Region in Focus: The Iron Range
Join us here as we travel along Highway 169, between Hibbing and Soudan, Minnesota, a distance of 50 miles that spans the mining interpretive spectrum.
THOUGH MUCH OF IT IS overgrown, concealing the full extent of transformation, the Masabi Iron Range of northeastern Minnesota is one of the most churned up regions in the country. The scale and number of mining sites in the area are nearly matched by the number and variety of visitor facilities.
Hull Rust Mine and Overlook
The consolidated network of pits north of Hibbing, called the Hull Rust Mahoning Pit, is the largest iron mine pit in the nation. Known as the Grand Canyon of the North, the pit is 3.5 miles wide and 500 feet deep, has been worked for over 100 years, and is still active. Peak production was in the 1940s, when 1/4 of the ore for the entire U.S. steel industry came out of this hole.
The Hull Rust Mine overlook provides panoramic views of this engineered landscape, which extends for miles, with lakes, mounds, benches and cliffs, on such a scale that is hard to reconcile it as being made by humans. The overlook has some nicely rotting signage, which seems to echo the crumpled disintegration of the landscape below. A walking trail passes by machinery marked with canted plaques, and a framed hole in the fence has a sign that says “Take Photos Here.” A small visitor building on the edge has a pleasant gift shop.
Another notable element of the mine is that it is the location of an unusual national hydrogeographic triple divide. Known by the Chippewa natives as the Hill of Three Waters, a drop of water falling on that spot could flow either into the Arctic Ocean (via the Big Fork and Red Rivers and Hudson Bay), the Gulf of Mexico (via the Mississippi River) or the north Atlantic (via the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River). The fact that the precise spot now falls within the mining area perhaps changes this dynamic somewhat.
North Hibbing Town Site Frisbee Park
The town of North Hibbing was moved in the 1920s to make room for expansion of the Hull Rust iron pit. Though many mining towns have been moved in the past, this former town site is unique because it has been developed into a frisbee golf course. Each golf hole in the course is a historic site, usually an empty building slab or some other remnant, marked with an interpretive plaque. A new hybrid form of interpretive recreation.
Greyhound Bus Museum
Hibbing is also the birthplace of the bus industry in the United States. It was here that a local shuttle service between Hibbing and Alice slowly grew and became Greyhound Bus Lines. The story is told in a museum of artifacts, dioramas, and architectural recreations. The museum is wonderfully plain and straightforward, right down to the restored buses in the last hall. Typos in the text of the wall panels, with corrections penciled in, add to its charm.
Bob Dylan’s House
Though privately owned and occupied, the existence of the childhood home of Bob “Dylan” Zimmerman emits a strong interpretive presence in Hibbing. He has said little about the place directly, but the assumption is that the town and the mining industry it lived on had a profound effect on his character and his emergence as a contemporary balladeer of the American land.
Up the road at Chisholm, Iron World is an interpretive attraction built in and around an old iron pit and slag piles, in the 1970s, as part of an early attempt to replace the shrinking mining industry with tourism. The wonderfully outdated and undervisited “Disneyland of mining” has different pavilions along a looped paved trail, mini golf, a Civilian Conservation Corps display, a pit overlook, an outdoor stage, and closed food stands. Iron World is a mining theme park, museum, and living history center in harmony with the dying industry of the Mesabi Iron Range.
Minnesota Museum of Mining
Also in Chisholm, the Minnesota Museum of Mining is a cluster of outbuildings, machinery and artifacts spread around the grounds, including trains, drill rigs, haul trucks, and steam and electric shovels that sculpted the landforms around town. The focal point for the museum is the Castle, the gift shop and display center housed inside a small turreted structure that looks like the logo of the Army Corps of Engineers.
Continuing to travel eastward along Highway 169, you reach the intersection of Highway 53, at the midpoint of our journey. Head south, briefly, along Highway 53, to visit two notable sites in Virginia and Eveleth, then east on 169.
Mineview in the Sky Overlook
Operated by a nearby Chamber of Commerce, this mine overlook was originally established for mine foremen to view the operations below, a network of pits known as the Rouchleau group, a mine complex nearly three miles long and 450 feet deep, which was operated by U.S. Steel and its predecessors until 1977. Now the mines visible from here are closed, and the pits are filled with water— giant unused rectangular lakes. A small gift shop and a broken haul truck are located at the overlook.
Largest Hockey Stick
The largest hockey stick in the world may or may not be the 110 foot long version erected in Eveleth. There is a stick nearly twice as large in Duncan, British Columbia, though it is said not to be a “real” hockey stick, as it is not structured like a hockey stick (glue laminated), but otherwise shaped like a hockey stick. Either way, if a hockey stick is an implement used to play hockey, then both of these are out of the playoffs, for now. Eveleth is or was home to the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, which is why the stick was installed on a downtown lot here in the first place. The Canadians also have a Hockey Hall of Fame, whose authenticity is enhanced by being located in a former Bank of Montreal building in Toronto, Ontario. Eveleth’s Hall of Fame may be closed or closing, moving to the Mall of America or someplace with enough visitors to keep the doors open. Incidentally, the stick in Eveleth was the second one built on site. The first one was installed in 1995, and fell apart just a few years later. This one, made by another company, was installed in 2002.
Mountain Iron Mine
Back on Highway 169, just east of Highway 53, is the Mountain Iron Mine, the largest operating iron mine in the nation. It is a pit and plant operated by U.S. Steel’s Minntac operation, to provide taconite, a source of iron ore, to its steel plants. In the mid 1900s, iron ore extracted from underground mines of the area gave way to a less pure but more easily extracted form of iron, drawn from a rock called taconite. Taconite is 20-30% iron, which is processed into pellets at plants next to the extraction pits. It is then shipped by rail and boats on the Great Lakes to the steel mills of America, and beyond. The Wacootah Overlook overlooks the Minntac operation from across the road. The large plant and massive pit are visible in the distance, beyond the gated access road.
The underground Soudan Mine, the last stop on this trip, is seen not by an overlook, but rather through an underlook. The Soudan Mine would be simply superlative as the largest underground iron mine in the state at the time it closed in 1963, and became a state park, attracting tourists to its half-mile depths, but it has become an unusual high tech research environment as well, one of a handful of physics labs established in former underground mines around the country. Taking advantage of the infrastructure (elevators and electricity and such), part of the mine was leased to the University of Minnesota to house physics labs for research that requires isolation from the frenetic activity of the earth’s surface. Two large chambers have been hollowed out at the deepest level of the mine supporting primarily two different experiments. One is the CDMSII (Cryogenic Dark Matter Search), studying “dark matter,” the unknown material that takes up 80% of the universe. The other chamber houses MINOS (Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search), which is the receiving end for catching neutrinos injected into ground by a subatomic gun at Fermi Lab in Illinois, 450 miles away. In both cases the rock above and around the facilities acts as a filter for subatomic particles, allowing the smallest and hardest to detect ones to rise to the level of detection. MINOS, for example, uses a battery of massive octagonal sheets of energized steel to look for neutrino traces—a subatomic “stop” sign. ♦