EVELETH — In a cold environment, far from their homelands, strangers came together. They came together in the mines. They came together on the ice. The Iron Range became the hockey hub of North America.
Hockey was used to entertain children, to find pride in our communities and to bring immigrant populations together. These teams and fans needed a place to call home. So, they created a place for their families — The Eveleth Hippodrome.
The Hippodrome is a hockey icon in a hockey town. Although it is at a lower elevation than the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame building, it is higher in many hearts.
Roxi Rejali, a former Mesabi Daily News writer, began an article by stating “Eveleth’s Hippodrome is a monument to Eveleth’s love affair with hockey.” Her article went on to quote, then-Eveleth City Councilor Tom Coombe as saying, “The family, the church, and the Hipp — take those away, and you’ve taken away the heart and soul of Eveleth.”
Built in the 1920’s the “Hipp,” as it is lovingly known, opened on Jan. 1, 1922. Originally home to the Eveleth Reds, a team in the United States Amateur Hockey League, the first game they played the Reds defeated the Duluth Hornets, 10-6, to full crowd in attendance.
Today, the Hipp is home to the Eveleth-Gilbert Golden Bears and many younger teams.
Why was the Hippodrome, the “Madison Square Garden of the Northland” built in the Iron Range town of Eveleth? That is a question for the ages.
The first official game of hockey played in Eveleth was on Jan. 23, 1903. The game was played at the Eveleth rink and the local team was defeated 5-2. The Eveleth players were: E. Ellingson, Woodard, Blake, Horrison, Herman, F. Ellingson and J. Clark.
In 1919, a group of business and professional men created the Eveleth Hockey Association. Some of the forming members were: Charles Hale, Edward Hatch (who would later become an Eveleth mayor and later the mayor of duluth), Victor Essling (who would later become an Eveleth mayor), Leonard Peterson (later a team manager) and A.J. “Tony” Van Buskirk (a pioneer resident of Eveleth). Other guiding spirits were George McCormick and Timothy Shea.
Some of their first hockey players included: Art Sullivan, “Nobby” Clark, Oscar Gerhke, Bill Monette, Frank Cadham and Bernie McTigue. Later players included: Jim Seaborn, Ching Johnson, Ade Johnson, Bernie McTiegue, Nicklin, Percy Galbraith and Billy Hill. Team mangers included: Leonard Peterson, Tom Monroe and Dr. William S. King.
In the 1920-21 season, the Eveleth Hockey Association soon became a member of the United States Amateur Hockey League as a member of Group 3. Along with Eveleth, other teams in the league at the time were Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Canadian Soo, American Soo and St. Paul. Other teams in Group 3 were Calumet, Houghton, American Soo and Canadian Soo. This was the first season of six-man hockey.
That season, Eveleth earned the USAHA Group 3 title with 13 wins and 1 loss. The Eveleth team also won the league’s McHaughton Trophy by defeating the American Soo team, 10-1.
Following the successful 1920-21 season, Eveleth Mayor Victor Essling, an early member of the Eveleth Hockey Association, pushed and paid for the construction of the Hippodrome. Essling was a native of St. Peter and a lawyer, promoter and developer. The building of the Hippodrome became entangled in lawsuits questioning if it was the city’s right to construct or operate the new building. Nothing came of the issue although it was called “a hot political potato.”
In 1921, the original structure of the Hippodrome was constructed at 230’x150’, with an ice surface of 190’x90’, had seating for 3,000 spectators and was built of wood at the cost of $50,000. It was paid for by Essling.
It was built in 1921 and the property of the private Eveleth Athletic Club. At the time of construction, it was the first indoor hockey arena west of Chicago.
The article by Rejali states, “The rink was the home of the Eveleth Rangers, the town’s own professional hockey team. Hockey players imported from Canada played in a major hockey league that was a forerunner to the NHL.”
In 1923, “City of Eveleth, its officers and the city’s bonding and surety company were sued in district court in Virginia for paying salaries out of city funds to its baseball and hockey players,” according to the Vintage MN Hockey website. It is said that the city paid the players as a way to entertain miners and their families. Nothing came of the allegations.
The 1925-26 season was the last “Big Time” hockey for Eveleth. Eveleth joined with Hibbing to form the Eveleth-Hibbing Rangers and joined the Central Hockey Association.
The 1926-27 season found this league as a member of the professional circuit with the National Hockey League. Eveleth-Hibbing did not join the newly named American Hockey Association professional league. Throughout the next decades leagues formed and folded with Eveleth always represented.
Not long after construction, the city of Eveleth purchased the Hippodrome.
In 1938, the structure received major renovation as the wood walls were replaced with brick. The lobby, which stood on the west side and whose walls were being held up by telephone poles, was torn down and replace with a new lobby that was added to the south side of the building. This construction also led to the renovation of the original steel beams and trusses and a concrete base was erected. More seating was added and lockers were installed in the basement. The total cost was $150,000.
Eveleth was home to hockey lovers and teams. The community incubated great hockey talent and has sent players to amateur, professional and Olympic teams. Eveleth youth found themselves skating across the world after skating down Eveleth streets and across the Hippodrome.
“For several years the Hershey Chocolate Corporation, of Hershey Penn., had a team of Eveleth Players,” states Gilbert P. Finnegan in an essay written with a typewriter in 1952. “At San Diego California, the hockey team that were champions of the Pacific Coast League from 1940 to 1943, were with the exception of one player, all Eveleth boys. The University of Illinois had at one time, a complete college team of Eveleth players.”
As the players continued to grow so too did the Hippodrome with updates. Chicken wire was wrapped around wooden posts to protect spectators from flying pucks. This was eventually replaced with Plexiglas. Numbered cards were hung on the wall to display game statistics but this was eventually replaced with an electronic scoreboard.
Before a Zamboni called the Hipp home, a 55-gallon barrel of water wheeled over the ice and equipped with valves was used to resurface the ice.
In 1950, concrete flooring and refrigeration brought artificial ice into the building — an improvement on the natural ice and refrigeration on which was earlier depended. Although, Mother Nature can always be depended on for cold, northern winters, artificial ice made the Hippodrome more comfortable for both players and spectators.
On Jan. 7, 1950, the first game on the new ice was played by the Eveleth Rangers and Duluth Teves.
Brought to the Iron Range as a mining executive with the Ogelby-Norton and Eveleth Taconite Companies, D. Kelley Campbell put forth the effort to open the United States Hockey Hall of Fame in Eveleth in 1973.
In the mid-1980s, Eveleth voters approved a general referendum for a bond issue for Hippodrome repairs by a margin of 83.25 percent. As a result, in 1985, several renovations were made to the deteriorating structure. The roof was blanketed with 4-inch-thick urethane insulation. The wood stove was upgraded to modern heating which recycled hot air from the ice plant compressor. A dehumidification system was installed to lower the moisture level inside the arena. Locker rooms were doubled in size. The lobby, canteen and bathrooms were remodeled.
The 1985 renovates cost about $800,000, according to 1986 article by Rejali quoting Coombe.
In 2002, more recent renovations added four locker rooms, two coach rooms and replaced the concrete boards with boards used in NHL rinks.
Jerry Zgoda, of the Star Tribune, published an article in 2004 about the history of the Hippodrome. Zgoda explains that immigrants came to the area for mining jobs and this created a mixture of residents and future hockey players.
“Their immigrant parents worked the mines that built Eveleth after an 1891 windstorm tore the land and revealed rich iron-ore deposits underneath. U.S. Steel bosses positioned a Finn next to a Slovenian, an Italian next to a Swede so they would work rather than talk, a tactic that in time produced a unique brand of gibberish that every Iron Ranger understood.”
In his typed essay, Finnegan said, “Some of the Twin Cities newspaper men asked the Eveleth boys what they considered the outstanding feature of their team. They told the newspaper men that it was the fact that they had a real AMERICAN team. The boys than explained that the members of that team and all Eveleth hockey teams, had boys of Finnish, Slovenian, Italian, Swedish, Irish, English, French and other nationalities on their teams.
Possibly Eveleth in its small way, through its ability to have people of all nationalities, creeds, divergent background and cultures, and have them live together in harmony, and work together as a team, has in some way accomplished the goal that is the cherished dream of mankind, and are in truth practicing what the United Nations is working to accomplish on a world basis.”
As both Zgoda and Finnegan point out, a variety of nationalities moved to the Iron Range to work as miners. After years and generations together, this group created their own culture, in Eveleth, it was a culture based on hockey. Through the years their families had worked together in the mines, their sons learned to work together on the ice- creating a successful sub-culture of their own.
Miners. Eveleth boys. Hockey boys. Iron Rangers.