HIBBING, Minn. — Here, in the heart of Minnesota's historic Iron Range, mining is so much a part of the culture and everyday life that people hardly notice on Wednesdays when the weekly blast at the nearby iron mine rattles the windows.

In fact, some say, it would be more noticeable, and worrisome, if the normal blast time passed quietly.

"I grew up with it," said Mayor Rick Cannata. "You knew when you heard that blast and rumble, it was the mine. You can feel the ground shake. That's progress."

People adjust. At the huge and impressive high school, built in the 1920s with almost $4 million from the mining company, clay to make the ceiling tiles was mixed with horse hair to hold them together better when the blasts shook the building.

Go back to just about any chapter in Hibbing's history and mining shows up. Cannata proudly points out Hibbing also is known as "the city that moved" because back in the 1920s, a mining company found a rich deposit of iron beneath the city, prompting the entire community, with little hesitation, to pick up and relocate just to the south. Entire buildings were carted to the new location.

Now the area where the city used to be is called Old North Hibbing, a ghostly park of foundations and empty lots grown over with weeds, and abandoned streets complete with street signs and street lights that cast an eerie glow. On the northern edge of the abandoned site is the rim of the Cliffs Hibbing Mine, North America's largest open-pit iron ore mine.

Just about everywhere you go in Hibbing you are within sight of the rust red piles of mining wastes, some overgrown with stubby trees and scraggly bushes. Across broad Howard Street, Hibbing's main drag, a banner proclaims "We're Ore and More."

Nobody grows up in Hibbing without being touched by the mines. The city's most famous native son, Bob Dylan (he was Robert Zimmerman then), recalled in a memoir how a favorite childhood pastime was hopping one of the many iron trains that rolled regularly through town and riding it out to a water-filled mine pit to swim.

"Somehow," said Cannata, "everything is connected to the mines."

Jack Fleming, assistant principal at the high school, said the school is full of students whose ties to the mines go back to their parents and grandparents. The yearbook is called "The Hematite." The school, Fleming added, provides courses such as metal and wood working that prepare students to work in the mines.

"We've done more and more with programs that lead to the mines," Fleming said. "Mining has been handed down for generations. These are good people. They are hard workers. And they're proud. That's what this high school is all about. This building was built on the mines."

Duane Northagen, Hibbing's economic development director, said area mines probably provide as many as 3,000 jobs in the region though that number is down from about 15,000 at the height of mining activity. He estimated about 20 businesses in the community provide services to the mines and survive because of them.

Even with the economic boost of mining, Northagen said, one of the drawbacks of relying on the mines for jobs is mining companies go through down times when iron prices drop. Hundreds are laid off and the entire economy suffers, he said.

"Whenever that happens you find the whole community sitting on its hands," Northagen said. "People don't want to go out and eat. They don't buy the car, the trailer and the toys. It has a ripple impact. And it's like a black cloud. Everybody is waiting, waiting. And we don't know if it will be six months or two years."

The city's coffers also are affected during such periods. Northagen said because mining taxes are based on income at the mine, shutdowns mean the city gets less tax dollars to help offset its expenses.

The boom and bust cycles proved too much for Carol Olson, who worked in the mines for 10 years. She followed in the steps of her father, who also worked the mines. But Olson eventually tired of the uncertainty about regular employment.

"I just got tired of getting laid off and then getting called back," Olson said. Though she no longer works in the mines, she does work in a mine-related job. She oversees the small visitor center Hibbing runs above the giant mine pit at the edge of town. And the mines still are very much a part of her everyday life.

"I don't live that far away from the mine," Olson said. "When they blast, my house shakes." 

You might also like

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.

Post a comment