Iron Range: The Mining Frontier

While it would prove to be less important than its southern neighbor the Mesabi, the Vermillion Range was the first Minnesota iron ore range to “go to market.”  Much of what occurred on the Mesabi can be traced to the Vermillion; the Vermillion more or less opened the door for the Mesabi.

That the Vermillion came onto the iron ore map when it did was more or less a historical accident. While it was known much earlier in the century that northern Minnesota held ore reserves, the information was ignored until the late 1860s and early 1870s.  What happened to wake people up to the iron potential that lay in the Vermillion Range?  The answer is, oddly enough, gold was discovered.  After the news become public in 1865 that a Minnesota state geologist found gold and silver-bearing quartz near Lake Vermillion, prospectors rushed to the area.  Estimates indicate that over 2,000 people came to the region, representing a huge European population surge for the Range. In addition, fifteen companies were formed to attempt to draw gold out of the Vermillion rock.  However, the gold rush was short lived and largely a bust.  According to David A. Walker, a noted historian on the region, “The only individuals who realized a profit were teamsters freighting equipment, store owners handling mining supplies, and operators of boardinghouses and saloons…No sizeable earnings resulted from investments in the 15 companies that organized, established claims, and sough gold-bearing quartz.”

A mining-focused map of the Vermilllion Range. Source: Walker.

Walker insightfully points out that  “one of the ironies of history is the face the hundreds of men flushed with gold fever trampled over the largely unnoticed iron ore riches of both Mesabi and Vermillion ranges.”

Nonetheless, there were some people aware of the immense value of that which they trampled on the way to search for non-existent gold. Indeed, it was the first permanent settler in Duluth and St. Louis County, George Stuntz, who had traveled to Lake Vermillion who first got the ball rolling on extracting Vermillion ore.  By 1884, mining had begun on the Vermillion at the Soudan Mine near present-day Tower. The Soudan Mine, transformed into a state park after the emergence of the dominance of taconite made mining Soudan’s high-grade ore unprofitable, is the oldest and deepest mine in Minnesota.  The name “Soudan” was given to the mine as a joke intended to ironically highlight the chilly climate of northern Minnesota.

George Stuntz. Source: Walker.

The much more important Mesabi Range, with its massively greater ore reserves, had an equally difficult time getting noticed.  Even though it is over 110 miles long, around 1 to 3 miles wide, and as thick as 500 feet at places, it was ignored in favor of the Vermillion for at least a decade.  A series of characters were involved in the initial development of the Range, but it was the famous Merritt family that was the true catalysts.  The Merritts – particularly seven of them – were so important to the Range that they were given the nickname the “Seven Iron Men.”  Thanks to the  Merritts, mining commenced at the Merritt-owned Mountain Iron mine in 1892.

It is important to note that much of the original know-how on the Minnesota ranges came from Michigan, as the Michigan iron ranges were developed well before those of Minnesota.  In fact, most of the first employees at the Soudan Mine were brought in directly from Michigan.  Similarly, the number one impetus for the initiation of the extraction of ore on the Mesabi was the development of the Vermillion Range.  In some ways, the Vermillion was to the Mesabi what the Gogebic, Marquette, and Menominee ranges of Michigan and Northern Wisconsin were to the Vermillion; both technology and personnel moved from the Vermillion to the Mesabi.

A mining-focused map of the Western and Central Mesabi. For a larger version, click on the map, or click here. Source: Walker.

Two key problems arose on both the Vermillion and Mesabi.  The first is the issue of ore transportation.  Anybody who attempted to make a large sum of money on the either of the ranges quickly found out that mining iron ore is actually a double-pronged problem.  The first is getting the ore out of the ground, the second is getting the ore to market.  In the context of the Iron Range region, the transportation problem became getting the ore to a port on Lake Superior, where shipyards could take it to the integrated steel mill buyers in the lower lake states.

A mining-focused map of the Eastern Mesabi. For a larger version, click on the map, or click here. Source: Walker

For the Vermillion Range, getting iron ore out of the ground involved using mostly underground mining techniques.  Open pit mines were never developed extensively on the Vermillion Range, a fact that has resulted in significantly different landscapes on the two ranges.  The Soudan Mine actually began as a seven-part open pit operation, but safety issues forced mining companies to switch to subterranean techniques.

A diagram of underground mining operations at Soudan. Source: Minnesota Historical Society.

Owing to the connections between the Vermillion and the Mesabi, underground mining was tried on the Mesabi during the first years of ore extraction on the range. In fact, the Rust mine in Hibbing, now part of the Hull-Rust-Mahoning mine, was an underground operation until 1905.  However, the Mesabi’s geology is much more condusive to the cheaper open pit mining, and open pit mining quickly became dominant in other parts of the Range.

Using the Duluth, Missabbe, and Iron Range Railroad – a transportation link that would later be at the hub of the conflict between the Merritts and the eastern industrialists – the Mesabi shipped nearly all of its ore out of Duluth.  The Merritts remain legendary for their devotion to their home city, a devotion that Walker claims may have eventually sunk the Merritts (see the U.S. Steel section for more details).

Unlike the Mesabi, the early mines on the Vermillion utilized shipping facilities at the North Shore town of Two Harbors.  Ore was brought to Two Harbors via the laboriously-built Duluth & Iron Range Railroad.

Open-pit mining at the Missabe Mountain Iron mine. Source: Minnesota Historical Society.

The second issue, and the one most relevant to problems on the Range today, is that no matter who initially developed a particular deposit on the Range, the wealthy Eastern industrialists took over.  People residing in Duluth initially developed both ranges, but eventually fell into the hands of the established American elite, in most cases leaving the original developers empty-handed.

Charlemagne Tower, Sr. Source: Walker.

Despite the very first settler in St. Louis being responsible for raising interest in the Vermillion Range, it was Charlemagne Tower for whom the town of Tower is named, that gained control of the operation by financing it.  He also gets much of the credit.  According to Walker, “Without ever setting foot in Minnesota, [Tower] developed the state’s first range…”

The story of the Merritt’s loss of control of the Mesabi to businessmen from the East Coast is a much more dramatic story with much higher stakes.  More information on this story can be found in the section on U.S. Steel.