It was in the late 1800s when Frank Hibbing’s iron discovery was growing beyond reasonable imagination. Oliver Mining Company was among the first to dig into the land in 1893, which was valued at $85 million in 19th century money. Knowing this, according to the Minnesota Historical Society, Hibbing warned residents to build their homes south of what he called “his” town. It was known then as the “richest village in the world” and Hibbing prophecy would prove true soon enough.
Demand for steel continued to grow with the Oliver Mining Company’s operation. By 1910, history says, the mine closed in on three sides of Hibbing and threatened to make it an island surrounded by mine dump. But the company said as early as 1912 that it would not force Hibbing residents to move, even after Hibbing incorporated with nearby Alice, to the south, where Frank had urged people to settle.
Oliver Mining Company was a subsidiary of U.S. Steel at this time. Henry Oliver had founded the company in 1888 and the Mesabi Iron Range was its first large venture before joining forces with the steel giant. But before U.S. Steel altered the region, it was Oliver. After World War I broke out in 1918, the company ended its effort to avoid relocating Hibbing as demand for steel to make bullets, guns and machines to send to Europe grew exponentially.
By 1919, Mayor Victor Power agreed to the proposal, and Hibbing began the largest move the region had ever — and has still — seen. But that wasn’t until a number of showdowns in the public arena and courthouse between Power and the company, and was later dubbed “The Biggest Village in the World.”
According to a July 1919 article in the Hibbing Daily Tribune, the sight of moving homes and businesses was common in the town. Homes and buildings were moved in entirety, situating them onto old trailers and pulling them with cars or heavy machinery, similar to locomotive engines.
“The ‘Richest Village’ is on the move, and it keeps residents and business men guessing as to just how much of it will move, and what will become of the rest of it,” the article stated. “It is a big operation and cannot be done al lat [sic] once, but it is certain that Oliver Iron Mining company will soon need the ore on the townsite forty.”
The importance of Hibbing Taconite to Iron Range and American history begins ages ago, when the mine helped supply critical steel needed for both world wars and 75 percent of the ore that would help fight World War II from 1939 to 1945.
Hibbing Taconite and the Iron Range would survive a number of downturns in the mining industry, but it didn’t come without inflicting pain on the miners and the surrounding cities. In the 1980s, about 10,000 workers lost their jobs in by far the most widespread and impactful down cycle, losing more than 60 percent of the state’s mining workforces.
Another 1,400 lost their jobs when LTV Mining shuttered its Hoyt Lakes operation in 2011 and 1,000 faced layoffs in 2009, when several mines idled before a 2010 rebound. In 2015, cheap imported steel led to about 2,000 workers facing layoffs and it took a former presidential chief of staff to step in and help tariffs go into place under the Obama administration.
Most recently, the coronavirus temporarily put about 1,500 of the industry’s 4,100 employees out of work in April 2020, with some lasting until the summer months and Keewatin Taconite until December.
Mining accounts for about 7 percent of total jobs on the Iron Range, but is 17 percent of the region’s total payroll, at an average wage of about $90,000. According to estimates from the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation, each mining job creates nearly two additional jobs for the region.
That’s why the fear of an entire mine closing can ripple through the region. Sure, there’s the business end of it, where the company needs to find ore to meet its order sheets, which is why a company like Cleveland-Cliffs and ArcelorMittal USA before it are trying to find viable solutions. But if you’ve ever been to the Iron Range during a downturn, particularly the one in 2015 — when the overall U.S. economy remained in good shape, there was no pandemic, and yet, the industry was down — there’s an eerie quiet tension about the area.
It also explains the anxiety of the West Range, mostly in Keewatin and Nashwauk, which have seen the former Essar Steel Minnesota project flop and go bankrupt once, Magnetation close with hopes to reopen under Prairie River soon, and Keewatin Taconite idle longer than any other mine in the region. It was down for nearly two years after the 2015 downturn and reopened months after the other six mines in the region after COVID-related idles, gaining it the “first to close, last to open” mantra from the region.
Many will look back at the 2001 LTV closing over on the East Range as a microcosm of what Hibbing and the West Range could face if HibTac closes down. LTV never reopened and has gone through a decade-plus permitting and environmental review process in an attempt to open Minnesota’s first-ever copper-nickel mine on the grounds of the defunct mine.
As that process has moved along, coupled with the other downturns and economic factors of small cities, Aurora lost a grocery store and drug store in town and the once-bustling streets of Hoyt Lakes are mainly tail lights to jobs out of town.
That’s just for those who stuck around and didn’t leave the region for work elsewhere.
For Hibbing Taconite, the easy solutions are relatively off the table for now. Nashwauk and the old Essar project could be available come May, but that’s a looming unknown.
For years, the idea of a land swap with U.S. Steel — which owns part of the mine — was seen as an even simpler solution. The land that would help HibTac is known as the Carmi-Campbell leases that are now controlled by U.S. Steel and Keetac. When the Great Northern Iron Ore Properties Trust expired in 2015, three active taconite mines held operations on leased land: Minntac, Keetac and HibTac, with Keetac sharing a border with HibTac that extends about 5 miles.
The Carmi-Campbell, Mississippi-Enterprise and Grant leases were set to expire on Dec. 31, 2010, and even then HibTac representatives knew the life of ore at the mine and worried about it. But after some maneuvering, which was challenged in an unsuccessful lawsuit in 2019, the Carmi leases went to Keetac.
Negotiations with U.S. Steel, Cliffs and Arcelor never reached the point of an agreement, despite efforts from the state Department of Natural Resources and governor to find something amicable for both sides.
The worry and concern for HibTac continued into this month, until a surprise and vague announcement came from Lourenco Goncalves, chairman, president and CEO of Cliffs.
Did he have a solution? Yes, it seemed so.
Aaron Brown, Lee Bloomquist and MPR News contributed to this report.