Great Northern Railway workers

Notice that both men and women worked for the Great Northern Railway when this picture was taken in the 1940s. The steam engine they pose in front of, class F-7-1135, is ready for duty in the switching yard or on the mine runs.

I hope that you enjoyed last Sunday’s “Years of Yore” about the early years of the town of Kelly Lake. This week continues the story. Thanks again to the following sources that I used to write these articles:

1. The booklet “Kelly Lake Centennial Celebration-July 13, 14, 15, 2007- How the Great Northern Railroad Affected the Small Town of Kelly Lake, Minnesota” by June Jackson Kelly. Also, Anita Wippler Serrano, a member of the Centennial Reunion Committee, wrote part of the booklet’s introduction.

2. The book “Kelly Lake to Allouez” by Robert Porter and Douglass Addison, Sr. published in 2009.

3. Thanks to Erica Larson Zubich at the Hibbing Historical Society for finding the photos and newspaper articles.

4. A special thanks to the Kelly Lake Community Club.

~Mary Palcich Keyes

Being outdoors was a regular part of life in Kelly Lake. The lake’s beach was a magnet in the summer for people of all ages. Fishing here, and in other nearby lakes, meant fresh fish on many dinner tables and hunting was another way to keep everyone fed. Ice skating, hockey, sledding and the famous toboggan runs down the school hill also kept everyone active in the winter.

For those who worked for the railroad, summers meant long hours at work. In the first part of the 20th Century, winters meant the mining work all but stopped and the workers were laid off until spring. Thus winters became a time to spend with family and friends both outside and while attending events at the school or churches.

The Catholic church, St. Ann’s, saw many special events over the years. After it was consolidated into the Hibbing parishes, the building became the Kelly Lake Community Center and still hosts many get-togethers today. The Methodist church also had a busy congregation until it closed its doors for good.

The churches witnessed sad funerals, too. My mother told me about a friend’s brother who lived in Kelly Lake and worked in the railroad yard. Those who worked around the train cars had to be very aware of the constant movement of the cars. On the last day of this young man’s life he was crossing over a set of rails and slipped. Empty cars being pushed up the rails rolled right over him, killing him instantly. There were accidents like this, she told me, despite how careful the workers tried to be.

The Great Depression of the 1930s hit Kelly Lake as hard as the rest of the nation. The mines, and the railroads, slowed down to almost nothing. However, in these tough years the Works Progress Administration (WPA) helped the town build its first sewage and disposal plant. men were hired for this and other projects, such as maintaining the toboggan hills.

People grew large gardens and helped each other. A bus made regular runs between Keewatin, Kelly Lake, Hibbing and many mining locations in the area, so people were not isolated from stores, movies, high school events, families and friends. And, of course, some activities were free, such as the beach, which has never fallen out of favor.

When America entered World War II in December 1941, it created a swift demand for steel. Everybody was called to some sort of work for the country’s good. Men were usually called to the military and women were called to fill the jobs left by the men (which isn’t to say that women didn’t also go to the military, too.)

Women went to work in the mines and in the railroad yards. They did everything the men had done except be on the “running crew” of the trains. Engineering a locomotive, for instance, required a lot of experience. Those men were usually either exempted from military service because of their jobs or they were “aged out” of the military. Women had never been hired as apprentices for these jobs in the past (and thus did not have the experience needed) since those were jobs not considered “appropriate” for a woman.

So women became laborers and kept the engines clean and running. They worked in the rail yard and offices. They learned jobs they’d never done before and they did those jobs with strength and efficiency.

Women who lived elsewhere, whose husbands might be overseas in the Armed Services, sometimes moved in with relatives or friends in Kelly Lake. Here there were good jobs that made a very important contribution to the war effort.

When the war ended in 1945, America’s great post-war building era began and steel was very much needed. An average of 16 round trips of full ore trains and empties between Kelly Lake and Allouez were made daily in the 1920s, but many more in the late 1940s through the 1950s. There were between 140 and 200 cars per train with the average being 180. The cars carried 75 tons each when loaded.

The tonnage of iron ore passing through Kelly Lake was at an all-time high. Women who wanted to continue to work for the Great Northern often could do so, since there was work available for all.

The mines were expanding in these years, so many of the mining locations were eliminated by the encroaching pits. Location homes were moved to towns on the Range while location schools were torn down.

Kelly Lake grew as some people from these locations moved in. New friendships were made as new children came to the school and new neighbors joined the community. Now not “everyone worked for the railroad,” since many of the newcomers worked at the surrounding mines or in towns like Hibbing.

The 1950s were a heady time for the entire Iron Range. However, as Hibbing’s native son Bob Dylan would write in 1963, “The times they are a-changin’.”

The pure iron ore was gradually disappearing. The bulk raw ore would be replaced by the compact taconite pellets. Fewer rail cars were necessary to move those new pellets to Allouez. Another great change was that the diesel engines were coming up the track. In 1950, in the Kelly Lake railroad yard, a group gathered to view a demonstration engine. It seemed to the group to be too small an engine to haul a long drag of loaded ore cars. But it could move in both directions, no need to turn it around. It did not need the water tanks, coal towers and all the other equipment necessary for the great steam locomotives.

The railroad company would save on every aspect, including labor. And when the diesel easily pulled away hauling the many cars behind it, one of the people there remarked, “This is the beginning of the end.”

By the 1960s, the steam locomotives were seen in few places other than on the Iron Range. Several historians of railroading point out that without the economic savings brought by the diesel engines, railroads might have totally vanished.

In 1968, a sight very sad to those who loved the steam locomotives was observed. A quiet diesel pushed a line of empty, silent steam locomotives down the track on their way to demolition.

With the steam engines gone, the rail yard in Kelly Lake and all its jobs was going away, too. The town struggled as people left to find work. The school closed as did the churches. But a community center emerged. Some people stayed, even if it meant commuting a distance to work, instead of just walking across the bridge.

Citizens began to demand air pollution checks on nearby taconite plants. The deteriorating playground and the beach were updated and kept clean. The sense of community remained in the reunions and other celebrations held regularly. Neighbors still greeted each other by name during evening walks.

It’s almost 2019 now. The little town of Kelly Lake did not close down, did not disappear from the map. The great railroad yard is gone, but people say that at night, if you listen closely, you can hear in the wind the voices in many accents of hard-working people — and train whistles too — as the long haul steam engines head out to Allouez.


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.


July 20, 1909

A steam shovel was put to work at removing ore that was deposited at the end of Pine Street when the new addition to the city well was dug. The ore is of a high grade and consequently the company deemed it necessary to ship the ore instead of letting it go out to the dump as overburden.


Sept. 21, 1944

Paper-paper-and more paper is the cry of the War Production Board, which maintains that the need for paper salvage is tremendous right now in the light of swift moves by the Allied armies.


June 7, 1958

Two arborvitae trees have replaced ones which died at the soldier monument in Maple Hill Cemetery. The two trees were made possible through the financial aid of the canteen at the Memorial Building with Bob Genac as chairman.


Oct. 5, 1970

A reminder to all Hibbing State Junior College students to vote Thursday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. for the selection of a 1970 Homecoming Queen. The election will take place in the commons area. Also another reminder: due to the holiday on Monday, and much to the disgust of the students, there will be no classes scheduled. But to the joy of the student body, classes will be held during the MEA Convention Oct. 22-23.


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