Iron Range epidemics and the greater good

Hibbing in 1893, the year it incorporated as a village and shortly after a typhoid epidemic threatened to close the original mining camp.

NOTE: This article also appears in the Hibbing Daily Tribune. It’s part of a new expanded partnership between this blog and the newspaper that runs my column.

Frank Hibbing could sense iron nearby when he and his team camped beneath a grove of towering white pines on the western Mesaba Iron Range. Indeed, they would discover one of the biggest iron ore reserves in history in January 1892. The rest is history.

But forgotten is this. That spring a typhoid epidemic threatened to wipe out the camp. Hibbing personally recruited Dr. Dana C. Rood to join him in the deep woods of northern Minnesota.

Rood’s care allowed the miners to stay and convinced others to come. It would be the beginning of the Rood hospital. This facility served the community named for Hibbing for generations to come.

Just a few years later, in 1899, a young man burned red with scarlet fever in a hospital bed at Escanaba, Michigan. At age 18, he was older than most scarlet fever victims. A doctor explained how the local schools could disinfect their classrooms using bedsheets soaked with an innovative new chemical called formaldehyde. Though the method seems crude, similar means are used to disinfect hospitals to this day.

That young man in the hospital would live but he was quarantined for several weeks. As soon as he could he left Michigan to join his older brother in Hibbing.

That man was Victor L. Power. He would go on to become Hibbing’s most significant mayor, building and then moving a modern city after a political battle with the Oliver Mining Company. But had Power not been quarantined he might have accidentally spread the disease, perhaps killing several of modern Hibbing’s ancestors.

Hibbing history is rife with stories of epidemics. Rarely were they as far-reaching as the Covid-19 pandemic we contend with today. But they were common. Doctors and patients alike had a system for handling them. Medical science was far less advanced, meaning that many more died from disease than would have today. 

Hattie Mosley was probably the only African American woman in Hibbing for most of the 30 years she spent here working as a nurse. Arriving from Illinois in 1906 Mosley worked at the Rood Hospital. She couldn’t read or write, but instead used folk remedies and personal experience to treat common ailments.

The town’s wealthy residents would hire her to care for aging or sickly relatives. But Mosley would also make rounds through the poorest neighborhoods in town, providing folk medicine and basic care to people who could not afford the hospital.

Mosley served on the front lines of arguably the worst pandemic to hit Hibbing or the United States in modern history: the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak.

Now, to correct the historical record, this disease did not come from Spain. Politicians coined the term to stoke American distrust of Europe during World War I. Some scientists believe the flu emerged from the plains of Kansas, where a bird flu mutated in pigs and was transmitted to humans. Nevertheless, more than one-third of the world’s population contracted the disease. It killed 50 million people worldwide, including 475,000 in the United States alone.

The disease frightened the population, much like stories of Covid-19 frighten us today. People died. Many medical workers feared doing their job.

Mosley, however, worked with the sickest patients throughout the epidemic. She also worked with the children, who appreciated her gentle demeanor. It bears mentioning that people at the time believed black people were immune from white diseases. This sort of wrong thinking was common at the time, and might explain why Mosley did so much of the work.

Fortunately, Mosley survived the outbreak. There was a reason. For among her strange remedies — many of which included moonshine — she incorporated the practice of personal hygiene and constant hand washing. She washed the patients every day and kept herself clean at all times.

This more than anything might explain why Mosley survived the outbreak, and why most of her patients did, too.

She also provided something else often lacking in medical practices at the time: compassion. Research shows that easing fear and anxiety improves medical outcomes. Mosley knew this from her own experience.

Many doctors and nurses cared for the population of Hibbing during this time. They used quarantines, washed hands, and expected people to pull together to help those in need. The community became its own medicine, looking after those who were the most vulnerable.


  1. A very good dose of sanity and reality, and a piece of local history I’ve never heard before. Thank you.

  2. Yes, thank you this was a great reminder and reality check. everyone should do some history and soul searching like this. It connects us to our ancestors. it’s more the absence of epidemics than their presence that has been unusual in recent decades.

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