

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

From the beginning, humans forged a special relationship with iron. Ancient people knew the mineral before they had the ability to mine it, discovering slabs of pure iron that fell from the sky in meteorites. The Sumerians and Egyptians called it “heaven stone,” according to Brooke C. Stoddard’s in his new book “Steel.” The strength and malleability of these mysterious iron rocks made them prize commodities for peoples the world over.

Over thousands of years, humans found iron on every continent. Indeed, iron was already here, arriving just the same way: as exploded stardust from distant suns. In a geological blink people developed modern industry after realizing the tremendous strength of iron and later steel structures, building materials and products. In “Steel” Stoddard cites the particular importance of the Lake Superior Mining District, especially our Mesabi Iron Range, in the 20th Century domination of America’s integrated steelmaking industry.

5168eQrpoAL._SX396_BO1,204,203,200_That U.S. industry is no longer the world’s biggest. Not even close. Further, the prospects of North American steelmakers are as bad now as they were entering the perilous 1980s. The reasons range from tough markets to tremendous new low-cost supplies from Asia and Australia. The story in “Steel” is that what goes up, must come down. Steel is permanent. Paper fortunes come and go.

Another new book out now, “Taconite Dreams” by Jeff Manuel, tells the more local story of how the Mesabi Iron Range hosted the mining industry’s most important recent innovation in the form of the taconite process. When the natural iron ore ran out in the late 1950s, the mining towns that drew immigrant laborers from all over the world could well have perished. Instead, innovations by researcher E.W. Davis and investments by the state and mining companies ushered in a new era.

Jeffrey Manuel is a professor at Southern Illinois University who has specialized in researching the deindustrialization of America, particularly in steel towns and the Mesabi Iron Range.

Jeffrey Manuel is a professor at Southern Illinois University who has specialized in researching the deindustrialization of America, particularly in steel towns and the Mesabi Iron Range.

“What I think has been lost in some of the current understanding is that there are many interesting echoes or parallels with the past,” said Manuel. “Particularly with the transition from hematite to taconite, that was a very important transition largely written out of Range history.”

The investment in taconite extended the life of iron mining to the present day — now almost 60 years. Two whole generations have known nothing else of mining on the Range. The future of the business, however, is less clear. Blast furnace technology is rapidly giving way to electric arc furnaces, which require purer ore than traditional taconite pellets. Supply from around the world is eclipsing Mesabi ore in both quantity and cost.

“On one hand taconite has held up as an economic savior, but the story today is a lot more complicated,” said Manuel. “The Iron Range faces another one of these big shifts, and there’s not going to be any one economic magic bullet — there will be new winners and new losers.”

So, is the Mesabi Iron Range poised to innovate as it did during the rise of taconite? Will it develop value-added iron products while diversifying its economy? Or will it find, as its famous son Bob Dylan once said, “The first one now will later be last, for the times they are a’ changin.’”

“In the big scope of things, looking at this as a historian, when you think about economy we don’t even think of U.S. Steel anymore,” said Manuel. “We think of Apple and these postindustrial companies. Culturally, a lot has changed. Gritty steel making no longer as sexy as it once was.

514OLF-Ji4L._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_“In reading [1960s era] letters from executives projecting out demand from steel, none can foresee these changes,” continued Manuel. “None foresaw [development of] plastics being as important as it was. It’s a good reminder that every other industry is innovating as well.”

“Steel” by Brooke C. Stoddard is an impressive exploration of a vitally important industry that has seen challenges, changes and crisis aplenty in its long history. One can’t help feeling, however, that Iron Rangers might enjoy the book best for nostalgia of better times.

Meantime, Manuel’s “Taconite Dreams” reads as a tremendously important history of our region, filling in the often overlooked period between the discovery and boom times of iron in Minnesota and the mines we know today. It leaves off at the doorstep of the current crisis in the taconite industry. Like the late 1950s, the Iron Range finds itself at the crossroads between innovation or inevitable decline.

The challenge is ours.

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, Nov. 29, 2015 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.



  1. I have long thought that the US steel industry a victim of managerial incompetence. I started to think it 45 years ago over the industry response to environmental pressures. They could have made a good case for government aid for reinvestment in newer, cleaner technology. Instead, they dragged their feet in every possible way, fought the government … while their mines and mills got more and more obsolete.

    Consider, folks, what other area has all the elements of steelmaking and consumption around the shores of the same complex of lakes, such that transport costs are near-zero. Compare that to the Japanese, who had to get coal and ore from overseas …..

    Listening to bullshitters from US Steel at the Legislature last year, I realized that nothing much has changed., except now I know that steel-stooge pols are even more stupid than industry managers.

    Thanks to Aaron Brown and Marshall Helmberger (and Bob and Pat Tammen) for showing that there is intelligent life on the Range.

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