Iron Range, Minnesota – Home on the Range – by Molly Enich. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports
[First picture: Chisholm High School, built 1912]
“Cabin country” is what people from the Twin Cities refer to the area north of Duluth as. However, this isn’t cabin country to me. It’s where I was born and raised. The Iron Range is a streak of iron ore-rich land that stretches 110 miles from Grand Rapids to Ely. More than twenty small towns with an average population of 3,000 people each are strung along the line of ore that is mined for steel. The red dirt and scarred land from more than 100 years of open-pit ore mining are telltale signs you are on the Iron Range.
Iron ore, which is the raw material for steel, was discovered on the Iron Range in the late 1800’s. The area was first mined underground, but then transitioned to open-pit mining in the early 1900’s. Years of open pit mining have created towering piles of rejected iron ore and huge “pits” that are now filled with water.
The Iron Range’s mining industry has always been globally connected. The area was the main producer of ore that was shipped to steel mills throughout both world wars. Between 1941 and 1945, the Iron Range produced 338 million tons of ore, which accounted for 90% of the nation’s output. The area grew to its fullest capacity during the war, but when it ended, the region started its slow decline. The high grade iron ore supply was finally depleting after nearly 100 years of steady mining, so the mines switched to mining a lower grade ore called taconite. With only 6 remaining mines on the Range today, the area still produces 50% of the nation’s ore. However, the mining industry is vulnerable to national and global economic cycles.
[Second Picture: Downtown Chisholm where nearly 1/3rd of the buildings are empty]
National and global demands for iron ore cause cycles of boom and bust on the Iron Range. Because the mining industry dominates the local economy, every business is affected by the mines highs and lows. If production in the mines is increased, the whole economy receives a boost and businesses flourish. However, if the mines lay off their workers, local grocery stores, shops, and businesses feel the effects as well. Because the mines have been in a steady decline for over 15 years, downtown businesses have closed leaving the main streets of towns nearly empty.
With few opportunities for jobs that aren’t involved with the mining industry, many people move to larger cities in search of more opportunities. Since 1982, the population has declined by nearly 20,000 people. Empty houses, streets, and storefronts make some towns feel abandoned. There are also more young people moving away from the Iron Range, which has caused class sizes at local schools to decline by 60%.
I graduated from Chisholm High School in 2014 with a class of 38 people. I knew everyone’s middle name, their dog’s name, and what their hobbies were. Although we were a very small school, it was fun to know everyone as well as I did. The teachers I had throughout high school were some of the same ones that taught my parents. Even while I was in class, there was no forgetting what the local industry was. Every Wednesday at 11:30, our 100-year-old school would rumble and shake from the aftershocks of the nearby mine’s blasting the ground to expose more iron ore.
[Third Picture: Pillsbury mine pit near Chisholm]
Even though the Iron Range is in a state of steady economic and population decline, it was a great place to grow up. It has a small town feel where everyone knows your last name or who your grandparents are. It’s a land full of hundreds of lakes and acres of untouched forests that comes to life in the summer with tourists and cabin-goers. The Iron Range is home to many diverse people, but they all share a connection to the region’s mining culture.
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