My home of nearly fifty years is located on 5th Avenue West–the outer edge of Hibbing. The railroad line across the street has been vacated for many years and the overburden dump a few hundred yards west of the rails has long been overgrown with aspen, mountain ash, birch and other deciduous trees. The bridge over the highway out to Kerr, Letonia, and Kelly Lake has been torn down yet the traces of past mining activity remain everywhere abundant. There was a lot of history made a rock’s throw away from my front yard. As I look out the window I see a blanket of green where once there was one of many vast dumps of overburden or low-grade ore with rail lines hauling material from the Hull-Rust-Mahoning and other adjacent open pit mines. I sometimes hike across the one across the street and find that it has become a network of four-wheeler and snowmobile trails.
Not far to the northwest of here I can bicycle on the incredible ‘Mesaba Trail’–a biker’s dream that runs from Grand Rapids to Aurora on the East Range. It’s a challenging trail but the remnants of our past are in evidence everywhere. One of my favorite segments is between Chisholm and Kinney . . . but the ride from Keewatin to Calumet is also a great ride. Between Hibbing and Kerr Location (one of nearly a hundred other small mining villages–now ghost towns– built near the edges of the gaping open-pits) there is a spectacular overlook. Yes, the mining still goes on at Hibtac, and has been expanding in recent years, far below overlook platform. But now the ‘New Age’ mining of a low-grade ore called taconite prevails as the rich hematite ore has been exhausted. Today the equipment–electric shovels, 240-ton trucks, and enormous processing plants are the norm. Yet, for me, it’s still exciting to watch the pit activity ever-deeper in the bowels of the earth.
What always comes to my mind is what it was like back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s when sweat and blood miners did what massive machines do so efficiently today. It was dangerous work. Back-breaking work. Work that paid little. The pre-union days of exploitation by the Rockefellers and Carnegies with their big companies like the Oliver division of U.S. Steel. But the thousands of immigrants drawn to the opportunity to work established a unique culture–a melting pot of Slovenians, Croatians, Italians, Finns, and people from every corner of Europe lived and worked in relative harmony. And yes, they came from Michigan’s mines as well–the Irish, British, and Welsh veterans who spoke English got the better jobs . . . of course. When operations shut down in the harsh winter months the lucky miners were able to find jobs in logging the vast forests of Northern Minnesota. The belief was that a man could come here, make a fortune, and return to his native country and buy land–land was wealth. Few ever returned.
Gone are those robust days and robust towns across the Mesabi. Times of saloons and brothels that were not much different than the ‘Old West’ of American history. Eventually, many of the women from faraway countries followed their men here and life became more settled. Hibbing became a mining hub and rival of Virginia twenty-five miles east as the Range stretched for nearly one hundred miles. Taconite, in the fifties and sixties, spawned new communities like Hoyt Lakes and Babbit and Silver Bay on the North Shore of Lake Superior.
As I reminisce my thoughts go back to my days as a historian and, years later, my first novel. I’ve often thought of another story set in those times but I’ve taken another path in my literary life. Yet, despite the years between ‘To Bless or To Blame’ (my first novel) and ‘Waiting’, soon to be my thirteenth novel, I’ve stuck with the Moran family through five generations. I’ve been blessed.