An uncertain future in iron country

With new mine closure, Minnesotans see their unique way of life slipping away.

For Tom Calgaro, there was never much mystery about what he would do when he grew up. The teenager lives on Mesabi Iron Range, and since his youngest days he's looked ahead, happily, to a life excavating, milling, and refining the ocher earth that lies beneath the jack pine of northern Minnesota.

It has been a way of life in his family for generations. Since 1920, there has been a Tom Calgaro working the rock here, back to his great-grandfather who shoveled raw iron ore into the skip cars that carried it to the surface and off to the blast furnaces of the world.

"My father has always told me if you want to live around here, to have this life, the mines are the best idea," says Tom, who lives on a ranch here. "And I like the large-scale equipment, the big stuff. I'm not much of a computer guy."

But in the end, all of the teen's planning may not be enough to ensure there is a Tom Calgaro working on the Mesabi 20 years from now. Come spring, the Range's oldest working mine is scheduled to close - and, to many, it's more than just another idle American plant. It's a sign that in the great economic reshuffling of the 21st century, a way of work - and perhaps a way of life - are vanishing.

In the onward rush to find global markets and tap overseas labor, the Mesabi iron workers certainly aren't the only ones to feel cheated by prosperity. From Detroit's auto workers to Pittsburgh's steelmen, periodic retrenchments and industrial shifts have suddenly taken away paychecks and wrought wrenching change in local economies.

But in Minnesota's isolated and insular mining country, the transition is more fundamental. It is affecting the culture of the region the way the demise of the shoe mills and textile plants of New England did a century ago.

Mining money built towns like Eveleth and Chisholm and Biwabik. It built local schools. It gave definition and purpose to the descendants of the Poles and Serbs and Finns who first settled here among the lakes and frost in the 1880s.

Indeed, the only thing more ubiquitous here than hockey rinks is the residue of red dust from the open-pit mines that stains roadways and the jeans of kids.

"The mines have been going down for a while," says Eino Phillips, who worked in the industry until he was 65. "When a mine shuts down it affects the whole community and the whole area around it."

"One thing you can do when a mine shuts down is leave, which is what a lot of people have done. It's what a lot of these people will do, too."

Indeed, modernization and globalization have taken their toll here. True, new machinery has made mining more productive, but it has also led to layoffs. Meanwhile, new processes and rich iron-ore deposits in other countries are drawing mining companies elsewhere.

Since the late 1970s, the number of people working the mines has steadily declined from 16,000 to about 6,000 today. The shuttering of the giant LTV Steel Mining Company in Hoyt Lakes this spring will eliminate an additional 1,600 positions.

There are hopes for a new buyer for the mine, that it can be retooled and remade into something else. But there is also a stoic kind of acceptance as well.

Many former LTV employees have already left to find work in other mines. Mine work pays well, on average about $65,000 a year, and the workers here aren't ready to simply say goodbye to that kind of money. But even those who haven't found work at other mines are considering leaving the area only as a last resort.

"Most of the people here are here because they want to be. Why else would you want to put up with 40 below and four feet of snow?" says Jerry Fallos, president of the mine's union, the United Steelworkers of America Local 4108. "There is a lifestyle to the Range. There's the hunting and fishing. It's a good life, a wholesome life."

Some are taking the retraining classes, offered by the union, in construction and electrical work. Others have simply jumped at the chance of steady employment elsewhere. One 12-year LTV veteran left the mine to take work as a custodian, even though it meant a 50 percent pay cut.

And though LTV has offered those who lose their jobs in Hoyt Lakes the opportunity to relocate to Cleveland or Chicago, there are few takers. "This is our life. This is our heritage," Mr. Fallos says.

Of course, change is not new on the Range. When a community builds its future on the riches of the soil, there is an understanding that at some point the land will run dry. And the Mesabi has been through crises before.

"Throughout the history of mining here, people are always kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop," says Ann Glumac, president of the Iron Mining Association of Minnesota.

The mining industry was originally built on the raw ore that lay just beneath the soil. From the 1890s through the World Wars, the Mesabi was the leading producer of iron ore in the United States. But the mining that fueled the Industrial Revolution and war effort left the area tapped of its raw iron reserves by the early 1950s.

What saved the Range was taconite, the very hard rock that encases soft-ore deposits - and contains 20 to 30 percent iron. In the 1950s, a complicated process was developed to separate the iron from the rock. And it is this highly industrial process that the six big mines on the Range deal in today.

There are few pickaxes and headlit helmets. Mining is done in open pits that resemble small-scale Grand Canyons with explosives, enormous vehicles, and massive, medieval-looking plant equipment - giant spiked crushers and mills.

Taconite is literally blown out of the ground with an earth-shaking blast.

Hundreds of tons of rock fragments are then loaded onto giant trucks and taken to mall-size factories. There, the rock is crushed, pounded, and milled until it comes out as a powder finer than flour. That powder is then put through a magnetic separator so that the iron can be removed. The iron is then wetted, mixed with clay and lime, and baked into marble-size pellets that are about 80 percent iron.

The result is a consistent product that steelmakers like. The super-mechanized process, however, also leads to improvements that keep pushing workers out.

Those changes led Minnesota to create the Iron Range Resources Rehabilitation Board, or IRRRB, to help find work for dislocated miners and bring new employers.

Bill Woods has worked as a millwright at Minntac, the largest taconite mine in Minnesota, for 32 years. And he leads tours there now. The most poignant point:

When he started, Minntac produced 14 million tons of pellets a year with 4,200 people. Now it produces 16 million tons with only 1,500 people.

"The only way we can stay competitive in the world is to keep modernizing," Mr. Woods says.

Ironically, it may be modernization that leads to the decreased use of taconite and the closing of mines on the Range. New types of more efficient iron furnaces are being built. LTV, in fact, is spending $200 million to build one such plant in Trinidad and Tobago.

Considering all the changes the mining industry has been through here, one might think it would be best for the people living on the Range to find a new focus for their livelihood. But even if the area can completely retool its economy, the loss of iron mining will be felt.

Mining is more than just a profession here. It has shaped the physical as well as the economic landscape. Hills and small mountains have been created by the red rock dug out of the open pit mines. And at Mineview in the Sky, a tourist sight that overlooks Virginia, the view in every direction is of red-stepped hills that were once mined themselves.

The insular culture created by the mining life and its Scandinavian forebears has given the region a distinctive flavor. There is nary a Starbucks to be found in these parts, and the McDonald's restaurants here are maybe the only ones in the world that feature a "Bratwurst Value Meal."

Then there are the more concrete effects. One may say Detroit was fueled by the auto industry or Pittsburgh was created by steel, but Hoyt Lakes was literally built by mining.

When the mine opened in 1957 as the Erie Mining Co., Erie created Hoyt Lakes out of whole cloth. It constructed the neat rows of Levittown-like houses, the schools, the shopping center. Now that the founding force is leaving, the future of the town - with its population of about 2,000 - is in question.

Even before the announcement by LTV, the town was already in decline. When Fallos's wife graduated from the Hoyt Lakes high school in 1976, she was one of a class of 260. Today, the high school doesn't have enough players to field a football team.

The state and the IRRRB have been trying to expand the area's economic base by focusing on things like logging, tourism and phone "call centers" - a favorite for isolated communities.

But providing new opportunities for miners and moving past the iron heritage are not easy. Northwest Airlines has set up a reservation center in nearby Chisholm that employs 650 and pays about $11 an hour.

"But I don't see a lot of gruff miners that are going to answer phones," says Fallos with a laugh. "It requires ... um ... different skills."

And some of the top tourist sites count on the mining ethos to attract visitors. One of the main features of the tourist trade here is Ironworld Discovery Center, which features interactive mining exhibits and an audio room where visitors can sit and listen to the stories of the settlers who came here for a life of mining.

Another attraction, the Hull Rust Mine, is billed as "the biggest open-pit iron ore mine in the world."

If that weren't enough, across from Ironworld stands "Iron Man," an 81-foot-high steel rendering of an iron miner standing atop steel beams.

The uncertainty and the questions of what will happen next seem to linger beneath every conversation.

At 2:30 p.m. on a Thursday, the Taconite Haven Lounge in Hoyt Lakes is doing a brisk business. Men sit at the bar talking about hockey and fishing, but there is little talk of the mine. Matt Sjoberg, who sits quietly, says the city will probably survive, but the area is forever changed.

"When I moved here in '61, this was a town of young people. Now, it's a city of retirees," says Mr. Sjoberg, who taught school in Hoyt Lakes for 34 years. He says his father always told him the mining game was a risky proposition and urged him to go into teaching. It is a lesson he passed on to his four kids, three of whom have moved away - the other works for the IRRRB.

He still has one link to the mines, though, a brother-in-law who works at Minntac. But even he is not optimistic about what will happen in the near future.

"He's got about four years left before he gets his pension, and he just hopes he makes it," Sjoberg says.

Union man Fallos, who is supervisor of Local 4108's drug and alcohol and psychological services department, says he sees some hard months ahead.

Workers are wondering how they will keep up their standard of living and pay for college for their kids, and they are coming by asking for help. It used to be three or four people a month. He now sees four or five people a week.

Fallos's son just began classes at Hibbing Community College, and the father has been steering his son away from a life in the mines. "At first he was talking about mining engineering, but I think the last 10 years have shown him how unstable it can be," he says. "He's looking at nuclear engineering now."

And even young Tom Calgaro has his doubts. "My dad said to consider electrical engineering because they are really respected at the mines, really well treated," says the teen. "Even if I don't end up at the mines, I could work for the power company or use the degree is some other way. The key thing for me is ending up here."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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