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Range Riding

We were sitting in the car in the August heat, having just traveled to the Twin Cities for a get-together with Richard's college classmates. This year the motley crew was going elite - top of the hotel, revolving restaurant, maitre d' - the whole bit. Only problem was, they had failed to mention this change of venue in their last correspondence.

As we sit in the parking lot outside one of the college dorms, Richard is struggling into a newly-purchased sport coat and tie. Lucky me had worn a dress and heels.

The windows of the car are wide-open. I lean out to get some air just as an old Harley pulls up. A man and woman dismount, decked out in black leather from shoulder to toe in the grilling heat. As they amble away, I crank my head around to watch.

"That should have been us," I say to Richard. "We should have made an entrance just like that."

At the top of the Registry Hotel, cutlery glints in soft candle light. We're surrounded by glass, and just outside, the sun has settled over the Mississippi River.

A lively conversation is going on at our table. Four dinner partners are swapping stories about camping up at Boundary Waters - the canoeing utopia on the Minnesota-Canadian border. As the talk and buffoonery continues, I take another sip of wine, lean over to Richard and whisper, "I want a motorcycle." He whispers back, "It's just the wine talking."

Four weeks later I'm sitting snug on our flashy Honda CX500D. The bike is older, but in mint condition with chrome brilliant as water in the sun. Richard and I are on our way to Hibbing, Minnesota, the heart of the Iron Range and once home to the likes of Bob Dylan.

It's a clear, cold September morning - forty-two degrees and a stiff wind. Not the best morning to be traveling North in Minnesota, but we have two days off, and the trip to the Range fits perfectly.

We take Highway 6 North, and it's woods all the way, one hundred miles of thick Minnesota timber exploding in autumn color. Still, the wind is cold, and I find myself pulling my turtleneck up over my face. I'm breathing like Darth Vader as Richard takes the Honda over the Pokegama River in Grand Rapids.

The city of Hibbing sits on top of Minnesota's invisible hill (the Laurentian Divide). From here water flows to the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico and Hudson Bay. The divide is on a long hump of land that stretches for almost a hundred miles through the Northeastern corner of the State. Ojibwe Indians called this ridge Mesabi, their name for the sleeping giant who roamed the area and now reposes in his eternal grave beneath the hills. Today, we Minnesotans call it the Range, and below it once lay some of the richest iron ore on earth.

The discovery of the Mesabi Range in the 1890's caused a boom unprecedented in the history of the Minnesota frontier. Camps sprang up with a spontaneity common to the Gold Rush days. Some towns that grew with the mines are still here today: places like Coleraine, Nashwauk, Chisholm, Mountain Iron, Eveleth and Biwabik. They're spread along the Mesabi Range like beads on a string; Hibbing is the largest.

Downtown the temperature is now a balmy 65 degrees. I'm still cold, however, so Richard suggests a quick, warm lunch. I spot an old movie theater that now houses the best deli I've ever seen. Cheese, breads, soups, pizzas, pastries, all freshly baked, not to mention foods from nearly every culture. I'm overwhelmed. Even Richard is impressed. He associates processed foods with intellectual decline, so this place is a dream. I warm my insides with delicious bowl of wild rice and turkey soup and fresh-baked croissants. Richard has a sarma. As we eat, we plan our next stop.

The only hills you can see around Hibbing are tall, flat-topped ridges of red dirt, piled up through many years of iron mining. At the very edge of town is one of the holes from which the red hills and ore came. The pit, more than three miles long and two miles wide, was created when several mines ran together to become one hole. Our Honda would get us there in no time if we'd just pay attention to the signs. But we're so busy gawking at the scarlet bluffs, we miss the turn-off altogether. No matter. Indian summer is in full glory, and riding anywhere is a delight.

The Mesabi Range fooled many. But there were men who believed that iron ore lay in the sleeping giant. One such man was Lewis Merrit, a pioneer and veteran lumberman, whose faith was unfettered by professional knowledge. The Merrits were the first to find Mesabi ore, but they were not alone in the search. When Rockefeller, Carnegie, and J. P. Morgan heard of the find, their investments passed Minnesota's iron lands into the Carnegie Division of United States Steel. But not without a fight.

The Merrits are heroes in Minnesota because they pursued their dream. They found ore when it was passed over by geologists, and though they lacked capital, experience, and skill, they dared to challenge the nation's industrial giants. Eventually, they won. But when brother Lon died in 1926, he had a reported worth of $2,450. A carving of him stands on the state capital grounds, a symbol of the free-spirited prospectors of Minnesota's mining frontier.

Knowing all this, I was still skeptical of seeing the mine. I associated it with the horrific ravages of strip mining, scenes I saw once in the movie Pale Rider.

The Honda cruised through a pretty tree-lined park (the original site of Hibbing), then swung onto a gravel road. We shot straight up a large hill, and there everything stopped. Before us was a panoramic view of the largest open-pit iron mine in the world. If you didn't know it was once a mine, you might think it was a natural canyon several miles long with a lake at the bottom. The abyssal deeps of the gorged rock form what has to be the Grand Canyon of the North.

Hull Rust Mine

Hull Rust Mine

You can see more canyons like this along the Mesabi Range, both East and West of Hibbing. These great open pits were once alive with workers and machines. Now the power shovels and long trains of ore cars are gone. Green bushes and trees are beginning to hide the scarred rock around the edges of the pits. The pumps are still, and waterfowl are discovering that new lakes have formed.

Richard and I walk back to the motorcycle. It's nearing dinner, and I'm thinking about Chinese food. But there's one more stop to make before we eat. I want to see Bob Dylan's house.

Robert Zimmerman's life in Hibbing had been nothing unusual. He was an ordinary student with good grades and a special love for music. His parents owned a furniture store and attended synagogue. Like so many others in Hibbing, they were children of immigrants.

It's hard to imagine that Dylan was not embraced by this close-knit ethnic community, yet this is his claim. In 1959, he changed his name, took his guitar and left. Still, some loyalties remain. In North Country Blues Dylan sang about the Iron Range:

They complained in the East
They are paying too high.
They say that your ore ain't worth digging.
That it's much cheaper down
In the South American towns
Where the miners work for almost nothing.

The Zimmerman house sits on the corner of a tree-lined street. It's an older gray house with a perfectly flat roof. Do the people inside know who once lived there? Do they care? The bike idles and Richard and I are silent. It must be out of reverence. Or maybe we're just thinking about dinner.

The restaurant we've chosen is located on a back street of downtown. Outside we decide the place is either a dump or has atmosphere. We are pleasantly surprised by the latter. The Hong Kong is lit by beautiful Chinese lanterns. The booths are snug and intimate and hidden behind curtains of beads. As we sit down, the booth creaks and the leather is smooth. The food's great too, with enough to feed three people. An Oriental family runs the business, the wife waiting tables as her son studiously does homework in a booth opposite us. She quietly sets a box of crackers next to him after taking our order.

Then from the back comes another waitress and with her your typical American fifth-grade kid. He throws his bulky body into the booth and reaches for the box of crackers.

"Whaddaya doing?"

The Oriental boy never looks up. "Homework."

"Umm," he grunts, stuffing his mouth with crackers.

There's silence between the two as the Oriental kid works steadily.

The other kid eats more crackers. He says, "You ever been grounded?"

After a moment, the Oriental kid slowly raises his head. "Grounded?"

"Yeah. You know, when you do something bad enough so that your parents keep you in the house, and you can't go anywhere or have any fun?" He shoots a glance at his mother clearing a table in the corner.

The Oriental boy erases something on his paper. "Being bad isn't allowed in our family."

The fifth-grader stares a full three seconds without blinking. The he shrugs, empties the cracker box into his hand, wolfs them down, and slides out of the booth.

When he's gone, the Oriental kid scoops the crumbs into an ashtray and resumes his homework.

Behind the cash register his father takes in the money. There is much grinning and bowing. We leave feeling appreciated.

We look for a cheap motel and find one. But once we find it, we still have trouble finding it. The motel office turns out to be a dentist office. It seems strange handing a dentist twenty-two bucks for a room. And you can't miss his Beatles collection. Instead of the usual paintings of ducks and flowers, this guy has original Beatles promo posters, framed, and in mint condition.

The following morning the world has turned scarlet and gold. Leaves of maple, oak and birch blow across the highway, and the hillsides are a tapestry of color.

Six miles East of Hibbing stands a bronze statue of a miner over seventy feet high. It marks the entrance to Ironworld, a park and history center that tells the story of the Range. This, along with the Hull-Rust-Mahoning mine pit, brings in close to 100,000 visitors each year. Hibbing welcomes them, but is not ready to become only a tourist town. Some resent the idea of being a playground for far-off cities. The best iron and timber are gone, but there are many willing workers left.

Map of the Mesabi Range


After Ironworld is the town of Chisholm. We poke around in a couple stores and find a small Army knapsack in an antique shop. We strap it to the back of the bike and ride down main street. I'm struck by the number of bars - so many we start counting. Thirteen on one street. Not hard to guess where you'd find a lumberjack or miner on a Saturday night.

We continue on through Buhl, Mountain Iron, and Virginia, enjoying the beautiful Autumn weather all the way, then stop in Eveleth to visit a Harley/Yamaha dealer. There are plenty of motorcycles to sit on, and Richard has his eye on a Honda Shadow. We guess at the year, then find a salesman to verify. He approaches us like Guy Smiley until he finds out we're not buying, then drops us like a wrecking ball through wet cement.

From Eveleth, we plan on taking Highway 37 toward home, but miss the turn. It's warm and the sky is clear and the towering hills around us are the color of red dust. We just keep going.

It pays off. We spot a small wooden sign that says Leonides Overlook and take a sharp turn onto a gravel road. The road twists higher and higher until there's nothing below us but a 200-foot drop. At the top the wind is strong enough to knock your teeth out; still, it's warm, and the view is fantastic. With the deep gorges and red rock, it looks like the Arizona wildlands.

Leonides Overlook

They're mining taconite here, blasting it from the ground and carrying it to the plant in 170-ton trucks that are the size of houses. From this distance they look like Tonka toys, these dinosaurs hauling rock from the earth.

By the 1950's high-grade ore and timber were gone from Mesabi. Then came the taconite industry, and the Range recovered. Hibbing grew from 16,000 to 21,000 in 1980. But steel mills all over the US began to close. Steel could be made more cheaply in other countries, and by 1982 there were few buyers for Minnesota taconite. And yet they go on.

It's late afternoon. The Honda glides down the last hill, and the Range is behind us. We're on a back road, still looking for Highway 37. It's quiet now as the sun thinks about setting. I'm thinking too. About the son of an immigrant miner from Hibbing who became governor of Minnesota. He spoke for the people of his town and the rest of the Range when he said, "Wherever we are in life, we stand upon the shoulders of those who have gone before."

I can almost feel his pride raise the giant's sleepy head.

1Map adapted from Ray Stermer, Color Landform Atlas of the United States, (May 4, 1995).

Crooked Creek Observer - Home

Copyright ©1996 Judi Schiller, Richard Schiller

March 1, 1996