Mining on the Iron Range

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 my 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, Norwegian, 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 Dululth on lake freighters or "oreboats" 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 iorn ore is still mined on the Iron Range but in a much-diminished capcacity. 

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

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.

Teaching Guide: Mining on the Iron Range

Primary Source Analysis

For each source, ask students to indicate:

  • the author's point of view
  • the author's purpose
  • historical context
  • audience

For inquiry-based learning, ask students to:

  • explain how a source tells its story and/or makes its argument
  • explain the relationships between sources
  • compare and contrast sources in terms of point of view and method
  • support conclusions and interpretations with evidence
  • identify questions for further investigation

Additional Tools

This teaching guide helps instructors use a specific primary source set, Mining on the Iron Range, in the classroom. It offers discussion questions, classroom activities, and primary source analysis tools. It is intended to spark pedagogical creativity by giving a sample approach to the material. Please feel free to share, reuse, and adapt the resources in this guide for your teaching purposes.

Discussion Questions

  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 postiive or negative influence? 

Classroom Activities

  1. 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?