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Mining on the Iron Range

Primary Source Set
by Greta Bahnemann, Metadata Librarian, Minnesota Digital Library, Minitex

Business and Industry Labor

Minnesota's Iron Range is located in the state's far northeastern corner and includes the following counties: Aitkin, Carlton, Cook, Itasca, Koochiching, Lake and Saint Louis. Iron mines were generally of two types: open pit and underground. 

The Iron Range includes three major iron ore deposits: Mesabi Range, Vermilion Range, and the Cuyuna Range. The iron ore deposits were extracted by immigrant miners. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries tens of thousands of people arrived in northeastern Minnesota from Finland, Austria-Hungary, Germany, Italy, Norway, Sweden and many other European countries as well as Chinese immigrant men who ran restaurants and laundry services. 

Initially, miners extracted the iron ore using hand tools such as pick axes and shovels, but later used increasingly mechanized equipment. The ore was then shipped to Duluth via railroads which were built and operated by the mining companies. The ore left Duluth on lake freighters or "ore boats" bound for Detroit and Pittsburgh where the raw ore was smelted for the automotive and construction industries. 

The demand for iron ore in the United States frequently mirrored larger historic events. Demand surged during the years around World War I, followed by a decreased demand during the Great Depression. World War II and the Korean War sparked boom years with many mines running at maximum production. The post-war years into the 1960s and 1970s saw decreased demand and the closure of many mines. Today iron ore is still mined on the Iron Range but in a much-diminished capacity. 

Iron ore mining has had a lasting impact on Minnesota and helped to shape the state's industrial and cultural identity. 

Discussion Questions & Activities

1. Why did so many immigrants become miners on the Minnesota Iron Range?

2. Based on the photographs of the freight train and the ore boats, how did these forms of transportation help shape iron mining? What role did Lake Superior play in sending ore to other locations? 

3. Examine the photographs of the Company Picnic and the Company Vegetable Garden in Ely. How do you think the mining companies shaped the communities miners lived in? Was it a positive or negative influence? 

4. Use the items in this set to think about different perspectives within iron mining - including mine owners, supervisory employees, mine workers, children of iron miners, the role of women, etc. Break students into small groups and assign each group a particular point of view (or character) represented by these sources. These might include the mine owners, a miner, the wife of a miner, the child of a miner, etc. Each group should use items in this set to considering the following: Describe this character’s role in iron mining. How do they participate? How does this character feel about the institution of mining? What are its advantages and/or disadvantages from his/her perspective? What are this character’s goals? Dreams? Anxieties?

eLibrary Minnesota Resources (for Minnesota residents)

1. "Iron processing." Britannica School. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 2016. Web. 22 Apr. 2016. 

2. "Mesabi Range." Britannica School. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 2016. Web. 22 Apr. 2016. 

Additional Resources for Research

1. Alanen, Arnold R. “Years of Change on the Iron Range.” In Minnesota in a Century of Change: The State and Its People Since 1900, edited by Clifford E. Clark, Jr., 155–194. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1989.

2. Holmquist, June Drenning, ed. They Chose Minnesota: A Survey of the State’s Ethnic Groups. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1981.

3. MNopedia, Minnesota Historical Society. "Immigration to the Iron Range, 1880–1930." Accessed April 22, 2016.

4. MNopedia, Minnesota Historical Society. "Opening of the Mesabi Iron Range." Accessed April 22, 2016.

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Think Like a Historian

Observe a Primary Source Item and Record Your Thoughts

  • What is happening in the photograph or letter, diary, etc.? What just happened, or what is about to happen?
  • Describe the people you see in the image. How do they relate to each other and to the photographer? If there are no people in the image, what is the subject of the photograph?
  • Describe where the photo was taken. Were they inside, outside, somewhere identifiable? Was the location an urban area, suburban, or rural? 
  • Look for details that show when the photo was taken – time of day, season, and year. Do the people in the photograph look different than people today? How are their clothing, shoes, and hair styles different? Also look for differences in things like transportation, housing, equipment, and general infrastructure.

Think about the Creator, Audience, Context, Relationships

  • What is the author/creator's point of view? What was the author's purpose?
  • Who is the intended audience for this primary source material?
  • Explain how the source tells its story.
  • What was happening locally, regionally, or nationally when this primary source material was created?
  • How does this item relate to other content in this Primary Source Set and/or the rest of the Minnesota Digital Library collection? Compare and contrast two resources.

Finally, using the clues you have observed, try to figure out why the source was created. By asking these questions, you have begun to understand the what, who, where, when and why of the primary source material – and ultimately, the story it tells.

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