Iron Mines and Men

That's a blast at an open pit mine on Minnesota's great Mesabi Iron Range, a blast to break up the hard taconite ore in the north country earth.

And this is the story of iron mines and of the men, and now women, too, who work the north country mines.

The first successful mineworks in the United States were built in Lynn, Massachusetts where a small blast furnace produced iron in 1684. The ore was hauled to the furnace from a nearby open pit or quarry.

George Washington,s father was an iron monger. During the Revolution cannon balls and cannon were cast from molten iron. A massive iron chain, each link two feet long and weighing 100 Ibs. was stretched across the Hudson River at West Point to halt the British gunboats...and it did.

That was 1778 of the Iron Age with iron-rich ore hard to find. Then one September day in 1844 on Michigan,s wild forested Upper Peninsula a few miles inland from Lake Superior, a United States Deputy Surveyor, William Burt, noticed his magnetic compass needle dancing wildly. Looking around to find the cause, he suddenly shouted, "Boys, I think we,ve found it! And he had found what proved to be the richest vein of iron yet discovered, the Marquette Range.

Within a few short years some hundred mining companies sprang into operation along this range. Most of them failed. The ones that succeeded were run by men with vision to build and manage their mines, smelt the ore, and transport and market it to the iron-hungry industries of Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Gary and Pittsburgh.

At first the rich ore, well over 50% iron, lay near or on the surface. It was quarried from the earth and hauled in wheelbarrows, wagons, sleds drawn by mules and oxen over plank or frozen roads to Lake Superior's shore. There it was loaded onto sailing ships for the first leg of the journey to the cities.

While the fur trader,s canoes could shoot the St. Mary River,s rapids which flowed from the higher level of Superior down into Lake Michigan, the ore-laden ships could not. All loads had to be portaged around the rapids, then reloaded for the southward leg of the trip to the cities. The difficulty and cost of this portage ended when a canal and locks were built to bypass these rapids.

It was a great day on June 19, 1855 when the ship Columbia, carried the first load of 100 tons of iron ore through the new Sault Ste. Marie locks from Lake Superior to Lake Michigan, the start of a new era.

In the Marquette Mining Journal on January 25th, 1890, a reporter wrote, "We peered down the yawning pits 180 feet deep, walked through two thousand feet of tunnels with soot begrimed miners picking away by candle light."

And miners came from Cornwall, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Russia, Italy, Germany, France. And towns sprang up. Marquette with a sheltered harbor on Lake Superior, Ishpeming, Negaunee, Champion. And railroads were built for hauling the ore from the mines directly to the ships in Marquette harbor.

When this ore is heated in a furnace with charcoal or coal providing carbon, the oxygen in the ore is made to combine with the carbon. Carbon dioxide gas is given off. What remains is a solid mass of fused iron.

This iron will melt at very high temperatures so that any other impurities, being lighter than the iron, will float to the top to be skimmed off, and that,s the basic iron making process. In the early days furnaces were built at places like Fayette and Negaunee, Michigan to smelt the ore to iron ready for use in the foundries and rolling mills in the cities lying south and east. At first, with timber plentiful, these iron smelting furnaces used charcoal as the source of carbon. For about thirty years the lumber industry boomed, providing the needed charcoal as well as the lumber to build mine shafts, plank roads, railroads, docks, ships, and the new towns.

A saying of the lumbermen went, "Cut out and get out, and this they did. With lumber becoming scarce, the furnaces and forges turned to coal hauled in from more distant coal mines by rail and ship. And with mining, too it was "Boom or Bust".

By the 1950s the richest ore, that over 50% iron, had been taken out by both pit and deep shaft mining. One after another the mines shut down in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin. Still around and beneath the mined pits and tunnels lay a vast body of taconite rock, untouched. Thls taconite, sometimes called lean ore or magnatite, is a lower grade iron ore, only 2S to 30% iron.

For many years researchers, including Thomas Edison, had searched for economical ways to use this lower grade taconite in iron making. Came the revolution of the 1950s when the Mine Experiment Station at the University of Minnesota did come up with a new method to process the plentiful taconite ore.

The process required huge new machines, plentiful water supply, waste dumping grounds and transportation facilities.

Let's go to the brand new town of Silver Bay, Minn. to see these things.

In the 1950s Reserve Mining built an enormous plant here on the shores of Lake Superior. Taconite ore from their new mining operation at the new town of Babbitt on the Great Mesabi Range was brought in by railroad. Then the ore was concentrated into pellets of 67% iron. To make these pellets taconite rock is ground in giant machines to the consistency of flour.

Then magnetic separators and flotation tanks separate the iron rich particles from the waste rock. After filters have removed the water and waste rock, this powdered ore is conveyed into huge balling drums. There it is made into pellets. The pellets move into furnaces to harden at 2,450 degrees. They are then ready for the stockpile and shipment.

It wasn,t until 1960 that Armco Steel at their Middletown, Ohio smelting furnace ran the first large scale test using these pellets. The test showed a 60% increase in steel production with a 27% reduced fuel use. SUCCESS!

But not without problems.

Reserve Mining was pumping all its waste tailings directly into Lake Superior thinking they would sink to the bottom and cause no harm. Alas, fine particles of the waste showed up in the waters as far away as Duluth and Superior, and it was thought they might cause harm, even cancer. But to close down this huge plant would have been disatrous to the industry and the many workers of that entire region.

The government gave the company until March 1980 to cease pumping tailings into Lake Superior. A month ahead of the deadline, Reserve Mining opened its new $370,000,000 waste disposal system.

This system pumps the tailings in a slurry inland to a reservoir built to hold them, and no waste at all now enters Lake Superior. By 1963 there were nine pelletizing plants in the United States and five in Canada. Now there are many more the world over allowing the reduction of the essential iron from taconite rock available aplenty on all seven continents.

In the early days of iron mlning the boss asked, "How many men to mine a ton of ore?", and the superintendent plucked off a miner's cap to make sure he was sweating. By 1919 it was how many tons per man. A good day was eight tons per man. Today it's "How many tons per man-machine?" with seven-yard electric shovels lifting thirty tons at a bite.

In the early days of steam powered mines, between ash heap and huge coal pile chimneys belched sooty smoke out over the landscape.

"When I was one, the home my family lived in was moved from the mining location of Monroe to Chisholm. My mother still lives in that house in Chisholm. l'm the first female in my family to work in the mines."

Work in iron mining today pays well. In this young just twenty-year-old taconite industry every effort is being made to mine safely and to protect the environment by clarifying and re-circulating water used in the industry and by impounding the waste tailings from the taconite plants.

And today the great Mesabi Range of Minnesota with the Marquette Range in Michigan produces more than half of America,s iron. How we live depends on how we use this important earth,s resource . The revolution in the iron industry has carried, too, to the four corners of the earth where pelletizing of taconite ore now feeds the needs of this IRON AGE.

"Gold is for the mistress, silver for the maid. Copper for the craftsman, cunning at his trade. OEGood,, cried the Baron, sitting tor in his hall, OEBut iron, cold iron is master of them all,, " Rudyard Kipling, 1911


The following sources were useful in the preparation of this program:

Bogre, M. H. E Palmer, V. A. Around the Shores Of Lake Superior: A Guide to Historic Sites. Univ. of Wis. Sea Grant Program, 1979.

Boyum, Burton H. The Saga of Iron Mining in Michigan U.P. John M. Longyear Research Library, 1977.

Castle, Beatrice Hanscom. The Grand Island Story. John M. Longyear Research Library, Marquette, Michigan, 1974.

Davis, Dr. E. W. Pioneering with Taconite. Univ. of Minn. Experiment Station, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, 1964.

Fisher, Douglas A. Steel Making in America US Steel Corp.

Hatcher, Harlan and Walter, Erich A. A Pictorial History of the Great Lakes. Crown Publ., N.Y,. 1963.

Havighurst, Walter. A. The Great Lakes Reader, Collier Books,, NY, 1966.

Kuchenberg, Tom. Reflections in a Tarnished Mirror, the Use and Abuse of the Great Lakes. Golden Glow Press, Sturgeon Bay, WI, 1978. A good recent investigation summary of pollution in the Lakes.

LaFayette, Kenneth D. Flaming Brands, Iron Making in the U.P. of Michigan, 1848-98. Northern Michigan Univ. Press, 1977.

Lass, William E. Minnesota, A History. W. W. Norton, N.Y, 1977.

Martin, John Bartlow. Call It North Country, A.A. Knopf, NY, 1944.

McKee, Russell. Great Lakes Country. Thomas Y. Crowell Co, NY, 1966.

"Michigan Natural Resources Magazineo/oo special issue Jan/Feb 1980 devoted to the Upper Peninsula.

Minnesota Seaport. One of an excellent series "Rootso/oo from the Minnesota Historical Society, 1977.

"North Country Folko/oo magazine, Vol. 1, No. 3, June, 1981.

O,Dell, Richard F, Marguette on a Vanishing Frontier. The Book Concern Inc. Hancoc k, Michigan, 1978.

Pensey, Charles W, North to Lake Superior, his journal in 1840, John M. Longyear Research Library, Marquette, Mich., 1970.

Rankin, Ernest H, A Brief History of the Marquette Iron Range, a Publication of the Marquette County Historical Society, 1966.

Travis, John. Laughing Whitefish. McGraw Hill, 1965. An exciting novel based on an actual trial.

Van Dusen, Capt. Larry. Duluth-Superior, World,s Largest Inland Port. Avery Color Studios, Aurrain, Mich., 1977. Full of interesting statistics.