The Mesabi

Minnesota’s Mesabi Range is historically the largest deposit of iron ore in the world. Arcing across the northeastern part of the state, it has been delivering iron ore to America’s steel mills since the end of the nineteenth century.

The city of Hibbing lies at its center. All I knew of Hibbing while growing up is that my mother reported seeing men go out in shirtsleeves when the weather warmed up to the freezing mark. My grandfather Jackson had had some work there, but I knew nothing else. I had always envisioned it as a forbidding wasteland.

The reality, of course, is that this North Country is still the home of larch and fir, of thousands of lakes, some of them claiming the old mine pits. There is new mining, of course, sending millions of tons of Taconite to the shore of Lake Superior to feed the steel mills in Gary, Indiana, and beyond. There are the ruins of old works as well as brand new buildings to serve a new technology.

We drove into Hibbing past mountains of ore waste, now populated with small pines. We made our way off the bypass and its big boxes and fast food troughs, to find the old downtown. It was no Paducah.

Shuttered buildings, used clothing shops, the occasional bank, and here and there a newly spruced-up public building spoke of neglect, abandonment, perseverance, and the flickers of hope. But we found Sammy’s, an old Italian restaurant where everyone who knew about old Hibbing congregated in friendly banter and piles of hot food – and beer.

Well nourished, we drove to the nearby Minnesota Museum of Mining to wander among some of the old equipment, now dwarfed by today’s massive shovels, and talk to Marty Henry, a former miner, now the museum’s guide. “Oh, so your grandfather worked here? Then you need to go to the Minnesota Discovery Center to find out about him.”

An Early Mining Shovel painted yellow
An Early Mining Shovel

Retracing our route, we found the Center and its well-appointed Archives building a mile away. Thousands of people show up every year to find out about their ancestors who immigrated from Europe in the heyday of the mines, which functioned as a portal to America, to

Americanization, and to a decent life for their children.

We met Sue Godfrey, a research specialist, who was soon delving into the computer to pull up information, but her real find was in the telephone books from 1910 to 1918. There he was: “Jackson, Chas F, mining eng Albany Mine, rms 124 Lincoln.” (Hibbing Directory, 1910) “Jackson Chas F, mining eng G N Iron Ore Prop, rms 509 3d av.” (Hibbing Directory, 1915) “Jackson Chas F chf eng Arthur Iron Mining Co r 211 Garfield.” (Hibbing Directory, 1917). The nitty-gritty of history.

We thanked Sue for her quick and ready assistance and moved off with yet another clue on the trail of this man, taken from my life when I was four, leaving traces in my body, mind, and spirit. A trajectory, perhaps a sketch of a new book had sunk another piling into my field of inquiry.

In Red Clay, Blood River I had drawn on my wife’s ancestry to tell, from the perspective of Earth, a story of how we have dug into Earth’s mass to feed our need for survival, marked boundaries across Earth’s face to assuage our fear, soaked our blood in warfare on Earth’s flesh, and returned again and again to hear Earth’s call for reconciliation. Here’s an excerpt:

They digged. Men and little boys burrowed deeper and deeper into our skin, following the blackness, the coal, the lead. They digged below the leavings of the ice, they digged into the scars of our convulsions. They brought out coal to fire furnaces and metals for machines. They left their sweat, their blood, their mangled bodies in our depths. In our bowels there was no human day or night, no winter or summer. There was the timeless black from which all things spring. Where ice and plants had made the land, the farmers and the animals, they digged. They mixed the soil with the air and with the rain. They mixed us up with time, the circling sun and moon. They laid down years of crops and dung and bodies in the earth. (p. 104)

Now, a parallel story begins to settle into me – to take the life of a mining engineer, of another strand in my history, to see his struggle with the earth, with the cultures of America and Cyprus in the midst of industrialization, war, and emergent globalization.

I hope it doesn’t take seven years (my Rachel?), but it is growing and developing at its own pace. I’ll keep you posted. Meanwhile, I’m trying to learn what I can about mining and metals, migration and memory.

4 thoughts on “The Mesabi”

  1. Thanks again for a very informative blog. I had no idea the Mesabi mining area even existed. Since your grandfather was involved, I expect a another great historical novel to come out of this adventure.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Steve and Walt. Ah, yes, Bob is our window into Hibbing, but I didn’t see much trace of him there. I wonder if his grandfather worked with mine… The passage of iron ore from the Lakes to Pittsburgh reminds us all of what an enormous factor the Great Lakes were in the internal development (exploitation?) of this huge country. Now, mile-long trains pass through Minnesota every day carrying Wyoming coal to Eastern power plants.

  3. In a town in which I lived in northwestern PA, the railroad
    carried that MN iron from Lake Erie to Pittsburgh.

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