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History of American Towns Mesabi mining Iron Range Towns

Updated on September 13, 2012
Virginia, Minnesota Iron Range. Open pit Mine
Virginia, Minnesota Iron Range. Open pit Mine | Source
Miners at work on Mesabi Iron Range
Miners at work on Mesabi Iron Range | Source

Mesabi Iron Range in Minnesota

  • One part of the entire Iron range.
  • Discovered in 1866
  • Chief iron ore deposit in the United States
  • Located in northeast Minnesota in Itasca and St. Louis counties
  • Largest of four major iron ranges in the region

This range was very active in the early 20th Century but extraction declined in the 1970s.There was some more activity in 2005. The demand for taconite is partly due to China’s demand for iron.

There are many mining towns on the Mesabi Iron Range. This hub will tell about four of them that are related and referred to as Quad Cities of the Mesabi Iron Range.

Out west miners went to get rich by mining for gold. In Minnesota mining has been for iron. The Mesabi Range is 110 miles long and between one and three miles wide. It can reach as far as 500 feet in thickness. This allowed much of it to be mined in open pit mines. Years ago we were in that area and took a tour of an open pit mine. It was large enough that we went in open car buses. Far too big to go on foot..

Virginia, Minnesota a city in St. Louis County is part of the Mesabi Iron Range in Minnesota. The name Mesabi comes from the Ojibwa Indians name for it. They called it “Misaabe-wajiw” meaning “Giants Mountain” or “Big-Man’s Mountain.” The terms “Mesaba,” and “Missabe” with spelling variations exists around the Mesabi Range. There are places with giant in their names as well. The Wikipedia article on Virginia states that the area was named “qeechaquepagem” by the Ojibwa tribe but it is a bit unclear whether it refers to Virginia or to the county. Whatever the case it roughly means “Lake of the North Birds.”

As of the 2010 census the population of Virginia is 8,712. U.S. Highways 53 and 169, as well as state highway 135 are available. It is one of the cities considered Quad cities consisting of Virginia, Eveleth, Gilbert and Mountain Iron. Eveleth is the home of the United States Hockey Hall of Fame, which is different than the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

The first settlers came to Virginia, Minnesota in 1890 seeking riches and iron deposits were found. Three years later fire destroyed the town. Again in 1900 fire destroyed the town. After that, all downtown business buildings were required to be built of brick, stone or concrete. In 1909 the Virginia Rainy Lake Lumber started up. It was the largest white pine mill in the world. Its last run was in 1929.

When I was young I had always heard that Virginia had a unique system of using waste heat from industrial activities to heat homes in the town. In 1913 they did create the largest residential steam heating system in the world.

Iron Range
Iron Range | Source
Mining equipment hauling ore near Virginia Minnesota
Mining equipment hauling ore near Virginia Minnesota | Source

Eveleth, Minnesota is one of the towns in the Quad cities of the Mesabi Iron Range.

1894 it was founded as a village about a mile from where it is now.

It was named for Erwin Eveleth who worked for a timber company.

1895 iron ore was found beneath the village. A post office was established the same year.

In 1913 the village became the City of Eveleth.

As Eveleth expanded portions of Faval Township, unincorporated communities of Alice Mine Station and Fayal were included, according to Wikipedia article on the town. Later on the unincorporated Genoa was annexed.

Iron has always been the base of the economy of Eveleth. It declined after World war II. The Thunderbird Mine opened in 1965 to produce Taconite which is a lower grade ore.

Map show incorporated and unincorporated areas in St. Louis County
Map show incorporated and unincorporated areas in St. Louis County | Source

Gilbert, Minnesota is another of the Quad cities of Virginia, Gilbert, Eveleth and Mountain Lake. It was started in 1908. Its population is 1,799. Probably its most popular feature now is having the 1,200 acre Iron Range Off Highway Vehicle Recreation Area, with 36 miles of trails. It is also the location of Lake Ore-be-gone. This was an open pit mine which filled with water and is now used for fishing. It is no longer used for swimming as water levels dropped and it was declared unsafe. (I wonder if this is where Garrison Keiller got his inspiration for Lake Woebegone?)

Mountain Iron, Minnesota calls itself the “Taconite capital of the world.” The local Mine is the Minnitac and owned by the United States steel Corporation. It is in the heart of the Mesabi Iron Range. The population is about 2,999 people.

The Iron range Tourism Bureau website says “literally built on a mountain of iron…” in describing the town of Mountain Iron. The site of the ore was discovered by Leonardas Merritt in 1890. A large statue of him is in the heart of the city. An annual festival is celebrated each year to honor the mining tradition of the city.

Some background of mining towns

It seems that mining towns, whether the mining is for gold, or coal or iron. They, of coarse, had one purpose which was the mining. However, they varied in the ways they were formed. Some were established by miners and were not very formal. That was often the case in the early stages and miners often lived near the mines they worked. On the other hand the mining companies set up some locations where employees were housed and might supply services such as saloons, stores and sometimes brothels.

In a 1930’s sociological study of the range Dr. Paul Landis noted that “Small mining towns on the Range …had large male populations, very few children, and a ‘tolerance of vice, prostitution, gambling, fighting and drinking.” He also reported the that according to residents of Hibbing, Virginia, and Eveleth that prostitutes, gamblers and saloon keepers were considered respectable. Dr. Lanis comments were reported in an article by Macalister college.

As the mining towns mature they lose some of the frontier quality. In Virginia the population tended to grow but dipped in about 1930 due to the closing of the Virginia and Rainy Lake Logging Company. Eveleth had a maturation period by the mid-1910s.

Sources include Wikipedia article and town websites for the towns mentioned, and the Mesabi Iron Range

Macalester college article on Iron Range Towns

Copyright 2012 Don Hoglund

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    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Hi Peggy.It has been along time since we were up there. I don't know if they would allow cars in there. It was big though. Something about mining towns though. Thanks for commenting.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 5 years ago from Houston, Texas

      I see by the map that Virginia was not that far from Ely where friends of my grandparents erected Hibbard's Lodge. So glad that I got to drive Minn up there one summer and see the area. Made for good hub material! This was very interesting about the iron ore mining and the open pits that you could literally drive into with a car. Interesting and useful. Good to share with others that may wish to learn about this area in northern Minnesota.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks will. Iron mining used to be a big part of Minnesota and is still important.

    • WillStarr profile image

      WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Very interesting Hub, Don!

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Hi prasetio, thank you for your comment and votes. Because it is so far north and cold in the winter many people, even those who live in Minnesota, never get up there.

    • prasetio30 profile image

      prasetio30 5 years ago from malang-indonesia

      Another great history of Iron town in America. I always learn many things from you, brother. Good job and rated up!


    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Hi Angela, Folks don't think of mining in relation to Minnesota but the north country was iron mining country and still is to some extent. Unlike the western towns the mining towns don't leave buildings behind, they usually moved them.Thanks for commenting.

    • Angela Blair profile image

      Angela Blair 5 years ago from Central Texas

      Very interesting Hub, dahoglund. I've always been interested in mining towns and the way they operated -- and the way many of them just disappeared in time. This was true of mining near Mingus, Texas. The mines closed because of the unions coming in and they just led the mules out (which of course were blind by then) and shut down rather become unionized. Thanks for a very interesting read. Best/Sis

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Finace Hub. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.Glad to give you something different.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Pamela-anne, I thought I had answered your comment. Anyhow, thanks for being the first to comment. I have been writing for awhile but there is always more to learn.

    • Pamela-anne profile image

      Pamela-anne 5 years ago from Miller Lake

      Very impressive set up it looks like this is not your first rodeo in the field of writing well done DAHOGLUND!