In the late 1800s, America was in the midst of a gold rush. Prospectors crisscrossed the continent, from the Yukon to Wyoming digging and panning for the precious metal. The wilderness of northern Minnesota, with its dense forests atop Precambrian rock, held promise and men scoured the land looking for gold. Near the turn of the century though, something else was discovered that would change the region forever and shape the land and the lives of those who lived there. In their quest for gold, miners stumbled upon streaks of the blood-red mineral, hematite, unwittingly scraping the surface of the world’s largest underground cache of iron ore on what would be henceforth be called the Mesabi Iron Range.
The early history of mining on the Mesabi Range is intertwined with that of Red Wing Shoe Company. The miners needed tough but comfortable boots that could stand up to the long days and tough conditions a northern Minnesota mine pit presented. Red Wing responded with the now iconic Iron Ranger, a boot made of thick leather with an oil resisting outer sole, speed lacing hooks, and a comfortable cork midsole. The defining characteristic of these boots though, was their double layered toe, capped to protect the miner’s feet from injury as they labored with hand tools and heavy machinery. That boot is still made today, the fittingly named Iron Ranger, and it represents not only Red Wing’s commitment to making boots for working men and women but also its Minnesota origins.
Mesabi, or “Missabe”, means “giant mountain” in the language of the Ojibwe people who were native to this land west of Lake Superior and despite its lack of elevation, it is a fitting moniker. Driving inland from the greatest of the Great Lakes, the road rises skyward and the horizon is a landscape of tree-studded hills as far as the eye can see. This land was once the bottom of a huge ocean, evidence of which is still regularly found in the form of sharks’ teeth among the veins of iron. The soft ground that lies above these rich deposits of ore scraped away easily, allowing for open pit mining as opposed to the difficulty and danger of underground mining found elsewhere. The opening of the Mesabi Range coincided with the rise of American industry and an insatiable hunger for steel in places like Detroit, Chicago and beyond in Europe. The Great Lakes provided an ideal way to transport the ore, in the bellies of great ships. By 1900, the Mesabi Range was booming.
In 1906, one year after the founding of the Red Wing Shoe Company, the Duluth and Missabe Mining Company was incorporated, with numerous pit mines, railways, ore processing plants and ships to its name. Towns like Hibbing, Eveleth and Virginia sprang up, prosperous boomtowns supporting thousands of men, miners and their families. Just north of Hibbing’s downtown is one of the largest open pit mines in the world, called Hull-Rust Mahoning. It is sometimes called the “Grand Canyon of the North” and at three and a half miles long with a 600-foot depth, it’s easy to see why. As more and more iron deposits were found in the ground there, the pit grew. Finally, in 1919, it encroached on the town of Hibbing itself, forcing an unprecedented move of the entire town, buildings, residents and all, a process that took two years.
Everything about the Mesabi Range exists on a huge scale. Standing on the edge of the pit, the equipment far below seems tiny but up close, the trucks and diggers are massive tires 30 feet tall and shovels that could swallow a small house. To get to the ore, dynamite was traditionally used, and still is, to blast holes in the Earth, where the prehistoric-looking diggers then move in to scrape out the rock. In the town of Calumet, adjacent to the Hill-Annex Mine, schoolchildren knew the drill when the blast horn was sounded: move against the inner wall of their classroom and cover their heads until the blasting was over. The trucks transported the ore to the processing plants, where the taconite pellets were made, then sent by trainload to the ore docks on Superior’s North Shore, where 600-foot ships were loaded with up to 26,000 tons for down-bound passage. During boom years of iron production, this was a 24/7 process, year-round, through hot summers and bitterly cold Minnesota winters.
These days, the iron market is soft. It’s a cycle the range has seen before and when demand and prices rise again, men will go to work, trucks will rumble in the pits, the ships will steam into Silver Bay again and the Earth will give up its iron, as it has for over a century.