The West rises on the Mesabi Range

A view from one mine dump to another near Calumet, Minnesota, earlier this spring. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

A flurry of new exploration and extraction could shape the next few decades of iron mining on the Mesabi Range. The exact outcome, however, seems as uncertain as a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. Local communities should read closely before turning the page.

The general public just learned that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources would soon decommission the Hill Annex Mine State Park in Calumet. And yet, behind-the-scenes rumblings made this outcome clear months, if not years, earlier. 

This was never a traditional state park celebrating the natural world. From its inception under Gov. Rudy Perpich, Hill Annex was a monument to mining history and geology. For the last 10 years, however, hours of operation dwindled amid budget cuts. Meantime, steel prices parked at historic highs. With marketable iron ore directly under the park grounds, mining history is about to become mining present.

For a generation, the western Mesabi was the quiet end of the Iron Range. Those living under the steam clouds of active taconite mines might be excused for forgetting the western Mesabi, or regarding it as a relic, like the Cuyuna or Vermilion ranges. Butler Taconite closed in 1985. This was the first production plant to close since the advent of taconite production in the 1950s and ‘60s, which is when most of the original natural ore mines closed.

Years ago, I learned the names of those old Itasca County mines from friends who snuck onto mining company property to swim in the deep water pits. You’d have a harder time getting into the pits these days, though. “No Trespassing” signs sprout like weeds from Marble to Nashwauk. A drive across Highway 169 might reveal work trucks and contractors poking around long dormant ore dumps, access roads and mining land.

Some of the region’s best remaining iron ore can be found on the western Mesabi. Getting that ore to market will be a challenge, however. 

Most recall Magnetation, a scram mining operation that extracted surface waste ores from old mining operations about a decade ago. That company went bankrupt by expanding too fast. Around the same time, Essar Steel invested heavily in building a taconite plant at the old Butler site, but also hit the skids when money ran out. Today, a reorganized version of Essar Steel — Mesabi Metallics — is trying to resurrect the project.

But they’re no longer the only hope for developing the western Mesabi. 

For instance, Calumet Reclamation Company seeks to process iron ore waste dumps around Calumet using shovels and a railroad loop. They’re the ones hoping to dig up Hill Annex Mine State Park. While Calumet Reclamation’s scram mining would create some local equipment operator jobs, company owner Jim Bougalis wants to build a pig iron plant in North Dakota to process the ore. Recovering the ore could begin very soon, but the rest of the plan will take time and money.

Likewise, MagIron — another scram mining operation — aims to process ore reserves around Coleraine. This company is led by some of the principals behind Magnetation, but is using different technology on a smaller scale.

To me, the biggest news to come out this spring is the fact that Cleveland-Cliffs plans to mine the east side of the Hill Annex pit. A rich vein of taconite runs deep from Calumet to an area just west of Nashwauk. Though mining wouldn’t start for at least five years, this is one way Cliffs could keep Hibbing Taconite open when it depletes its current ore supply. Their current plan calls for a railroad to ship the ore across the Itasca-St. Louis county line.

And yet, once again, this is not the only potential outcome. What if Cliffs scoops up U.S. Steel in the event their merger with Nippon Steel falls through? They’d have other options, including the merger of the Hibtac and Keetac pits, and available U.S. Steel ores west of Hibbing.

Confused yet? Don’t worry, some very educated, knowledgeable people are just as perplexed. Regardless, we can expect rerouted highways, new landscapes, and reorganized mining companies in the very near future.

More than ever, developing the western Mesabi will require public sector leadership. Private interests will end up tangled like kite strings as each jockeys for position. Therefore, big questions must be answered.

Which proposals best serve the public’s interest?

How soon would projects be underway? 

Who are the trusted and responsible mining companies? Are they funded, and how?

What best advances the technological capabilities and environmental responsibility of Iron Range mining?

The state of Minnesota — from the Department of Natural Resources up to the governor — can help. Meantime, local communities should not adopt a passive position. Now is the time for cities, counties and townships to secure their place in a rapidly changing Iron Range. 

As for the rest of us, never forget that this is our ore and it should benefit our quality of life, too. 

Aaron J. Brown

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 Saturday, May 11, 2024 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.