The Ojibwe called the hills Missabe, the "sleeping giant" - land that lay undisturbed for millennia until the demand for iron drew prospectors to the area in the 1800s. The three iron ranges they uncovered define one of Minnesota's most distinctive regions.
Over billions of years, geological forces left behind ore deposits of varied quality and concentrations - differences that would determine how the ore was mined from place to place. On the Vermilion Range, between Tower and Ely, lay the deepest veins of ore. There, miners worked in deep underground mines, blasting the ore from volcanic bedrock.
On the Mesabi Range, stretching 100 miles from Grand Rapids to Babbitt, soft ore lay close to the surface, where it could be scooped from open pit mines. The smaller Cuyuna Range, in Crow Wing and Aitkin counties, was the last to be mined because the high manganese content of its ore made processing difficult.
Prospectors came to Lake Vermilion in the 1860s to search for gold. It was the discovery of iron ore, however, that led Pennsylvania industrialist Charlemagne Tower to buy vast tracts of land on the Vermilion Range. In 1882 he organized the Minnesota Iron Company and two years later shipped his first ore, dug from the company's Soudan Mine. The ore traveled by rail on the company-run Duluth & Iron Range Railroad to Lake Superior for shipment to eastern ports.
Explorations in 1890 by the Merritt brothers of Duluth - known as the "Seven Iron Men" - laid the groundwork for their Mountain Iron Mine, which marked the opening of the great Mesabi Range. Their second mine, opened at Biwabik in 1891, secured the Mesabi Range's future legacy in rich hematite ore. The Merritt brothers' railroad, the Duluth, Missabe & Northern, carried its first carload of ore in 1892 to ore docks in Superior, Wis., across the bay from Duluth, itself a major shipping port. A decade later the Mesabi Range boasted over 100 open pit mines.
Last to be opened, the Cuyuna Range in Crow Wing County, about 100 miles west of Duluth, was discovered by Cuyler Adams in 1904. The range's distinctive name derived from the first syllable of Cuyler and his dog, Una. With both open pit and underground mines, the Cuyuna produced the relatively scarce metal manganese, supplying roughly 90 percent of the country's output during World War I.
The demand for men to work the iron ranges coincided with massive emigration from Europe. Because mining jobs required few English language skills and little skilled work experience, they were tailor-made for the new arrivals. By 1900, fully seventy percent of immigrants on the iron ranges came from Finland, Sweden, Slovenia and Croatia. They joined people from dozens of other countries, making northeastern Minnesota the state's great melting pot. While the various immigrant groups lived and worked together, their individual identities were preserved in churches, synagogues, social halls and other institutions that remain important in each community today.
As mines multiplied and the iron mining industry grew, communities sprang up in a linear fashion across the three ranges. Mining activities often dictated where the towns would - or wouldn't - take root. The earliest townsites, called "locations," were rudimentary settlements near the mines. Crosby and Ironton, only a mile apart, grew in such close proximity that they became known as the Cuyuna Twins. Several towns, including Eveleth and Gilbert on the Mesabi Range, were relocated when found to be sitting atop rich veins of ore. Much of Hibbing's "North Forty," an area eventually surrounded on three sides by huge open pits, was moved a mile to the south by the Oliver Mining Company beginning in the 1910s, despite community protest.
By the Progressive Era early in the 20th century, coalitions of mining companies, merchants and civic leaders began to improve their communities with new schools, sanitation systems, health facilities, recreational programs and other improvements. The companies also built model towns such as Coleraine, Marble and Taconite.
From 1900 to 1980, the Mesabi Range contributed about sixty percent of the country's total iron ore output. Production peaked during 1941 to 1945, when Minnesota shipped more than 338 million tons to serve the nation's needs during World War II. Production remained high in the 1950s, and then began to decline. It had taken less than 100 years for industrial demand to deplete the supply of high-grade ore.
To resuscitate the region's major industry at mid-century, scientists at the University of Minnesota developed a process to mine taconite, a low-grade ore that could be concentrated into pellets. After World War II, taconite production dominated the mining industry and led to creation of new communities and taconite processing plants. By the 1980s, taconite was the area's primary export.
In recent years, as mining became less dominant in the region's economy, community leaders took advantage of the area's spectacular landscape and industrial heritage to attract tourists to the region. Many of the properties featured here now operate as historic sites; others still serve their original purpose or have been adapted for other uses.