On the Iron Trail
In northern Minnesota, a rich deposit of ore brought the world running.
© Beth Gauper
On the edge of Hibbing, tourists can peer into the vast Hull Rust Mahoning Mine, which still operates.
They would have preferred gold. But the iron made them rich, too.
In 1865, reports of gold brought a rush of prospectors to the shores of Lake Vermilion. What they found, instead, was red earth.
Those who didn't go home disappointed stayed to develop one of the world's richest deposits of iron ore into an industry that would give rise to dozens of towns, help the nation win two world wars and create a distinctive piece of Minnesota's cultural fabric.
The first mine was on the shores of Lake Vermilion, on the end of a body of ore that stretched from Tower to Ely. The Vermilion Range ore sat in layers, requiring extraction from deep underground shafts.
Just to the south, an even larger vein lay along a wooded ridge of hills, an exposed stretch of the Laurentian Divide that
the Ojibwe thought of as the sleeping giant, or Mesabi.
It ran nearly 120 miles, from Coleraine to Hoyt Lakes, and the soft ore was so shallow it could be dug from open pits.
It produced up to a third of the world's iron ore before the high-grade ore began to run out in the 1950s, after which lower-grade ore began to be produced in the form of taconite pellets.
The thousands of unskilled jobs drew a wave of immigrants that included Finns, Slovenes, Italians, Swedes, Croatians, Poles,
Germans, Serbs and many other nationalities, who became incorporated into the lumpy melting pot on the Range.
Vestiges are apparent today, in bakeries that sell the Slovenes' walnut potica, at halls where the Slavs' polkas are danced and at government centers all over the Range.
Famous for its populist politics, the Range was profoundly influenced by the Finns, who included longtime U.S. Communist Party secretary Gus Hall, born Arvo Halberg in Cherry, a rural area between Hibbing and Virginia.
Once, nearly 400 ore pits operated on the Mesabi Range. The days when the whole Range hummed with industry and excitement are over, but mining still is its economic backbone.
Today, tourists can watch operating mines from the edge of giant pits, and see abandoned ones from close-up. Museums recall
mining's heyday, and Ironworld in Chisholm pays fond tribute to its culture and history.
In Hibbing, visitors see the skeleton of a town that got in the way of the shovels, as well as a palatial high-school paid for mining companies and a famous bus company that began life as a mining shuttle.
But there is recreation, too — bicycling along the paved Mesabi Trail, which links the attractions and towns between
Grand Rapids and McKinley, and golfing on two of the state's most scenic courses, at Giants Ridge in Biwabik.
In winter, Giants Ridge is able to retain snow for alpine skiing and cross-country ski racing longer than anywhere else in Minnesota.
© Beth Gauper
Downtown Virginia dead-ends on the Mesabi Range.
Today, this stretch is known as the Iron Trail. One of the most interesting stops is at its western edge, virtually in the
back yard of Calumet.
This was the Hill Annex Mine, from which 63 million tons of ore were taken between 1913 and 1978 on land leased from the state, which now runs it as a state park.
Its centerpiece is an emerald-green lake, surrounded by birch and jack pine and frequented by ospreys and loons. Once, it was an open pit, where the grinding of giant shovels filled the air and explosives shook the earth three times a day.
Guides drive a little trolley bus around the rim of the lake and point out an old steam drill, blasting shacks and a 1951
electric shovel. Gleaning usable ore left mountains of waste rock, created by running train cars full of waste onto a high
scaffold and dumping.
It was dirty work, and it was also dangerous, especially for the blasters and the truck drivers who spent their days at the edge of 500-foot precipices.
The gaping red craters and detritus of open-pit mining are everywhere along the Mesabi Range. Just up Minnesota 169, the towers and conveyor belts of National Steel Pellet Co. loom over little Keewatin, giving it the air of a rust-tinted Emerald City.
In Hibbing, the town was too close, so the mine moved it in 1919. Today, all that's left of the old town are a few lampposts
and street signs in a grassy meadow at one edge of the vast Hull Rust Mahoning Mine, the world's largest open-pit ore mine.
Crawling through the red dirt two miles away, giant dump trucks look like Matchbox cars.
Retired employees man the observation center at pit's edge, talking about the Range's heyday, when mine companies made sure every church in town was freshly painted and that schools had nothing but the best.
Hibbing High school, built in 1920 for nearly $4 million, is palatial even today, with its marble, murals and chandeliers.
Tours are given in summer and during the annual Bob Dylan Days, which honor the school's most famous alumnus.
A miner's shuttle made Greyhound Lines famous; a few blocks from the high school, the Greyhound Bus Museum traces the line's evolution from its 1914 start in Hibbing.
In Virginia, the Mineview in the Sky gives visitors a look at the 3-mile-long Rouchleau mines, which started shipping ore in
1893 and soon became one of the many Minnesota mines swept into the financial empires of John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie
and J. Pierpont Morgan.
Today, volunteers staff the observation complex, talking about the pit in the distance, but mostly about the big yellow vehicle that looms over the parking lot, a Tonka truck on steroids called King of the Lode.
It's 300,000 pounds and 44 feet long and was retired in 1998, worn out after 10 years of hard labor and too expensive to overhaul: Each tire costs $29,000, and a chain $60,000.
Another kind of mining was practiced on the Vermilion Range, where the rich ore is in hard vertical layers of hematite. The
Soudan Mine was the first in the state when it began operating in 1884.
It became an underground mine in the 1890s, with a shaft that eventually reached 2,400 feet, or seven football fields, into the earth.
Today, it's the Soudan Underground Mine State Park, and visitors can take a three-minute ride in an elevator cage to the bottom, where they get into electric trains and ride to a stope, part of a crossword-puzzle maze of excavations created when miners drilled and blasted into fingerlike veins.
It's cold and dark, and miners suffered hearing loss from the noise, but this was considered "a Cadillac'' of mines: Only 13
men died in 79 years.
© Beth Gauper
The Greyhound Bus Museum traces the evolution of the bus line from its start in Hibbing.
There's still many tons of ore left, but excavation costs became prohibitive. The mine closed in 1963, only four years before the closing of the Pioneer Mine in Ely marked the end of mining on the Vermilion Range.
It was a hard life. But it was one that made the people of the Range proud.
Trip Tips: Minnesota's Iron Trail
Hill-Annex Mine State
Park: Mine tours lasting 1½ hours are given Wednesdays-Saturdays from the weekend before Memorial Day through Labor Day
at 12:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. and fossil-hunting tours at 10 a.m.
Admission is $10 adults, $6 children 5-12. 218-247-7215.
Underground Mine State Park: Tours are given daily from Memorial Day through September and the first three weekends in
October. Bring a coat and wear sturdy shoes.
Admission is $10 adults, $6 children 5-12. There are also five miles of hiking trails among open-pit mines. 218-753-2245.
Hull-Rust Mahoning Mine View: It's on the north end of Hibbing and open daily from mid-May through September. Admission free. 218-262-4900.
Mineview in the Sky: It's on the south edge of Virginia and is open weekends in May, then daily from Memorial Day weekend through September. Admission is free. 218-741-2717.
Minnesota Museum of Mining: It's just off U.S. 169
in Chisholm and is open daily between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Admission is $5, $3 ages 6-17. 218-254-5543.
Mesabi Trail: There are 74½ miles between Grand Rapids
and McKinley, with another four miles on a spur from Gilbert to Eveleth. There are also three miles paved between Tower and
Soudan and three miles in Ely.
© Beth Gauper
Bicyclists pass through Mountain Iron on the Mesabi Trail.
In Grand Rapids, the trail starts at the Itasca County fairgrounds, on the northern edge of town.
For a trail map, call 877-637-2241. A Wheel Pass, $5 for two days and $15 annually, can be bought from local businesses and visitor centers.
For more, see Rolling through the Iron Range.
Golf: The Legend and The Quarry at Giants Ridge, deep in Superior National Forest, are considered one of the best and most scenic in the state. 800-688-7669.
Snowmobiling: The Taconite and Laurentian trails are part of a 2,000-mile network.
Accommodations: Giants Ridge has villas overlooking Wynne Lake, 800-843-7434, and lodge rooms near the golf course and ski runs, 877-442-6877. Visitors on a budget can stay at Giants Ridge's Sports Dorm.
Camping: McCarthy Beach State Park, 20 miles north of Hibbing, has a popular campground on Side Lake and a sandy beach on Sturgeon Lake with shallow water, suitable for small children.
Scenic State Park, 32 miles north of Grand Rapids near
Bigfork, has camping and a cabin.
Minnesota Discovery Center: Formerly known as Ironworld, this center in Chisholm holds exhibits on Iron Range history and culture.
Information: Iron Trail tourism, 800-777-8497.
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