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Where the Rivers Run North, Part II

Wednesday, 25 June 2003 12:00 AM

The iron ore that made the Range a boom area was "discovered" for all intents and purposes in the late 1800s. It was a group of brothers better known as the "Seven Iron Men" who in 1888 actually made the mining industry come alive on the Mesabi.

The seven Merritt brothers of Duluth, Minn., traveled the length and breadth of the Range charting it and recording areas in which magnetic attraction was strongest.

Knowing a good thing when they saw it, the Merritts bought up the mineral lands and mapped out 500 square miles of Itasca, Cook, Lake and St. Louis counties. On Nov. 16, 1890, their crew discovered the first body of soft ore on the Mesabi Range at present Mountain Iron. In a speech John Merritt gave at the 40th anniversary of the discovery of Mountain Iron, he said:

"I remember just how beautiful that ore was, glinting blue there under the deep green of the pines. But I am unable to describe to you just what this number-one pit meant to us. It was a dream come true, the fulfillment of a hope long deferred, an urge to greater effort, a satisfying fact that nature had yielded to us the great secret she had guarded through all the ages."

Around that same time a man named Frank Hibbing found rich ore west of Mountain Iron and it became the Lake Superior Iron Company. Eventually it combined the Hull, Rust, Mahoning, Burt and Sellers mines, and exists today mostly as a museum near Hibbing. But for years Hibbing was know as the "Iron Capitol of the World." The Oliver Mine followed into the area but closed sometime in the '60s.

In an attempt to keep the chain of production in Merritt control, they borrowed money from J.D. Rockefeller in order to establish a rail line from the port of Duluth to the Range, as well as build the largest loading dock on the Great Lakes. Things started to come apart for the Merritts, however, as they stretched themselves too thin in a depressed economy.

Things went well until the Panic of 1893. To stay afloat, the Merritts approached Rockefeller for more capital and were given a $2 million loan. But the Depression got worse and the Merritts couldn't raise sufficient capital to stave off their creditors. They went to Rockefeller after trying other capitalists and J.D. bought them out for $900,000.

Many people think Rockefeller was the bad guy in this scenario. Actually, Minnesota creditors who forced the Merritts to sell out were the bad guys. Nevertheless, Merritt properties were worth approximately $335 million. Business was business and Rockefeller was well funded and understood the value of controlling the supply chain, and the Merritts just simply lost out in the great depression of the era.

As happens in business, eventually JP Morgan got control of what became the merged Carnegie and Rockefeller steel and mining operations. In addition, Morgan also controlled Federal Steel, National Steel, American Bridge, American Sheet Steel, American Steel Hoop, American Steel & Wire, American Tin Plate, National Tube, and the Oliver Iron Mining Company.

Morgan's holdings, or what became known as the "Steel Trust," controlled three-fifths of the nation's steel business. If you remember your American history, J.P. Morgan was Teddy Roosevelt's least-favorite tycoon. The monopolies and trusts of that era appeared to allow pillar American industries and businesses to be held in fewer and fewer hands. This disturbed Roosevelt and others, which in turn led to the era of 'trust busting' and eventually the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.

The dissolution of many of the large holdings of those we now fondly call "robber barons" discouraged the formation of large monopolies up until the 1980s, when mergers and acquisitions and foreign buyouts of American companies became popular and accepted.

In Minnesota, the richest ore petered out in the mid-1950s. Luckily in 1913, a University of Minnesota professor of mining, Edward Davis, patented a process to extract iron from taconite pellets. By 1965, processed taconite constituted one-fourth of the iron ore used in the U.S. and Canada.

Regular high-grade ore became less economical to mine and ship. In 1967, taconite shipments surpassed those of natural ores. The last good years for taconite production were at about the same time that manufacturing peaked in the U.S., 1979.

After '79, things rapidly went downhill for the Range, from several dozen mining operations to a handful. Meanwhile, low-tech manufacturing was being shipped to Mexico, China, Japan and India. For the last 12, years high-tech manufacturing has followed the outward trend, and that includes manufacturing required in mining, oil exploration and other "dirty" hard industries that make essential components required in the kind of manufacturing that actually builds infrastructure and real wealth.

As far as Minnesota mines go, there are about three left in the area and those are not doing too well. In the '80s, ore extraction and production left for Canada and South America. Lower taxes, cheaper labor and production costs and fewer problems with demanding unions, high state taxes, and environmental demands that just didn't make it worthwhile to continue.

The Iron Range began a long, slow decline even as it became a Mecca for tourists. The greens discovered the area and decided to make the prettiest parts of the Range their own. Locals occasionally refer to them as the "take a wolf to lunch and hug a tree bunch."

The BWCA, Boundary Waters Canoe Area, was designated a wilderness area in the '60s, followed by other areas including Voyageurs National Park and Quetico Preserve. Superior National Forest has been around for decades and it surrounds and encompasses most Range towns. It is one of the largest wilderness areas in the U.S.

The entire area has become a playground for what residents refer to as the "paddle only" crowd. These are folks who don't allow motors of any sort on "their" lakes in the Boundary Waters. They even fought against allowing the disabled or old folks with a couple-horsepower motor impinging on their solitude. If one is not fit and hardy, one is simply out of luck.

For a fee, one must also have the required permits and guides. There is no peeing in the lake or defecating in the woods without bringing it out in a container. I heard of one camper tracked down through some snitch who saw him cut twigs off one of the zillion trees so his kids could roast marshmallows. He was fined by the state, but as I recall he still hasn't paid the fine. Those pesky Minnesota rebels just won't conform.

Of course if you are a bear, moose or wolf, your toilet habits in the woods are you own concern and you are allowed to break twigs for your personal use. The bears don't mind stealing apples out of my parents' orchard; wish the government bureaucracies were as accommodating with Americans who pay government bills.

I could never figure out why the defenders of nature wouldn't allow retrieval of blow-down timber in the BWCA, which has created a tinderbox in this era of drought. Nor do I understand why the use of snowmobiles in "their" wilderness is forbidden. Snowmobiling and winter sports tourism is what they hyped when they began to shut down the area to logging and pulpwood production. Go figure.

Then, of course, millionaires bought up lake property once owned by miners on the big lake known as Vermilion. Cottages and cabins that used to sell for under $10,000 now command prices in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. New homes being built are sometimes priced in the millions.

Yet in the towns of Virginia, Gilbert, Biwabik, Hoyt Lakes, Hibbing, Eveleth, Chisholm, Aurora or Tower, you can still get a nice house, well built, for less than $50,000. A nice four-lane road has gone up, making it easier for tourists to whiz by Range towns as they head for the lakes.

As refugees from big cities attempt to change the area or impose their political agendas, it is becoming just too much even for the old-school Democrats who live on the Range. Recently, when the Ely City Council was badgered into passing an anti-war Iraq resolution back in March, the locals claimed it was a bunch of women who "aren't from around here" who were responsible. Apparently, the latte and Patagonia brigade have established a presence in the lake country.

The council found itself under assault as 300 angry residents told them at the next meeting that the Ely City Council had overstepped their boundaries, because they felt an anti-war resolution was not in the purview of a city council.

Most residents agreed and the resolution was rescinded. But not before the media had told the story all over the U.S. That led to numerous canceled bookings at Ely area resorts and lodges by angry tourists from around America.

My advice: Go to Ely, paddle canoes, walk in the woods, buy junk at gift shops, see the museums in Chisholm and Hullrust, the open pit at Hibbing, the Greyhound Bus Museum and the cute Bavarian village of Biwabik, and drive the North Shore along Lake Superior.

In Ely, which is on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, do go see the wolf center, enjoy the bars and restaurants and the kind hospitality of the area. Buy stuff and if you are lucky you might get a view of the Northern Lights on some warm July night. Ride or walk the bike trail that will extend from Grand Rapids to Ely.

Meanwhile, ignore the SUV-driving yuppies, the Sierra Club crowd, the girls in hippie skirts, college kids in Dockers and hiking boots, and the male mountain bikers wearing tight spandex and blue helmets. Hardly anyone pays them much attention except to be invariably civil and polite.

It is too bad so many come to the North Country armed with a political or radical environmental agenda. It seems they just can't enjoy the big woods and lakes without taking the joy out of it for everyone else. According to an old-timer and mainstay chronicler of the Range and BWCA, Ely resident Bob Cary, the Indian elders say they don't understand the Sierra Club, the outsiders or the yuppies from the Twin Cities, Connecticut or California.

They don't know why these people have the audacity to call this place "wilderness" which must be "experienced." Cary maintains the Indian elders have always called it by its real name – forest home. As do most of the people who have come back to it after "experiencing" the wider world.

During my last day on the Range, the weather couldn't have been better. It was in the low 70s and dry, and the sun was shining. I sat on the bench that the folks had built out of slabs of rehabilitated concrete sidewalks. It is set up between two large boulders they didn't have the power or equipment to remove. Dad says its roots go all the way to Minneapolis.

A couple of old guys were fishing in small boats on the lake and kids were trying their luck on the public dock. The trees were leafing out and that rustling sound accompanied the haunting wail of a loon pair living on the little island in the middle of the lake. Two older ladies and a small child walked along the 2-1/2-mile circumference of Lake Longyear. Addie, my Silkie/Yorkie terrier mix, sat on the boulder like the queen she thinks she is as she perused the passing scene.

I couldn't help wondering what will happen to this area. What in fact will happen to this country as both political parties continue not to "get it." Neither of them seem to care as we are being reshaped and remade and inundated with unrestricted immigration, much of it illegal, which places immense burdens on our civil, political and social well-being and cohesion.

Along with that comes a complicated mess of high taxes and a Byzantine tax system, too many regulations, an increasingly lousy education system, reliance on international organizations at the expense of our own self-interest, federal agencies out of control, and the loss of our identity as Americans through political correctness.

What irks most is the profound failure to understand our own history. America is in dire need of re-establishing its independence and sovereignty and its right to survive as a Western nation based on Western ideas, traditions and religion.

I also have to ask where will the jobs come now that so many ostensible American companies are exporting jobs and technology to China, India, Russia and the four winds. I suppose they will come from where they always have: individual Americans who don't seem willing to give up on this country.

How disconnected politicians and monied elites have become. How far they have strayed from the people and philosophy that created America. They don't give a damn that America is a unique and special place worth saving for itself. I am at a loss to explain how they forgot that our wealth evolved out of that unique character of faith, hard work and diligence, and belief in the Almighty and the inspired philosophy of the Founders.

I have to remind myself about the good things God gave this country and this area of Minnesota called the Iron Range. His providence provided the upper Midwest with five of the world's largest lakes, the Great Lakes, which contain two-thirds of the world's surface fresh water.

As senior scientist John Jansen of the University of Wisconsin's Water Institute relates, "Fresh water is becoming increasingly scarce."

The waters of Minnesota drain into three great watersheds; north to the Red River and Hudson Bay, east to Lake Superior and the Atlantic Ocean, and south to the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi River. What Minnesota has is lots and lots of water.

Walleyes abound in the central and northern regions, large-mouth bass, northern pike or pickerel, and panfish almost anywhere. The lake trout inhabits the deep, cold waters of Lake Superior and the lakes along the Canadian border. Fourteen state fish hatcheries, seven in year-round operation, produce fish fry and fingerlings that run annually into the hundreds of millions.

Until some wacko environmentalists protested the effort, several Range towns stocked some of the former open-mine pits with salmon in an attempt to build a fish farm industry. Oddly enough, the water in the pits is about as clear and pristine as the most northern lake in Canada.

Then there is Red Lake, which covers 274,994 acres, the largest fresh-water body within a single state. Lake of the Woods, part of which lies within Canada, has more than 200 square miles of surface; its 14,000 islands assure an almost constant sight of land from every point.

Meanwhile, China, where all the jobs and investment from large transnational corporations are headed, finds that its desert has grown so much that it now makes up almost 30 percent of the country's landmass. China State Forestry survey shows that 2.7 million square kilometers of land was desert by the end of 1999 and is still growing.

Industrialization has dried up rivers, wells and springs, affecting the supply of clean drinking water and the irrigation of farmlands. It is estimated that around 700 million people out of China's 1.2 billion drink contaminated water.

Prime Minister Zhu Rongji, in a speech on China's five-year economic plan last year, said the water shortage could have "serious implications" for the country's economic and social development.

While Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, reported that some cities in Northern China are rationing their water supply, low water levels are also leading to electricity shortages in Hubei and Hunan provinces.

As of April 1, 2003, the Liujiaxia Hydropower Station, northwest China's major hydropower plant, is in danger of water shortage.

According to the People's Daily Online, the water reserve in the Liujiaxia Reservoir was only 2.6 billion cubic meters at the end of March, less than half of the its capacity, said Gu Minglin, who is in charge of water information of the upper reaches for the Yellow River Water Resources Committee.

Leading water engineers have predicted that China's water consumption will continue to rise until 2030, leading to serious shortages. Water shortage also affects the water quality.

Not only China but Asia in general is having water problems. According to the Indian Strait Times, Delhi is the No. 1 Indian city for doing business and it is reeling from power cuts and water shortages that are leaving people and organizations frustrated in the summer heat.

The report states, " 'A consumer who pays his bills and draws only the power that he is authorized will continue to suffer power cuts while influential power thieves, including politically linked industrialists, may continue to enjoy special treatment,' an official of Tata Power, one of the private distribution companies, was quoted as saying by The Times of India newspaper."

The transnationals continue the exodus from the U.S. anyway.

Meanwhile, over the next few years more mines on the Range will close, more high-paid manufacturing jobs in the Twin Cities and Chicago and Wisconsin will be exported as well, and now many jobs in the services, computer and financial sector are also leaving.

Part of me wants to say don't let the door hit you on your corporate fanny on the way out. I know there are enough Americans left to make up the difference if government will get out of the way and Washington stops acting like a seat of colonial taxing and regulating power for America's hinterlands.

Passing the END of the death tax would help small businesses to survive and allow them to be passed on to those who will help America grow and prosper.

The natural bounties and beauty of areas like the Iron Range, and of America as a whole, have offered millions of people a better, more productive life. We have resources and we have the people and many of us have the will. If we are lucky, perhaps somehow our politicians will allow this nation the opportunity to get back on its cultural, moral, economic, ethical and political feet again.

I am not holding my breath. So we count on our communities, states and regions to do what must be done regardless of what happens in D.C.

In any event, no matter what, the grass still grows and the winds still blow and the sound of the loon makes it magic. Nature and America heal themselves. Tired hearts and minds of those who appreciate them, love them in all their moods and colors, may still discover peace and hope in the finer things that are free for the taking.

I had to leave Minnesota and return to Georgia. The Range, my folks and countless relatives and friends, plus the beauty of it all will be greatly missed. I arrived here 10 months ago burned out and I leave reinvented and hopeful and confident in the promise that is America.

Sitting with the dog on my lap watching a gull skim the surface of the lake on that last afternoon I recalled my maternal grandmother's favorite song.

How often at night when the heavens are bright

Home, home on the range,

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The iron ore that made the Range a boom area was "discovered" for all intents and purposes in the late 1800s. It was a group of brothers better known as the "Seven Iron Men" who in 1888 actually made the mining industry come alive on the Mesabi. The seven Merritt brothers...
Wednesday, 25 June 2003 12:00 AM
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