Four years ago, not long after I moved back to Duluth and began a job that takes me to Minnesota’s Iron Range with some regularity, I drove down Chestnut Street in downtown Virginia. I nearly ran a red light as I gawked at boarded-up shops and strung-out addicts and imposing old architecture framed against a steely winter sky. The Donald Trump phrase “American carnage” was the first thing to lodge in my mind. I was a witness to the fracturing of small-town America, and I realized just how daunting my new job might be.
I work with Rangers on a daily basis and am the day-to-day economic development staff for a four-community economic alliance, but the coronavirus pandemic has deprived me of any effort to embed myself in the places I serve. Between March and September, I went to the Range exactly once, and that just a brief stop at a favorite coffee shop on a camping expedition further north. And so, eager to view it with new eyes, I guide my Twin Cities friends D and M on a day trip across the Iron Range on a Saturday in early October. M has never been, while D has only been for hockey purposes, so they head in with only loose preconceived notions. Just what do we make of a region that once was the engine of American industry, but has suffered steady population loss since the American steel industry convulsed through its greatest crisis in the 1980s?
We start toward the western end of the Range in Hibbing, the region’s largest city at 16,000 people, and long the capital of the American iron ore mining economy. The drive north from Duluth shows a Range in deep autumn, the trees near peak color and a fresh coolness in the air. For reasons lost on us, the road to the overlook over the Hull-Rust-Mahoning mine pit is blocked off, so we’re denied a vista of the hole in the ground that won two World Wars. We settle for a spin around old North Hibbing, a few vacant streets left from the days before the entire town picked itself up and moved south to make way for the mine. That power of industry to move cities is no relic of the past: just ask nearby Virginia, where the new Tom Rukavina Bridge towers over the Rouchleau Pit after a federal highway was rerouted off of mining land.
Hibbing impresses my travel companions more than anywhere else on this road trip, and the Iron Range’s century-old wealth is evident here. The homes in the center of town have a welcoming, well-tended feel, and the high school and Hibbing Memorial Arena are stunning monuments to past glory. Howard Street, the main drag through the old downtown, has enough refreshed storefronts to make it feel like a cozy slice of Americana. D has brought a Polaroid camera and snaps shots down the street, catching the old Androy Hotel with its columns and arches. M appreciates the crossed pick axe and fork on the logo of the newer Boomtown Brewery, a restaurant whose presence reminds me of a day maybe a decade ago when my mom and I spent a day spinning about the Range and failed to find an adequate lunch spot in Hibbing.
The progress feels uneven, though: whether due to the coronavirus or the proclivities of Rangers who would rather spend a sunny Saturday outside, the Range’s downtowns are quieter than I’ve ever seen them. We feel like we’ve stepped back in time to a preserved Main Street from yesteryear, a sense that D’s washed-out Polaroids under moody skies only enhance. When we make it over to Virginia, there are no addicts on Chestnut Street today; just more quiet, dusty grandeur. They feel like movie sets, a blast from the past; the carnage is gone, but the grit remains.
The Range towns are not uniform. M finds charm in Chisholm’s Main Street as it slopes down toward the rows of flags along a causeway across Longyear Lake. Eveleth’s downtown likewise still has that quaint feel, its hockey monuments adding a distinctive local flavor that D and I both eat up. Gilbert has the largest proportion of boarded-up storefronts, and on the far east end, Hoyt Lakes faces the challenges of any community whose major industry has packed up and left—LTV Steel closed in 2001—and whose housing stock is uniformly dated to a single era. A friend from neighboring Aurora tells a tale of how his high school graduating class declined by a third after LTV disappeared, and the numbers at Mesabi East have only inched down since.
The big news in the central Range these days is the impending merge of the Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert school districts. These two age-old rivals, just a few miles apart, are shutting down their big, old school buildings and building a new one off the highway between the two. The Rock Ridge Wolverines, leaving aside the misfortune of the identity-devoid lowest-common-denominator name and logo that seems to come with any new school these days, are in many ways a no-brainer. The two districts are next door to each other, have been bleeding students for years, and received a generous funding package to unite and provide their students more resources. Eveleth, Virginia, and Gilbert combined have less land area and population than Hibbing. The new school will pioneer an innovative academy model designed to prepare all students for the reality of the contemporary economy instead of cramming everyone on to a college prep track that may or may not make sense.
Still, it’s hard for anyone with a sense of history not to lament the merger, and D decries the changes afoot at the Miners Memorial Arena in Virginia, which will transform one of the state’s most unique, historic hockey venues into a more modern facility. Perhaps not coincidentally, two towns that have already lost their schools (Gilbert and Hoyt Lakes) are the ones M identifies as the biggest downers on the trip, though Biwabik, which like Hoyt Lakes has folded into the Mesabi East School District based in Aurora, still charms with its Bavarian Main Street theme. As economic development has lurched toward embracing the revitalization of old things and a skepticism of big box new development on the outskirts of town, the realities of enrollment numbers and repair costs for schools militate in the opposite direction.
I am often asked what it will take to revive or diversify the Range’s economy. If the answer were easy, we would have figured it out thirty years ago. The new economic development consensus emphasizes existing local assets, place-based development, and growing local business instead of chasing big new investments from outside firms. Broadband connectivity has become a bipartisan rallying cry, and the tales of kids parked in school and library parking lots after hours so they can do their homework exposes the depth of our digital divides. In principle support all of these things, though the Range has its own unique challenges on many of them, given its distance from major markets and rocky and swampy soil. We plug away and make incremental progress, even as national politics seems to have decided that incrementalism is for the weak.
On this trip, there are signs of that place-based formula going to work. The downtowns look better than they did four years ago. Recreational assets such as Giants Ridge and some new biking networks are certainly bringing in some outside cash and making the place somewhat more attractive to outsiders than it has been. Since the pandemic began, there is strong anecdotal evidence of urban-dwellers poking around the Range for affordable properties where they can live remote lives in wide open spaces, especially on the lake properties that dot the region. (Rarely, however, are those properties inside the limits of the Range’s towns.) The Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation, the state agency that collects a mining production tax and reinvests it in the communities, is now beating the drum of broadband funding and trail networks and downtown revitalization to go along with its longstanding business recruitment war chest.
Mining is still king, though, and taconite mining is not coal mining: while it will have its ups and downs, it’s not going anywhere. The big news this week is the purchase of ArcelorMittal USA by Cleveland-Cliffs, leaving Cliffs as the largest mining company on the Range and one of just two now operating (along with venerable old U.S. Steel). It’s a stunning turn of events; a few years back, ArcelorMittal USA (a subsidiary of the world’s largest steel producer) looked prime to rule Range mining, while Cliffs teetered on the verge of collapse. A series of aggressive moves by Cliffs have resurrected this now vertically integrated American company, and they’ve been on the cutting edge of new pellet technology. At the same time, domination by a single firm is never a reassuring thing, and the Range’s mining future is now in the hands of Cliffs’ bombastic Brazilian executive, Lourenco Goncalves. We’ve come a long way since the days of Congdons and Carnegies.
Any taconite mining intrigue, however, has taken a back seat to other proposed projects on the Range. The proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes received all of the permits it needed to mine before the inevitable rush of litigation, while Twin Metals near Ely is a bit further behind in the permitting process. Copper-nickel mining draws more concern over its potential environmental effects than the old taconite mines, and the resulting split has torn apart pro-mining Democrats (mostly the old guard on the Range) and environmentalist Democrats (mostly in the Twin Cities or Duluth) and almost singlehandedly taken down one of the longest-lasting political fiefdoms of a single party. Political implications aside, the copper-nickel debate is a fight for the Range’s soul, and a trip through Hoyt Lakes, the “mining town without a mine” on the far east end of the Range, makes it clear why so many Rangers want to revive the old engine.
After Hoyt Lakes, we head east on the Superior National Forest Scenic Drive, which takes us 60 civilization-free miles clear over to Silver Bay along the shores of Lake Superior. The leaves are brilliant, and from the overlook at Skibo, a golden carpet stretches back toward mining plants on the horizon. In Silver Bay, the parking lot for the Bear and Bean Lakes trail overflows so much that we see people parked half a mile from the trailhead along the road into town. We catch the glow of sunset by the Silver Bay marina and work our way down the shore at dusk, the leaf-peeping traffic stacking up miles outside of Two Harbors. After some dark days in spring, northern Minnesota’s tourism economy has roared back with a vengeance.
The past four years have been hard ones for localists. The escalating rhetoric of national politics has leeched down into every level, with Donald Trump and the leftist resistance as twin poles of totalized worldviews. It’s not wrong: there really are consequences to that national-level debate. But as we drive about, my fellow travelers and I—a heterodox group in our politics—are surprised at the relative lack of Trump signs in a region that became a national poster child for the white working-class flip to the red column in 2016. We’ll learn in a month or so if the romance has faded or if the transformation is now so complete that it doesn’t merit loud signs anymore. But it’s hard not to suspect that something else is afoot here.
As politicians bluster about tariffs and permitting battles carry on in distant courts, the Range sits at cold remove from so many of the trends roiling America in 2020. Its successes over the past four years, such as they are, have come from bipartisan or nonpartisan local efforts to clean up streetscapes and plow in fiber. The coronavirus pandemic has only heightened feelings of powerlessness over forces beyond immediate control, and the inability of too many Americans to make peace that lack of control has been revealing. But even amid crises near and far, humans still have agency over parts of their fates, and those who do seize the opportunities before them are the ones who write history. And because some people have, I have hope for the future of Minnesota’s Iron Range.