“The Minnesota Iron Range? Never heard of it.”
It's a common response to questions about The Range. And for good reason. It's not the kind of place that works to draw attention. In fact, short of a few hockey players leaving long enough to win a gold medal, The Range rarely makes the news.
So it might seem kind of strange that a place so little known is the place that inspired out latest Fire Hose® Berber-lined Work Jackets. But dig into the history and you'll understand exactly why. And what is that history? It's summed up in one word: Iron. 3 Billion tons of it and counting.
Stoic. Industrious. Tough as all getout.
The story starts in 1875 when Charlemagne Tower Sr. rolled the dice on the biggest gamble of his life. A short–lived gold rush in the wilds of the Minnesota Territory had yielded an interesting discovery. Just under the surface of the ground lay thick sheets of Hematite – raw iron ore. Trouble was, the site where the hematite was found – a place soon to be named Tower, Minnesota – was 100 miles north of the nearest city, the entire trip through swamp.
Even worse, the only time the "trail" was passable by horse team was when the swamps were frozen over by the ferociously cold Minnesota winter. So which would you rather do: Walk or freeze?
Choices like this tended to make the people who struck out for their fortune on the Iron Range tough. In fact, the Finnish Immigrants who settled there had an old–country word for it: Sisu. Guts. The tenacity to tackle any challenge, overcome any obstacle, endure any hardship to get the job done.
Tower wasn't a Finn, but he did have the sisu. He purchased the land, then bought railroad rights. He sent miners north to start piling up the ore while a second group of workers started building a railroad to the mine – a 2–way bet.
But in July of 1884 Tower's bet paid off with the first load of ore making it to the port in Two Harbors, Minnesota. 3000 tons – The Vermilion range had been tapped.
The boom begins
Word spread fast and the east coast steel mills began to covet the range's bounty. As the Vermilion range began to produce, 2 more sites on Minnesota's arrowhead ramped up: the Mesabi – aptly named for the Ojibwe word "Giant's mountain", and the Cuyuna. The Range was becoming the center of America's iron mining.
No challenge was too great to overcome. Massive ore docks were constructed for loading cargo ships. Hundreds of miles of railroad track were laid. US Steel built up a fleet of 112 ships to move the ore from Duluth and Two Harbors to mills in the east – even daring the treacherous storms for millions of tons of ore.
The drive for ore was unstoppable. Take the town of Hibbing as an example: From 1919–1921 the entire city was picked up, building by building, and moved 2 miles south because it was sitting on top of a rich vein of ore. $16 million dollars to move a city was a small price to pay to get that iron.
The Iron Range Goes to War
The range had already proven that it could rise to any challenge. WWII was an opportunity to prove it yet again. During the 1940's peak The Mesabi range alone produced 1/4 of the country's iron needs – enough steel to build a staggering 178 battleships per year from 1941 to 1945.
If a GI fired it, drove it, sailed on it or even ate off it, it was because the ore had been dug from the ground north of Duluth. And, because of America's Lend–Lease Program, every allied army went into battle with the help of Minnesota Iron too.
Back up on The Range, men and women worked around the clock and through the winters to "keep the ammo coming".
As The Range tooled up for war, the railroad that moved its bounty did as well. The Duluth Missabe and Iron Range Railroad – the offspring of Tower's original line in 1874 – got permission from the War Production Board to purchase 18 of the world's most powerful articulated steam locomotives.
The 2884 Yellowstone "Mallet" models were beasts. Over 128 ft long and weighing in at 556 tons, they kept pace with the mines' ever growing production – from 8 million tons in 1939 to a staggering 45 million tons in 1942. Reliable and strong, the venerable 2884s continued hauling into the 1960s as American steel re–built Europe and fueled the post–war boom.
The rise of King Taconite
WWII was won, but at a cost. For The Range it meant an almost complete exhaustion of the high–grade hematite ore. What was left was the much lower grade taconite – hard quartz rock mixed with minuscule amounts of ore by comparison.
But the spirit of The Range prevailed again. Scientists at the University of Minnesota developed a processing method to extract the taconite and form it into pellets that could easily be forged into steel by the mills out east. And so in 1956 the first taconite pellets were shipped, bringing a whole new era to The Range.
What's next for The Range? Production ebbs and flows with demand, but the bounty is still there. And whenever the need for Minnesota iron appears you can bet the tough souls of The Range are ready. Steam shovels, trains, ore docks, ships, sisu and all.