Opening the Mesabi to iron ore mining

Early days of searching. Ira Smith (brother of Fred Smith) stands on the cross bar with two unidentified men. These men are test drilling for iron ore.

Reading memoirs or well-written histories about a time long before one’s own is often startling. The reader wonders, “How did those people get through it?” or “Could I have done what they did?” Whether reading about rulers or everyday people, we discover the foibles, the strengths, the challenges they lived with. Maybe it helps us to have a new perspective on our own lives.

Thanks to my good friend Jan Carey (retired librarian at Hibbing Community College), I have just read a very evocative history of pioneers in iron mining in America. Jan found this book at an estate sale and bought it as a donation for the Hibbing Historical Society. She thought I’d like to read it and I certainly did!

“Vein of Iron – The Pickands Mather Story” was written by Walter Havighurst and published by The World Publishing Company in 1958. Havighurst (1901-1994) was born to college professors in Appleton, Wisconsin and had a long, distinguished life as a college professor of English at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He wrote many literary and social histories, primarily about the Midwest and northern states.

In “Vein of Iron”, the development of Pickands Mather & Company, the iron-mining and shipping firm, is told with a very engaging storytelling voice. Men and women who, after the Civil War, were drawn to the Cleveland, Ohio area and then to the Lake Superior district, emerge in his book.

The massive changes happening in the second half of the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th Century come to life in these pages. It reminds readers that the iron mines of northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan truly built the modern America.

The following are excerpts from “Vein of Iron” by Walter Havighurst.

~ Mary Palcich Keyes

It was a good time to be young in the north country. Big new mines were opening above the ancient cliffs of the Menominee River (the western end of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, near the Wisconsin border), a land fever was raging in the Gogebic hills (located across the Wisconsin and Upper Peninsula border), and over the bright waters of lake Superior came rumors of rich beds of iron and a rush of men to the wilderness near the Canadian border.

William P. Chinn, an eighteen-year-old iron miner from Michigan arrived in the wilderness thirty miles south of Vermillion Lake near the present town of Hoyt Lakes. This spot was called Mesaba Station. The original Duluth and Iron Range Railroad did not touch Duluth but came down to Lake Superior from Mesaba Station at Two Harbors. The first locomotive, the sturdy, high-stacked “Three Spot,” had been brought by scow and hauled by horses onto the track. With cordwood crammed in its firebox and Lake Superior water sloshing in its boiler, the Thee Spot got up steam, tooted its whistle, and hauled the first string of cars into the Minnesota wilderness. It was May 1884 and William Chinn was one of its early passengers.

At track’s end, when Billy climbed off the train, he looked at a shack with MESABA lettered over the door. Around it, tents and shanties huddled in the half-cut woods, with teams dragging pine logs toward the whine of a sawmill. Not knowing that he stood on the edge of the greatest iron deposit in the world, he heaved his pack onto his shoulders and started north to Vermilion. He had the brushed-out railroad path to follow.

Billy Chinn, who eventually as general manager of Pickands Mather & Co’s iron mines would leave his name on the Minnesota ranges, came from a line of Cornish miners. From Mesaba Station he tramped north through black spruce and tamarack. He slept at night in a railroad camp, among Irish, Finnish, and Italian laborers. A broad-shouldered, self-contained youth, he shook his head when the foreman wanted to put him to work laying crossties. He was a miner, and at daylight he was on his way. At the town of Tower he found three partly built houses among a scatter of tents, shacks, and makeshift machine shops. He walked on to the Soudan location and went to work for the Minnesota Iron Company.

The next month the first load of ore left a Minnesota mine.

His job was blacksmith’s helper, at a dollar a day. On Saturday nights he went to the boiler house to help the firemen scrape flues. He came out black as a chimney sweep, but with fifty cents extra in his hard square hand. From the blacksmith’s forge he went underground, working in candlelight with pick and shovel, learning to drill the blasting holes and charge the powder, timbering up a new working place in the ore body. When he came up in 1898 he knew every job in the drifts, stopes, and slices.

Then he went to the great new iron range, the Mesabi.

There are said to be sixteen different ways of spelling the name Mesabi, but they all mean something fabulous. To the Chippewas (Ojibwa or Anishinaabe), the word meant “Giant” or “Grandmother of All.” Before men knew of iron in the earth it applied to the long granite ridge, the ancient height of land between Lake Superior and Lake Winnipeg. In the 1890’s it became the name for the greatest reservoir of iron ore known, a bed of iron formation a hundred miles long and up to two miles wide with many pockets of deep, rich hematite ore.

Thousands of miners like young Billy Chinn had passed over the Mesabi on the rough way to the Vermillion district. Under their trails, like a huge layer cake, lay the banded ore formation. Beneath ten to a hundred feet or more of glacial drift began the ore and paint rock, then a layer of rich blue ore, then yellow ore, then, after an intermediate band of paint rock, the yellow ore again, and beneath that the high-grade blue ore—all part of a vast bed of iron formation on the Mesabi, later called cherry taconite.

When the diamond drills bored in and the drill cores were brought up, there was a luring profile of the giant range. But the first men groped and fumbled like a miner with a burned-out lamp.

Among the stubborn men of history are the seven Merritt brother of Duluth. They believed there was ore, a vast body of ore, in the Mesabi, and they would not give up searching. Over the ice-locked winter land and the sinking ground of summer they explored the wilderness. They bought up land from homesteaders, woodsmen, and lumber companies. They packed in supplies and dug test pits. Other men toiled and dreamed for a season, and then put their gear away. The Merritts kept on. At last, in November 1890, one of their cruisers found good ore at what would be named Mountain Iron, and a few months later John McCaskill led them to a mass of ore tangled in the roots of a storm-damaged tree near Embarrass Lake. These discoveries, fourteen miles apart, became the Mountain Iron and the Biwabik mines, and a new iron rush began.


Looking back

The following items are taken from the Hibbing Daily Tribune or the Mesabi Ore, which are on microfilm at the Hibbing Public Library and/or Iron Range Resource Center at the Minnesota Discovery Center in Chisholm.


June 24, 1919

Authorities from Ironwood, Michigan, arrived in Chisholm last night and are seeking the whereabouts of a Mrs. S. Smith on a charge of kidnapping. They allege that Mrs. Smith took a lttle girl from her grandparents and came to the Range. Friends of the woman claim the youngster sought is her own stepchild.


January 15, 1949

Miss Goldie Satovich, bride-elect, was honored at a shower in the North Hibbing library Thursday night. Hostesses were Mesdames J.C. Bissonette, A. Johnson, F. Perusek, and Frank Satovich. Miss Olga Prosnick poured at a table decorated in the bridal motif.


August 15, 1953

Visiting Hibbing for the Jubilee celebration was the granddaughter of the community’s founder, Frank Hibbing. Mrs. H.W. Mathewson Jr., of Hopkins, Minnesota, one of Hibbing’s only two granddaughters, enjoyed meeting so many people involved with the 60th Anniversary.


Nov. 7, 1960

Steel for one of the two 246-foot parallel bridges on Trunk Highway 35 over Trunk Highway 210, four miles southwest of Scanlon in Carlton County, has been delivered by U.S. Steel’s American Bridge Division. The E.W. Coons Co. of Hibbing is the general contractor. About 220 tons of steel are required for the project.


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