Hwy 53 bridge work spans cold Iron Range winter

Cranes place steel girders upon the new Highway 53 bridge, which will span the Rouchleau Pit outside Virginia, Minn., on Jan. 10, 2017. (MN Dept. of Transportation)

We woke up to 32 below in my western corner of the Mesabi Iron Range this morning. Unlike other parts of the country, that’s a matter of personal comfort. It would take even colder conditions to disrupt routine.

Minnesotans may not like, but generally can handle such temperatures. After all, the vast majority work indoors, where hard working modern furnaces literally keep us alive.

But once in a while we insiders must be reminded that some workers must work outside, even when temperatures drop down below sanity.

Underneath the girders of the new Highway 53 bridge. (MNDOT)

Case in point, the Highway 53 relocation project between Eveleth and Virginia, Minn. This week, workers in cranes installed the last primary steel supports for the span of the new bridge over the Rouchleau Pit near Virginia. This bridge, one of two involved in the project, will be the state’s tallest upon completion sometime later this year.

Of course, the reason the project is happening is so that the mining industry can access the iron ore underneath the current highway. An old provision from the original construction of Highway 53 allows the mineral rights-holders to request the road be moved at state expense.

Miners, of course, work outside all year long, every year. Working in such weather is nothing new here. In fact it’s the preservation of these jobs that pushed the project forward despite its enormous expense.

Because of the location of the road along existing towns, mining property, huge mountains of overburden and wide, perilous pits, this will likely be the most expensive public project in the lifetime of living Iron Rangers.

The project cost is listed at $156 million, though the final costs could exceed that total. Ostensibly the highway relocation will add years of life to the United Taconite mine in Eveleth. However, to be complete accurate, it’s really just creating access to the iron formation. Whether or not UTac survives the likely iron mine consolidations of the next five years is secondary.

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