How titans scooped up the Range

James J. Hill and Louis W. Hill
James J. Hill (left) and son Louis W. Hill converse in 1907. The pair created the Great Northern Iron Ore Properties trust.
Aaron J. Brown

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

When I was a kid one of my favorite pieces of playground equipment was the excavator in the sandbox. You could sit on a little stool to control a shovel with two levers. Dig a hole over here, make a pile over there. I could do that all day. 

To grow up on the Mesabi Iron Range is to dwell among the massive mine dumps and deep pit lakes dug by those who played with much bigger equipment long ago. Though the extraction of iron ore goes on today, there is more to the story than just digging. 

Indeed, private enterprise tangles with democratically-elected local governments. Who deserves the rich spoils of God-given resources? The rights of individuals compete with those of corporations. Some beg for the digging to stop while others plea desperately for it to continue.

So it has been for a long time.

I’ve learned in recent years that a great number of Iron Rangers are interested in the history of our region. But few like to reach too far beyond the years of their own lives or perhaps those of their parents. That stuff is too old, too complicated, and hard to find. 

But the earliest years of Iron Range history contain a fact that I think might startle some folks. Believe it or not, the industrial titans who formed the mining settlements here were not ordained by divine Providence. They were boys set loose on a brand-new playground, the strongest of whom wrested control of the digging apparatus over howls of protest from those who arrived too late. And they would not let go. 

You may know the story of Charlamagne Tower, who opened the Vermilion Range while stifling other prospectors from shipping from more lucrative mines elsewhere. And most know how John D. Rockefeller used his massive resources to gain control of the Merritt Brothers hard-earned holdings on the Mesabi Range. 

Perhaps you have heard that names like Pillsbury and Boeing owe their fortunes to iron ore, long before they became household names for flour and airplanes, respectively.

Ancient history, of course, except that you may soon realize that we’re still affected by it. And that is why this history matters.

One of the great titans of industry who shaped local history was the railroad man James J. Hill. Hill was best known as the founder of the famous Great Northern Railroad. However, some of the land he acquired to develop that railroad ended up containing vast quantities of Mesabi Range iron ore. 

Fighting charges of monopoly, he spun off his mineral holdings into a private trust, the Great Northern Iron Ore Properties, which became a major player in the history of the Iron Range that we know today.

You can read all about this in the new book, “Great Northern Iron: James J. Hill’s 109-Year Mining Trust” (2020, Ramsey County Historical Society) by James A. Stolpestad. This attractive, well produced book is both a narrative story of a poorly-understood past, but also a useful resource for those interested in understanding the Iron Range today and into the future.

I must admit, this Great Northern Iron Ore Properties outfit fascinated me since I first learned about it as a young journalist in Hibbing. The unassuming headquarters sits along Howard Street, a lovely office building of brick, with hearty botanicals clinging to its sides. As visible as the building remains, it always struck me as a place where secrets might be buried. Indeed, they are. Mining core samples from my great-great grandfather’s time are stored inside, along with mining industry files far too numerous and cryptic to fully understand. 

“Great Northern Iron” includes the history of how the organization came to be, but also something just as valuable for a new reader. It’s a breakdown of the development of the industry, both the methods and madness of turning rocks into I-beams, cars, and washing machines.

It’s even got a centerfold, though not the kind normally associated with that word. A fold-out graphic visually depicts the massive size of the Hull Rust pit between North Hibbing and the Hibbing Taconite plant. And though Great Northern Iron Ore Properties wasn’t the only beneficiary of this mine, it’s one of the many players that made this region what it is. 

History stops being boring when you realize it’s not over.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, March 28, 2021 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.



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