Grandpa Taconite keeps the Range family together, for now

Aaron J. Brown
Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range writer, radio commentator and college instructor.
Submitted photo

Last Thursday marked the 56th anniversary of commercial production of taconite pellets in northern Minnesota's Iron Range region. The first pellets rolled off the line at the Reserve Mining plant at Silver Bay, generated from ore mined inland near Babbitt on the northeastern Mesabi Iron Range. Today this plant still operates as Cliffs Natural Resources' Northshore Mining.

Taconite is the low-grade ore found beneath the famous rich red hematite ore of the Mesabi. Natural iron ore was first mined from the Vermilion Range near Tower and Soudan in the 1890s, then from the Mesabi and later from the Cuyuna Range near Crosby and Ironton. These three Minnesota ranges supplied most of the steel needed to industrialize the nation, win World war I, then win World War II and sustain the enormous growth of the nation after the war. (A shout-out here to our friends in northern Michigan, who mined and produced most of the rest, and the workers in Columbus, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Erie who milled the steel.)

The Cuyuna ran out of commercially viable ore in the late '50s, the Vermilion shortly thereafter. As natural ore was depleted from the richest formation on the Mesabi, high steel demand allowed industry leaders to make use of an expensive technology that removed iron from the harder, less iron-dense taconite ore. Taconite production on the Mesabi Range thus bolstered the domestic steel and manufacturing industry through the baby boom years and Vietnam, collapsing finally amid globalization in the early 1980s. Corporate reorganization and new technology allowed the industry to rebuild into what it is today.

So if Iron Range-based commercial taconite were a person instead of a large-scale economic concept, this person would be 56 — near the age of the largest cohort of actual local miners who now approach retirement. I find this a particularly apt comparison because the vibe in northern Minnesota mining, and the Range economy and culture as a whole, suggests the end of one era and the beginning of a new one.

Efficiencies in mining technology and management have created the most agile, profitable iron mining industry in the region's history. Still subject to booms and busts, the industry has become leaner and more resilient in the face of price fluctuations. International demand for steel has put Range taconite pellets on ships bound all the way to China. Even amid a global recession that seems endless, Range mines now run full steam.

This success has led to more consistent employment on the Range for a much smaller number of people. Where the early miners of 1907 and 1916 labor strife were unskilled immigrant laborers making little money, today's miners are college-educated professionals who represent the region's upper middle class. (A relative term, as they would be solidly lower middle class in the metro economy and real estate market.)

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The week of the Reserve anniversary also brought the news that permits have been approved for the expansion of Keewatin Taconite on the western Mesabi Range. Construction on India-based Essar Steel's new taconite plant in Nashwauk suggests that a thousand temporary and several hundred permanent private-sector jobs could be created in 2012 in the heart of what many consider to be the state's most economically inconsistent region. This is unmitigated good news.

More controversially, new companies propose mining other minerals on the Range, including copper and nickel. These industries are more volatile than iron mining, using different and more complex technologies. While the potential for hundreds of new jobs exists, nonferrous mining continues to wait on the permitting and capitalization needed to begin.

Regardless of the great potential for new jobs, many woes still beset the Iron Range. As a percentage of employment, mining rests down in the single digits. Public sector cuts and a weak local property tax base mean that communities and schools on the Range still struggle compared to their suburban counterparts. An entire local culture has spent a generation believing there was no future; it seems to have no idea what to do now that one exists.

Further, as the dismal 2009 production numbers show, modern taconite mines are poised to blink off the moment steel demand drops, portending temporary shutdowns and layoffs at some point in the Range's future. The rest of the Range economy simply isn't prepared for this.

Taconite might be old enough to be a grandpa, but Grandpa Taconite will be with us for a long time. Like any good grandparent, I expect, he'd like to see some of the kids leave the basement and go make their way in this turbulent new world. Iron Range economic diversification - beyond mining, beyond natural resources - must happen now, while Gramps is still here to help.

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Aaron J. Brown is a community college instructor and writer from the Mesabi Iron Range. He is the author of the blog MinnesotaBrown and the book "Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range."On Saturday, Oct. 15, he'll produce and host the first episode of a musical variety program, "The Great Northern Radio Show," for 91.7KAXE, Northern Community Radio. He is a source in MPR's Public Insight Network.