Grand Rapids, MN Aug. 4
If you scratch in the right location, most towns have some claim to fame. Just a few examples; back in June we were in Vining MN, population 78. A young woman born there has become a U.S. astronaut. During our March-April 2017 trip we were in the towns where Kool Aid and Dr. Pepper were invented. On this trip, we have been to Judy Garland’s hometown (Grand Rapids, MN); to the childhood home of Bob Dylan (Hibbing, MN) and the town where the Greyhound Bus Lines originated (Hibbing MN again). And, arguably, one could claim that we have spent time here on the Iron Range, the location that gave birth to the American industrial might. My arguments for that will be in today’s blog.
A chilly, rainy day drove us inside Thursday as we explored the manufacturing and immigrant side of the Iron Range. Our first stop was the UPM Blandin paper mill tour in Grand Rapids. This paper mill has existed for over one hundred years; one of its earliest products was the production of newsprint for the St. Paul MN Dispatch and Pioneer Press. The tour begins with a 30 minute video and personal explanation of the paper making process, along with the history of Blandin Paper Company. I have to admit I have a fondness for Blandin. The owner established a foundation in 1941 and in 1958 when the owner died, the foundation had one million dollars. Upon the sale of the company in 1977, $77,000,000 was added to the foundation. Currently it has over $350,000,000. Mr. Blandin focused the efforts of the foundation on rural Minnesota, with an emphasis on the Grand Rapids area. The Finnish company UPM now owns the company and the foundation is separate. Still, seeing a company where the needs of the community were important to the company owners is heart-warming. Mr. Blandin, besides being a successful entrepreneur, was far-seeing in the terms of his trust. He even required a court to review the foundation operations every three years.
After the video of the company and paper-making process, we donned safety glasses and head phones and headed for the mill across the street. Our tour guide was a former Blandin employee who explained the operations of the machinery we were viewing. The head phones provided protection from the noise of the machinery and a means for the guide to talk to us with radio attachments to the headphones. The paper making process keeps getting faster and more efficient. Today, the company produces twice the output with one-third of the employees that were previously employed here. The major line that we observed is an interconnected series of: an applicator of a wood pulp slurry to paper forming machines, de-waterers, rollers, heaters, quality inspection etc. that would cost one billion dollars to replace today. The paper is then coated, smoothed, and buffed to produce a high gloss paper used in magazines, advertising materials, flyers, etc. Blandin uses a mixture of three kinds of trees (aspen, balsam fir, and spruce) grown on land they own (187,000 acres of forest land) and from independent operators harvesting trees from their own land or under leases with public forests. 200,000 cords of wood per year are used to produce 400,000 tons of finished paper.
From Blandin in Grand Rapids, we drove to Hibbing MN and drove by the house where Bob Dylan lived from kindergarten through high school. Dylan, born Robert Zimmerman, is the musician who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016 “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. There is no museum here, just stores selling T-shirts etc. with his name on them. Next stop: the Hull-Rust-Mahoning Mineview, an area and exhibit of the huge open-pit iron ore mines that mark the Iron Range of Minnesota.
I think at this point I need to give a brief overview of “The Range”. Many states have an area of the sate which is unique and described in a shorthand style, such as the UP of Michigan, the Hill Country of Texas. In Minnesota, this is the Iron Range. In the late 1800s, high-grade iron ore was found in the northeastern quadrant of Minnesota. The iron ore is found in four bands of ore called ranges, the Measbi, the Vermillion, the Cuyuna, and the Gunflint-although the Gunflint is primarily in Ontario.
The ore was found as America was going through its industrialization phase. The large supplies, the high-grade of the ore, the ability to use open-pit mining, and the capacity to ship major quantities through the Great Lakes from ports like Duluth-Superior made the Minnesota Iron Range the primary producer of iron ore in America for decades. The ore here made the steel that built America’s skyscrapers, the rails that spread trains across the United States, and the armaments for WWI and WWII. Without this accessible ore, the development of America into a global powerhouse would arguably not have occurred. When high-grade ores ran out in the 40s, MN researchers developed the process to consolidate lower grade ore into taconite. This taconite mining continues today, although at a much lower quantity given that a high level of steel is now imported. Our stops on Thursday and Friday explored the history of Minnesota iron ore mining and the settlement of the area by immigrants.
In Hibbing, we visited “Mineview”, an exhibit and viewing area above the Hull-Rust-Mahoning (HRM) mine. The HRM is the largest open-pit iron ore mine in the world. The HRM, at its maximum, is 800 feet deep, 8 miles long, and 3.5 miles wide, covering 5,000 acres. The mine is constantly changing as dirt overburden is removed to access the iron ore, the ore is removed, and roads and train tracks constructed. More dirt has been moved here than for the Panama Canal. The mines started out as numerous small claims. Consolidation occurred as eastern monetary interests became involved to provide the large sums of money necessary to operate the mines and to provide their factories with a steady supply of raw materials. Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Hill all became invested in the mines and the infrastructure to ship the ore to Cleveland, Pittsburgh, etc. Over 800 million tons of iron ore have been shipped from the HRM mine. The mine grew so steadily, it paid for the moving of the town of Hibbing. When the town was first constructed, it was close to the mines. As the mines expanded, they began to encroach on the town itself. Beginning in 1918, the town’s buildings were put on wheels and logs and rolled two miles to the south where you now find the businesses and homes located.
The mineview overlook allows one to look into the pit, watching the operation from the edge of the pit. This exhibit site will be moving next year as it is so close to the mining operation, that the ground underneath will be mined in 2018. We watched the construction of an access road from the depths of the mine up towards the mineview site. The mining process here consists of: the removal of overburden, the blasting of harder waste rock and ore into smaller chunks, the scooping of the ore into trucks to carry the ore to a crusher and grinders to create a fine concentrate, the pelletizing of the concentrate through dewatering and addition of bentonite clay, and then the pellets are rolled into 1/2″ balls and hardened by heating. The final pellet balls are then shipped by rail to loading docks on Lake Superior. In 1901 steam shovels dug rock with bucket capacity of 3/4 yard. Nowadays, the buckets can load 65 tons into trucks that haul 240 tons. Our pictures show out dated trucks from 20 years ago, but still huge by any standard.
From the HRM Mineview, we drove a short distance to the Greyhound Bus Lines Origin Museum. The museum is the effort of local people in Hibbing, particularly one Gino Nicolelli. It is not funded by Greyhound. Greyhound began in Hibbing, MN. As the mines spread out, residential areas developed in “locations”, areas where homes and boarding houses could be built. In the early days, the population on the Range was primarily single men. Even as families developed, the pay was not sufficient to allow people to build their own homes and have horses (or cars later) for transportation. A couple of miners got together and purchased a Hupmobile auto and began transporting miners to work and stores. Over time, the men added more vehicles and modified them in their own body ship to provide additional seating. The museum covers the men who began the transportation business and develops the story line of how it branched out, eventually buying out small competitors until it became nationwide.
The museum has several buses demonstrating the various designs used over the years. There was a cute display of a passenger on a bus huddled up with a blanket around him. Early buses did not have heat but they did provide blankets. The museum displays start to peter out around 1970; it does not cover Greyhounds later history of strikes, bankruptcy, re-organization and eventual purchase by a British firm. Another notable omission is any mention of the role of inter-city buses, like Greyhound, during the desegregation efforts in the South. Our previous trip to Anniston Alabama included the site of a burning of a Greyhound bus.
We left Hibbing driving east to Chisholm and the Minnesota Discovery Center. While the Discovery Center began in 1977, it has been upgraded recently and includes a complex of 660 acres. We spent most of our time in the 33,000 s.f. museum which covers the Iron Range through exhibits on “The Land, The Mines, The People and The Work”. Our emphasis was on the people; the European immigrants from all over Europe who came here, creating a diverse spectrum of small, urban communities. Unlike much of Minnesota which was primarily rural and agricultural, the people concentrated in small towns.
One exhibit discusses the strikes of 1907 and 1916 which were broken by the use of company hired “security” forces and local sheriffs. After the 1907 strike, many participants were denied work in the mines. By 1916, the strike breakers hired in 1907 had come to the same conclusion as the workers in 1907 for the need to strike. Pay was low and graft common. Workers were only paid by the production of good ore. While this might seem reasonable, the more you produce, the more you earn; the consequences were that safety measures were ignored (no pay for that), people who argued were assigned to production areas with low-grade or low concentrations of ore (unless they bribed the foreman), and as mines expanded, travel time to further reaches of the mines were not compensated. Both strikes were broken and no union existed on the Range until the 1930s. The eastern financiers who invested money into the mines were handsomely rewarded, workers who toiled in harsh conditions had trouble just getting by.
The Range went through periods of discrimination where the Swedes and Norwegians were “better” than the Finns, Italians, and Slavic people. Over time, intermarriage between ethnic groups occurred, and today there is more a “Ranger” identity versus the rest of Minnesota, rather than ethnic groups identifying against each other. The Range suffers economic cycles as lumbering and mining go through periods of expansion and contraction. As automation increases, the towns suffer the loss of younger people. The desire for good paying jobs creates a tension with people advocating environmental issues over all else. Part of that tension is occurring as new mining proposals put forth copper mining, which has a greater environmental impact than does iron ore mining.
The museum was an excellent source of information about the Iron Range, providing a background to the economic and political conditions on the Range today. As we headed back to the Green Heron B & B, we had dinner at the Cedars in the Sawmill Inn, a comfortable restaurant with style and great food. A better meal than Zorbaz the night before, but Zorbaz was a family, pizza style place. It served its purpose but Cedars was more enjoyable.
Friday our only goal before heading home was the tour of the Hill Annex Mine. This is a closed mine, owned by the State of Minnesota and managed as a state park. Tours are currently offered only on Fridays and Saturdays. However, on our way to the tour, we made a stop in Bovey MN. Bovey’s claim to fame is that a local photographer snapped a well-known picture called “Grace”. “Grace is a photograph by Eric Enstrom. It depicts an elderly man with hands folded, saying a prayer over a table with a simple meal. In 2002, an act of the Minnesota State Legislature established it as the state photograph. Wikipedia” It was created in 1918, so its fame now is more in the realm of senior citizens and certain religious groups who still market it. The book in the photo is actually a dictionary, although it is frequently erroneously credited as a Bible. Certainly the photographer is sending the message of the book as a Bible even though some photographic liberties were used in the shooting of the photo. In any event, we stopped at a small antiques store and looked for something interesting to buy. While nothing struck our fancy, we did discover their display of a speakeasy in the basement, with an escape tunnel through a tall chest of drawers.
From Bovey we drove to Calumet MN to visit the Hill Annex Mine State Park and take the 1.5 hour tour. The Hill Annex mine operated from 1913 to 1978 and was the sixth most productive mine in Minnesota. There are still piles of tailings and ore that could be productive depending on future demand and economics, although near term use is very unlikely. When operating, the mine had to be pumped to keep water out. Once the mine closed, the pumps no longer operated and portions of the pit have become a lake. The park has displays in the old mining clubhouse but our target was the tour.
The tour is led by a former miner at the Hill Annex. We took a bus over the grounds, some reclamation areas with abandoned machinery, some top of the pile view points, and a spot close to the water now in the former pit. The tour started in sunny weather but half way through a light drizzle came out. The drizzle made our journey up one of the hills a challenge as the bus was unable to gain full traction on the wet rocks. It took four tries before we made it up the hill. Our guide explained his work and the machinery.
This mine is named after James J Hill, who through the building of the Great Northern Railway, was truly instrumental in the development of the northwestern United States from Minnesota to Washington State. (In my volunteer work Saturday at the St. Anthony Falls visitor center for the Mississippi National River and Recreation area, two men from Seattle were visiting Minnesota and touring locations connected Hill. They understood the role he played in developing their state.) Hill and his sons purchased land and a small railroad in the range, primarily to obtain timber. Iron ore was known to be in the area, but Hill just lucked out into one of the most productive mines on the range. The full story is complicated, but the mining leases he set up, rather than operating the mine, provided his heirs and investment partners $500 million dollars in revenue through 2015 when the last of the leases ended. Most people in Minnesota know of Hill’s railroad wealth, his mining wealth from the Hill Annex mine was hidden behind a little known trust.
From Calumet we drove home, stopping for lunch at a bar/restaurant in Carlton MN. This mini-vacation was a pleasant learning experience with great overnight accomodations.
Ed and Chris St. Paul Aug. 6