Buried Treasure

On the Iron Range, the surging commodities market may bring prosperity. But it might also threaten one of the state's greatest natural resources.

DEEP IN MINNESOTA'S NORTH WOODS, a doughy 24-year-old in a flannel shirt and camouflage baseball cap turns the wheel of a Ford F-150 pickup to steer from a paved two-lane highway onto a dirt road. As he taps the accelerator, majestic pines and birch rise out to the horizon. A few minutes later, a desolate clearing materializes on the right, stretching for at least a mile. "That's the Dunka pit," the driver says. "It was mined out for iron ore."

The truck rumbles on. The woods, still and quiet, have again closed ranks around the road, which grows narrower and bumpier. "Duluth Metals bought up a lot of this land for exploration," the driver says. "We'll see what happens."

Passing through an open gate, the truck drives into the federally owned Superior National Forest. A few minutes on, the old logging road veers sharply and the truck powers up a muddy hill.

Water pours out of a pipe holding core excavated from 1,600 feet below the surface
Jonathan Kaminsky
Water pours out of a pipe holding core excavated from 1,600 feet below the surface


See not one but two photo slideshows highlighting life on the drill rig and other aspects of mining in northeastern Minnesota. Also see Jonathan Kaminsky's Reporter's Notebook.

There, in a small, man-made clearing, alongside a pit of burbling brown water, stands the reason for this trip. Hulking, painted bright yellow, humming loudly, it is the defining piece of machinery for this moment in northeastern Minnesota's history. It is a drill, and it is boring half a mile beneath the earth's surface, bringing up evidence of a wealth of valuable metals. The driver, Franconia mining company geologist Neil Smith, pulls up alongside the rig and cuts his engine.

"Here it is," he says, smiling.

Minnesota is on the cusp of a new kind of mining, for copper, nickel, and cobalt, as well as gold, silver, and palladium metals, which could produce the greatest economic boom in northeastern Minnesota in three decades. The third-largest untapped vein of nickel in the world, the biggest deposit of platinum in the country, enough copper to keep digging for decades: It all amounts to an immense treasure chest that mining companies, backed by deep-pocketed investors, are intent on prying open.

"These are important commodities for the United States and the world," says Henry Sandri, CEO and president of Duluth Metals, one of five companies planning to dig up the minerals in the North Woods. "If people think we're short of oil, they ought to look at the crunch we're in on these metals."

Then there are the jobs: Combined, the mining companies would likely employ upward of 2,500 full-time workers, earning an average of $50,000 a year, in addition to thousands more temporary construction workers.

"We've seen our communities shrink and our school districts consolidate," says state Rep. Tom Rukavina (DFL-Virginia). "This is a really important chance for us to rebound."

But sulfide mining, as it is known, carries with it a set of environmental hazards more severe than those posed by the more familiar iron ore and taconite industries. The leaching of acid and heavy metals from unearthed rock could threaten aquatic life in nearby streams, rivers, and lakes for generations to come.

Ann Foss, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's mining sector director, downplays these concerns, saying her agency will work with companies to "avoid, minimize, and mitigate environmental impacts."

But her words—and the regulatory machinery behind them—don't calm critics' fears. "This is a new, really big era in mining," says Janette Brimmer, policy director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. "With everything that implies—good and bad."

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IN 1865, with the Civil War coming to an end, Gov. Stephen Miller dispatched an ambitious geologist to northeastern Minnesota. Following clues from a preliminary geological survey done a year earlier, Henry Eames made a beeline for the white-pine-studded eastern shore of Lake Vermillion. After few days of digging, he struck gold.

Word of the discovery spread quickly. By that fall, roughly 500 men, many of them returning war veterans seeking their fortune, had trudged from Duluth through dozens of miles of rugged, frozen forests, arriving at the banks of Lake Vermillion. A town soon rose around them, complete with general stores, saloons, a dozen or so ramshackle boardinghouses, and a post office with weekly mail delivery. By that summer, Winston City, as it was named, was home to 15 companies prospecting for gold.

Unlike the easily mined gold found in California, however, Minnesota's treasure was trapped beneath wickedly hard greenstone and encased in unyielding quartz. Two men swinging pickaxes could expect to spend a full day on a single six-inch hole. With the trace amounts of gold and the difficulty extracting it, the effort proved a fool's errand.

Within two years, as prospectors headed for new promises of gold in Montana, Winston City was all but abandoned. But one man stayed behind: George Stuntz, a master surveyor, had taken note of another buried treasure: rust-colored iron ore.

Beneath the hills overlooking Lake Vermillion, Stuntz, with backing from a Philadelphia tycoon named Charlemagne Tower, laid the groundwork for an iron mine. In 1884, the Minnesota Mine became the first commercial iron mine in the state. Workers were shipped across Lake Superior from iron mines in Michigan. In 10-hour shifts, wearing soft hats with candles attached, they chipped away at the ore with pickaxes.

The Iron Range is actually three separate veins of iron ore, which started forming nearly three billion years ago, first from volcanic eruptions and later beneath shallow seas that long covered much of the state. Tower's mine was on what came to be known as the Vermillion Range, extending 25 miles in a narrow band from the Minnesota Mine east to the wilds beyond Ely. Further south, a square-shaped expanse of iron outcroppings, the Cuyuna Range—named partly after its discoverer, Cuyler Adams, and partly after his loyal St. Bernard, Una—opened a few years later. But the largest and most important of the three ranges was the Mesabi. A hundred miles long and about three miles across, with dense pockets of reddish ore, the Mesabi would quickly become the locus of iron mining in the state.

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