Iron Range: Cities and Towns

History of Cities and Towns

Like urban centers with origins in other economic functions, mining urban places tend to grow and develop in a very similar manner.  Cities and towns on the Range are no exception, and in fact have shockingly similar histories, with slight variations between the three subregions of the Range.

Mining Locations

In general, most Range urban places began as mining locations. There were many more locations on the Range than in the corresponding ranges in Michigan because the Mesabi Range is so elongated in nature, whereas the Michigan ranges were less linearly sprawled out and more accessible from a smaller number of centrally located urban places.

One of the first mining settlements on the Mesabi.  Source: MNHS.  Date: 1894
An iron mining location near present day Mountain Iron, circa 1893. Photo from the Minnesota Historical Society.

By definition, mining locations were temporary or semi-permanent urban places with a single function: mining.  While the function between locations is identical, their form varied extensively.  Some locations were extremely informal and established by miners themselves.  These tended to appear earlier in the iron period of the region and often housed workers directly next to the mine on which they were working.  Other locations were established by mining companies and were intended to house mine employees. These often tended to be much larger and offer a wider range of services such as saloons, and in many cases, brothels.  The housing stock in these locations, while still poor, was much more permanent in nature. In some cases, larger and more elaborate homes were available for the management of the mine.  In nearly all cases, these were located on mining company property. Yet another type of mining location – one that originated somewhat later in the Range’s history – was a product of the poor transportation of the time.  Because many of the Range’s established towns were too far from the mines to house many mine workers, miners set up camps in between the towns and closer to the mines.  This type of locations varied from a series of tents, to wood cabins, to more established urban locations with a minimal set of commercial services.  One problem common to this type of location was the issue of squatters.  In many cases, those that settled in these locations were not living on land that they owned or rented.  Often, the land on which they were illegally squatting was owned by the companies that employed them.  As a way to gain control and revenue out of these settlements, the mining companies employed “squatter agents” or “claims agents” to extract a monthly or annual fee and an agreement to vacate the property when given notice. A characteristic common to all types of mining locations is that they were emblematic of the mining frontier nature of the Iron Range, and displayed many of the qualities of a frontier space.  The population of men vastly outnumbered that of women. Behavior that would have been viewed as disgusting moral depravity in more settled parts of the country was widely condoned.  Particularly, drunkenness and prostitution was widespread.  In fact, a large percentage of women that did live on the Range at this time lived next door or very nearby a saloon. Also, development was extremely unorganized and organic.  Mining locations rarely had any sort of urban system other than the de facto establishment of a main street in the larger locations.

Interestingly, the last mining location thought to exist on the Mesabi was the Evergreen Trailer Camp, an example of the authorized and planned type of mining location.  The camp was set up in the 1950s by the Erie Mining Company to house its workers at its new Hoyt Lakes taconite mine.  However, instead of tents and fragile wood cabins with tar roofs, this camp used the modern day temporary housing unit: the trailer.

Incorporated Mining Towns

Mountain Iron, as it advances to an incorporated mining town. Photo from the Minnesota Historical Society.

The next stage in urban development on the range took the form of small, incorporated mining towns.  Early in the development of these towns, they resembled large mining locations, owing to their roots as mining locations or relocation destinations of mining location residents.  For most cities on the Range, it was the latter case.  Small mining towns on the Range tended to also be almost as emblematic of the frontier as mining locations.  They had large male populations, very few children, and a “tolerance of vice-prostitution, gambling, fighting and drinking,” as Dr. Paul Landis put it in his seminal 1930s sociological study of the Range. Notably, in 1895, Hibbing had a 4.74:1 ratio of men to women; the same year, Eveleth had a 6.01:1 ratio. According to Landis, early residents of Hibbing, Virginia, and Eveleth stated that that prostitutes, gamblers, and saloon keepers had a “respectable status in the communities” and that the “prostitutes walked the streets by day without shame or disgrace and that saloonkeepers’ favor was to be courted if one was in politics.”

However, mining towns tended to be more organized in their development than mining locations.  A main street was very established, for instance, with board sidewalks and similar establishments. They also always had some sort of central city government. In addition, unlike mining locations, mining towns tend to grow extremely fast in their early stages. Landis wrote that the “mining town is characteristically a boom town in its youth”.  Indeed, from its incorporation in 1892, Hibbing experienced massive population growth through 1905.

Population growth in Hibbing. WIthin 13 years, Hibbing grew by over 6,500 people. Data Source: Landis.

Small Mining-Oriented Cities

The final stage was the establishment of several small mining-oriented cities.  These developed when the source of ore nearby an existing mining town was established to be long-term and profitable. Hallmarks of the beginning of this stage for an urban place on the Range were more moderate urban growth and a gradual decrease in the frontier qualities of the town.  As can be seen in the graph further on in this section, Hibbing had immense population growth beginning in 1895 to 1920.  However, beginning in 1920, the growth began to slow.  At this point, Hibbing had established itself as a small mining-oriented city.  The same can be said for Virginia, although its population actually dipped in 1930 owing to the closure of Virginia and Rainy Lake Logging Company.  Smaller mining-oriented cities display an identical patteren of maturation.  As can be seen in the graph, Eveleth hit its period of maturation by the middle of the 1910s.

Data source: Landis

The maturation of the small mining city on the Range is even more evident in the progression of male-to-female ratios over time.  As can be seen in the below graph, the ratio began to approach that of the general population as the city became older and the population stabilized.

Although exact data is not available, Landis believes that similar trends could be seen in the ratios of older people to younger people.  Landis writes that as urban places mature, the male-to-female ratio shrinks because a greater number of couples move into the urban place.  He attributes this to the assurance of survival that is inherent to a larger urban area.  As such, the population tends to get younger on average, due to the younger age of the average member of a couple, as well as the tendency of these couples to have children.

Data source: Landis.

Another interesting change in the human geography of an urban place on the Range as it transformed into a mature small city was the progression of public-company and labor-mining company relations. In the mining location/mining town era of an urban place, the place is characterized by a feeling of community between the labor, the public (represented by any town government that may exist), and the mining companies.   This sense of community was rooted in the corresponding efforts between all three groups to survive as individuals and as a community.  The frontier was a dangerous and unstable place, and, as Landis puts it, the different groups in a community “worked together in the face of common dangers and common hazards to maintain themselves.”  Landis points to forest fires, severe winters, and uncertainties for finding a market for the ore being mined by the town as common dangers for all three interested parties. As mentioned later on, when an infant Eveleth was asked to move itself by the mining company, it gladly agreed. During the beginning of the period of the maturation of mining urban places, however, this sense of community broke down to a remarkable extent.  With the coming of the maturation, the survival of the urban place’s mining source seemed assured, and infrastructure was in place to help the individual survive forest fires and harsh winters.  This sense of economic and physical safety allowed the labor and the public to exert greater and greater demands on the mining companies.  Not helping matters much, the mines were taken over by large corporations just before this period and this period was a time noted in American history for its anti-corporate tone.

Hibbing’s famous high school, funded by heavy mining taxes levied early in the 20th century. Photo by Brent Hecht.

While labor-management issues are covered in the section on unions on the Range, the public-mining battles were definitely issues of urban geography.  Beginning in the 1910s, city governments quickly began testing the mining companies, trying to determine how much they could extract from the companies in the form of taxes and decision-making power. Legendary court battles were fought between the two interests, some going all the way to the Supreme Court.  Hibbing, under ten-term mayor Victor Power, raised ore taxes a great degree and engaged on a corruption-imbued spending spree.  Money from these taxes financed the construction of Hibbing’s $3 million public high school, which would have cost about $26 million in today’s dollars.  Power also constructed Hibbing’s famous city hall using the mining money.  The Oliver Mining Company, the subsidiary of U.S. Steel that controlled most of the Range at the time (see section on U.S. Steel) fought Power and other governments in court to try to obtain a limit on government spending. The mining companies won a battle in 1921 when they successfully lobbied the state government for a $100 per capita per year spending limit.  However as late as 1937, mining companies were filling 90 to 96 percent of Hibbing and Eveleth’s coffers, and 80 percent of Virginia’s.  Mining companies were also subject to a significant number of damage suits from citizens of mining towns during this period.  These cases, a few of which were the ones that went to the Supreme Court, generally involved attempting to collect damages for blasting near homes and for devaluation of property values due to the disamenties inherent to mining activites.

Landis also points out that the change in economic status of the region corresponds well with the transformation of booming mining towns to small mature mining cities.  The boom times, Landis writes, the region could be characterized by “ the quest for and discovery of an unknown resource.”  However, in 1915, around the same time that the urban place matured, the economic tone of the region changed to one that involved the  “wasteful exploitation of a resource that seemed inexhaustible” by both mining companies and the public, through taxes on mining production.  Finally beginning in 1920, when the cities had finished their maturation process, a long period of “conservation of a rapidly diminishing resource” that, with the exceptions of World War II and the taconite boom, has continued through today.

Land Ownership Issues

Establishment of small cities on the Range was stifled by the complex land ownership issues that exist in the region.  Namely, thanks to the foundation of United States land ownership law lying in the concept of fee simple absolute, mining companies were able to sell land for residential and commercial development without selling the mineral rights to that land as well.  Fee simple absolute allows the owner of a piece of land to sell any part or use of the land and without other parts or uses of the land.  The concept is premised on the notion that when one initially obtains land, one owns the surface of the land, all the airspace above the land, and all of the earth below the land all the way down to the center of the Earth.  As such, mining companies were able to sell the surface of the land, but retain the earth below the land for their own use.  As is easy to imagine, this situation created quite a problem when a mining company discovered ore beneath an existing urban location in the subsurface terrain that it owned.  In the beginning of the mining era of the region, populations moved without much of a fuss when a mining company wanted to mine under an existing village.  The city of Eveleth, for instance, moved in its entirety one-fourth of a mile from its initial location in 1896 in order to allow mining companies to access a rich deposite of ore lying beneath the town’s original site.  While the village was only established in 1894, it is estimated that 1,200 to 1,500 people moved with the village. As late as 1908, the village of Old Sparta was jacked up and moved into lots in Gilbert in order to allow mining in the old village cite.

Hibbing’s Colonial Hotel being moved to a new location in 1920. Source: Minnesota Historical Society.

However, by 1912, politics, as mentioned above, had changed quite a bit, and when North Hibbing was put in jeopardy by mining operations, a nasty battle between the Oliver Mining Company and the city of Hibbing and its citizens ensued.  The battle, which was marked by the closing of the two mines that employed Hibbing by the company and the use of raising taxes as a negotiating tool, ended with most of the north side of the town moving to allow the mining activities.  An IRRRB-produced guidebook to the region describes the eventual moving of Hibbing as emblematic of the importance of mineral rights over surface rights in the region.

As this same guidebook puts it, “the moving days are not over” in the region. Cities and towns are constantly aware that they may be required to move part or all of themselves by the encroaching mine sites, which still own mineral rights to much of the land under the Range.  “Impermenance is a factor of life on the Range,” says the guidebook.  Mountain Iron is uneasy about the mining operations of the U.S. Steel operation adjacent to its city limits.  Similarly, the rerouting of a state highway around McKinley caused the guidebook to predict that McKinley’s days are numbered.

Why Isn’t Hibbing a Metroplis?

Urban places on the Range never progressed past the stage of small mining-oriented cities.  Some of the great cities of the world have their roots in mining, so mining origins are not mutually exclusive with urban success.  Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, for instance, formed when a series of nearby tin mining towns, merged into a single unit.  Today, Kuala Lumpur is home to the world’s two tallest buildings.  What stunted the growth of the Range cities, then?  There were probably several factors.  First, the region’s proximity to Duluth, and reliance on Duluth for its shipping facilities, made it difficult to surpass Duluth in urban function.  What advantage would a large company have in moving to the Range when it could still have access to nearly all the Range’s ore and its corresponding economic development, have the benefit of Duluth’s larger population, and utilize Duluth’s shipping facilities, by locating in Duluth. The bifurcation of the region into two counties prevented any sort of government planning on a regional scale until the IRRRC in 1941, when the region was in a period of economic decline.  Similarly, most of the Range has the misfortune of being in the same county as Duluth, preventing the Range from competing with Duluth on a level of government higher than the municipality. Fourth, due to the aforementioned issues with land ownership, there is a certain amount of risk associated with buying property in several of the urban locations on the Range. Finally, and most importantly, the Range was not able to capitalize on its iron ore income to reinvest and diversify its economy early enough.  While there was some evidence of diversification in the lumber industry early on, the lumber industry completely disappeared for several decades after 1937.

The Range’s Urban Hierarchy

The structure of the current urban hierarchy on the Range solidified around the time that the small mining cities on the Range formed.  While there have been some changes owing to the region’s economic rollercoaster of the last century, the functional relationship between the many small cities and towns on the range has stayed the same. The best evidence for the stability of the urban system of the Range beginning at this time comes from the fact that the only rail-based public transportation system to ever connect most of the Eastern Mesabi together in a single network began running in 1914.  The Mesabi Railway Company, as the streetcar line was called, offered daily service first from Buhl to Gilbert, and a year later from Hibbing to Buhl.  The line was funded by wealthy entrepreneurs from the Range, Duluth, and the East Coast, and appeared at a time when streetcars were one of the dominant forms of public transportation in cities across the country.  The line was received very favorably by its market.  The primary uses of the line were to provide transportation to and from the mines and to integrate the commercial function of the cities on the line.

It is interesting to note that the streetcar line only operated in the Eastern Mesabi.  While Western Mesabi towns like Grand Rapids were younger at this point in time, many of them still had relatively substantial populations.  Ely and other Vermillion towns were also important urban centers at the time.  Probably the reason that the line only operated in the Eastern Mesabi subregion lies in the role of population density in public transportation planning.  The Eastern Mesabi was the only region with sufficient population density to support the construction and operation of a regularly scheduled streetcar line.  The problem is similar to that of a large metropolitan area that does not extend many public transportation lines out of the suburbs; the suburbs simply cannot provide the ridership per mile needed to economically support the system.  Regardless, since the economic systems of the three subregions were already quite different and independent from one another, the streetcar line had very little impact on the structure of the urban hierarchy on the Range, instead serving to reinforce the structure that already existed.

The Western Mesabi Hiearchy

Map by Brent Hecht.

The urban hierarchy that has developed in the Western Mesabi is based around Grand Rapids.  These days, the dominance of the wood-product town is evident in many different types of statistics.  Grand Rapids has more population than the rest of the cities combined.  Grand Rapids also offers a wide array of services not found in other cities.  The best example of this phenomenon is that the only Wal-Mart in the region is found in Grand Rapids.  Grand Rapids also contains the region’s largest non-education employer, the Blandin paper mill, as well the largest hospital in the subregion.  In addition, a recent report in the Grand Rapids Herald indicated that two-thirds of the people who work in Grand Rapids are from outside the city limits, a standard indicator of a city/hinterland relationship.  Finally, Grand Rapids is the county seat of Itasca county. The figure shows graphically and in more detail the urban hierarchy of this subregion.  Besides the dominance of Grand Rapids described above, the other relationships are primarily determined by location and population considerations.

The Eastern Mesabi Hierarchy

Map by Brent Hecht.

The hierarchy on the Eastern Mesabi is quite a bit more elaborate than that of the Western Mesabi.  However, like the Western Mesabi, the eastern portion of the Mesabi Range is dominated by a single city; Hibbing is to the Eastern Mesabi as Grand Rapids is to the Western.  While small by external standards, Hibbing, with a population of over 18,000, is by far the largest city in the region.  It is more than twice the size of Grand Rapids and Virginia, its closest competitor in the Eastern Mesabi.  Just like Grand Rapids, Hibbing contains the only Wal-Mart in the subregion.  It also has a large high school, the largest hospital in the region, and, most importantly, a great deal of basic income employment, especially in the industries of mining and manufacturing.  Interestingly, Hibbing and Virginia have traded places in the hierarchy since their founding.  For instance, when the Mesabi Railway Company was established, it put its headquarters in Virginia.  While this could have been simply a choice based on Virginia centralized location in the Eastern Mesabi, it probably reflected the power of Virginia during that particular era.

Indeed, through the late 1910s, Virginia was the primary city of the Range. Unlike Hibbing, in addition to mining, Virginia had a large wood products industry in the early part of the century. As mentioned in the section on the timber industry, Virginia was home to the Virginia and Rainy Lake Lumber Company, which employed up to 2,500 men, more than twice the number of employees of the largest current employer in Hibbing (Fairview University Medical Center). While Virginia and Rainy Lake was at one time the largest white pine logging operation in the world, it closed down in 1927 as the white pine forests dried up, possibly allowing Hibbing to take over as the leading city in the subregion.  This exacerbated Virginia’s decline relative to Hibbing, and by 1930, Virginia had begun its tenure as the second city of the Eastern Mesabi.

Population in top 2 Mesabi cities

Unlike the Western Mesabi, the Eastern Mesabi has a substantial and well-defined second and third hierarchy levels. Interestingly, all of the cities in the first three levels of the hierarchy were established within 3 years of each other beginning in 1892 with Hibbing.  Virginia, with a population slightly larger than that of Grand Rapids, is about twice as large as the cities of the tier below it, and is about half the size of Hibbing, firmly placing it in its own tier.  Virginia also offers a range of services not found in the cities lower in the hierarchy.  It has a large hospital, the second-largest mining operation on the Range (US Steel), a second mining company presence (Ispat Inland), a substantial St. Louis County office that employs 486 people, as well as a Target store.

Despite being in the third-tier of the urban hierarchy of the subregion, Chisholm, Mountain Iron, and Eveleth are all well-established and semi-independent urban centers.  Hibbing Taconite and a large Northwest Airlines call center are found in Chisholm.  Chisholm is also the home of Iron World, the tourism development mentioned in the section on the IRRRB.  Eveleth also is dominated by a mining operation, United Taconite, which provides a good deal of basic income to the city.  Eveleth is also home to the IRRRB offices, providing the city with significant decision-making power in the Range region as a whole.  Iron Mountain was the home of the first large mining operation on the Range, but it has declined quite a bit in recent years.  Although still relatively large at nearly 3,000 people, it is extremely dependent on the presence of US Steel, which provides around 90 percent of the employment in the city and is the largest iron mining operation in the whole Region.

The Vermillion Hierarchy

Map by Brent Hecht

With only three urban places in the whole subregion, the Vermillion has a very simple, and well-established urban hierarchy.  Ely is an extremely dominant presence in the subregion.  Winton and Tower both rely heavily on Ely.  Owing to the departure of iron mining from the Vermillion range with the onset of taconite mining on the Mesabi (see the taconite section), iron mining is no longer important to the Vermillion.

Ely’s largest employer is a hospital, indicative of its position as a subregional center.

Ely’s other major industries include a Hallmark direct mail center and tourism generated by Ely’s position as the gateway to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the replacement for the Vermillion Range as Ely’s money-generating hinterland. Similarly, Tower, which languishes as a skeleton of its former importance, relies on its proximity to the Soudan State Park, which used to be a large, money-generating iron mine.