On the Cuyuna Range, the culmination of a plan

A new mural adorns the side of the Iron Range Eatery building in downtown Crosby, Minnesota. It pays homage to Cuyuna Range history below. But it also shows, in color and on top, where the region’s bread is now buttered. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

Last fall I had to go to Brainerd for a speaking engagement. My fellow presenter and I were chatting on the way down. We decided it might be fun to drive through Crosby and Ironton instead of bypassing them the way many motorists have for decades.


Well, there’s stuff going on in Crosby now. We wanted to see it.

We weren’t disappointed. The downtown, which already sported the unique look of an Iron Range town, drew a stark contrast to its sister cities on the Mesabi and Vermilion iron range. For one thing, the storefronts are full. New businesses have opened in just the last year. New open public space adorns the street corners. You can check out a bike to get around town from a contraption that looks like a shopping cart dispenser. We had a snack and a cup of coffee at the Iron Range Eatery, a new restaurant on Main Street.

This place was hip. Small town. Quaint. But hip. In short, the Cuyuna Range is experiencing what I think a lot of people would like to see happen in small towns across Northern Minnesota.

In a Jan. 12 story in the Brainerd Dispatch, Gabriel Lagarde reported from the recent annual meeting of the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew. The fact that the local bike club merits news coverage shows you what’s changed already. The bike club holds the same relative power as the chamber of commerce or a civic club — maybe more.

At this meeting, club members and local officials celebrated the culmination of a 50-year plan — the creation of an elaborate recreational trails and parks system to attract new visitors to the Cuyuna Range area.

From the story:

Thursday night, members of the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew and backers of the bike trails—both local and from abroad—christened the annual meeting at Heartwood Senior Living Center as a moment of rebirth for Crosby, a once “forgotten region” of the state.

Crosby Mayor Bob Novak said the meeting came at a time when hopes are high in the region and noted the $59,000 the city set aside for coming projects was a sign of good faith in what the crew and its backers were doing.

“I’ve been around this area for 70 years. I came here as a kid when iron ore was king and I watched the whole thing rust in the ’60s and then we saw the blight that came,” Novak told the meeting’s attendees. “However, I don’t ever recall seeing a time in this area—Crosby and the surrounding community—when there was so much positivity and good feelings about the future.”

Crew President Aaron Hautala took time to celebrate the accomplishments of the club the last six years, then pointed to exciting developments for the trails going into 2018, 2019, 2020 and beyond.

Hautala said it was impressive to see the growth of the biking community itself. The Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew expanded from a tiny group of dedicated individuals in 2012, to an organization of 300 members putting in nearly 2,000 volunteer hours a year and raising more than $1 million since its genesis.

But there is also extensive growth of the larger Crosby area economically—with 15 new businesses in town that weren’t there six years ago—and the main driver, in Hautala’s estimation, are the bike trails.

New trails are slated to be opened over the next two years as recent state investments are unveiled.

Now, before you get all hot and bothered, no, bike trails can’t save every little town. No, tourism jobs don’t replace high-paying mining jobs. But I think the same attitude *would* help other struggling towns. This means community problem-solving and acceptance of what might appeal to the next generation. When a place is attractive, higher-paying jobs and opportunities for new entrepreneurs will come.

I wrote about the Cuyuna Range renaissance for the Daily Yonder a couple years ago, which also led to a column highlighting ideas on the Mesabi. I took my Great Northern Radio Show to Crosby in 2013.


  1. Most of the Range towns are effectively walled in with mining company fences and no trespassing signs, put there by law and enforced by the County Mine Inspector.

    We have excellent starting points at the Gilbert Off Road park, the fishing ramps in some of the pits, and the Mesabi Trail. We have ignored opportunities in places like Ironworld and the Hill Annex park.

    On the Cuyuna mining is gone-gone. There’s a clean slate for land use.

    We have massive Taconite operations that each tie up mile after mile of Iron Range countryside.

    This is certainly something the West range, where mining is much more dormant, could look at. There might be some opportunities around Chisholm, though I suspect Hibtac has most of that land tied up. Biwabik-Aurora may be a possibility too.

    One thing Crosby has that we don’t is being on the edge of the massive Brainerd tourist area. We’re about 80 miles further from the Cities, and some of our roads north, like 65, 73, and 169 aren’t all that great.

    Hibbing and Virginia also don’t have any large local lakes. Grand Rapids and Crosby do. Maybe in 20 to 40 years when Taconite is gone and the pits fill up…

    Still, it’s proof that entire blocks of empty and burned out downtown storefronts aren’t necessarily our future.

    • Good comparison summary B.

      I will also point out that we are getting within a few years of paved completion of the Mesabi Trail from Grand Rapids to Ely. Maybe long-distance bike trekkers are more inclined to be self-sufficient and camp and cook-out rather than stay at hotels, eat in restaurants, and shop in stores?

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