Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Iron Giant -- Introduction

Iron is the second tine to a forked dragon’s tail that with the Industrial Age first curled around the Superior basin and has yet to release its grip.

King Copper being sly enough to adapt to modern times, today it primes a curiously Keynesian economic pump with Internet towers and student scholarships and infrastructure assistance thrown knowingly around. So while King Copper’s interests are better served in the bargain, rose petals are strewn along its way. Nice job, when ‘ya can create it for yourself.

Iron remains a blind, blundering giant of the 19th Century; a time when corporate finesse was industrial strength weakness and not even the appearance of that was allowed lest workers lay claim to their labor, the ambitions of Capital come undone and the Republic ultimately fall.

Today Iron stirs afresh. Wielding cash hardened political muscle to clear a wide path, showing little regard for neighborly consideration and with but cursory concern for the breadth of its destructive footprint, the Giant again intends to stride shaded hills.

And you must get the Hell out of the way or be crushed, as Iron recognizes no third option and cares nothing for the mitigation of your hard choices, no matter how cheap the going rate.


On the Gogebic Range, courtesy of the Philip J. Kucera Collection

Iron and its child steel transformed the world to make it modern. The Iron Horse. The Plow that Broke the Plains. Buildings ten stories tall. The automobile, for goodness sake. And it’s around iron product we form concrete; to keep the roads and bridges upon which everything runs from ready collapse; as once rebar rusts too well, collapse those do.

All Earth’s iron was formed a couple billion years ago, give or take. With the advent of oxygen sufficient to support complex life, the reproductive age of iron came to a relatively abrupt end. Today most iron roils molten near the Earth’s core and can’t be harvested. What we collect is but an ancient scab to be scraped off by human ingenuity, ample elbow grease applied. A grand portion of North America’s exploitable iron is located in the Superior Basin, another happy accident of ancient geology, the legacy of volcanism and the glories of the Proterozoic eon.

Small wonder the Giant remains uncivilized, even today.

The Gogebic Range straddles northern Wisconsin into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It’s at the southern edge of the Laurentian Plateau, where rocks from the near the beginning of geologic time are exposed to sun, wind, rain and easy pickin’s. And just like Momma told us, picking puts scabs at risk of infection and at best leaves a lasting scar.

From the late 1800’s to about 1920, mines dug deep into the eastern stretch of the Gogebic were the nation’s greatest producers of iron and essential to the creation of industrial America. A wilderness that prior to 1880 was considered “impenetrable” fell quickly in the Giant’s path.

Ironwood MI, courtesy of the Philip J. Kucera Collection

The eastern portion of this ancient range is dotted with remnant mining towns. Viewed from Bessemer at night, these shine like a string of Christmas lights strung across the undermined hills. Through boom & bust, much of the western portion of the Range remained unmolested, as changing technology aligned with geologic coincidence to make the exploitation of iron less profitable there. Save for the axmen, whose considerable efforts irrevocably altered the face of the place, what’s now called the Penokee Hills is nearly as remote and wild a place today as it was before white men first stumbled upon the rough riches within them, though the earliest inhabitants would hardly recognise the hills as theirs.

Some folk just can’t leave well enough alone, especially when hard times beg for easy answers.

Tuesday night the Wisconsin State Senate defeated by a single vote legislation written specifically to ease the way of a privately held Company out of Florida, whose ambition it was to blast and scrape the ancient Penokee Hills from the face of the Earth.

In addition to a persistently fluctuating number of much needed jobs, the intensely private Cline Group’s subsidiary GogebicTaconite promised to leave us with a hole in the ground that -- depending on who was talking when & to whom -- would have been up to 1.5 miles wide, 1,000 feet deep and some 22 miles long, which is one helluva footprint even for an Iron Giant and so much for the Penokee Hills.

Before it could rain prosperity upon the Range, Gogebic Taconite insisted it first be relieved of 21st Century environmental considerations and permitting processes. That such prior restrictions placed in the way of outsider’s ambitions were a direct response made by the good citizens of Wisconsin to a hundred years of previous promises come to ill was no concern of theirs.

Upon this insistence that history must be ignored the question turned, at least for today. Immediately, Gogebic Taconite made good on its longstanding threat to pack up its promises and go home, good stinkin’ riddance to those more troublesome citizens of Wisconsin.

The Iron Giant is accustomed to old ways and unconcerned who knows it. Thankfully, it’ll never be the 19th Century again. Not even in the Northwoods, not even that some prefer otherwise.

Still, no one should believe this high stakes game is over just because a single hand seems played out. The resource remains untapped, awaiting only renewed ambition fueled by fresh perspective earned through temporary setback. Should the Cline Group not return and there’s yet a dollar to be made on iron still in the Range, someone else will ask for credit to buy in.

And maybe Gogebic Taconite’ll make ‘em a deep discount deal on all the spiffy lawn signs presently gone for naught:

Even considering the ‘which side are ‘ya on boys’ crapola offered up by those most eager to dance in the Giant’s shadow, the sort honest discussion that’s essential for citizens to make wise decisions on critical matters of unalterable permanence has held this day for the Penokee Hills. And for every citizen willing to love a wild place for what it is instead of for what corporate ambition promises to make it.

Turns out we’ve made a far more inclusive, critically transparent culture than when last the Giant walked. That’s the thought to hold to for when next it’s sorely needed, as it certainly will be.


The Iron Giant’s footsteps stretch far and wide around the Superior Basin. Neither rain nor wind washes those away. They won’t erode beneath the sun, are never completely obscured by resurgent wilderness and the passage of time. Where once the Giant walked at worst there remains infection, at best a permanent scar.

There’s another, more neighborly sign common on the Range: “Mining: Our history, our culture, our future”. That’s a premise that can be properly explored.

Since we can’t miss the Giant’s tracks along our way, over the coming months we’ll look to the history of iron exploitation around Superior to examine exactly what legacy it’s bequeathed to the culture. And we’ll be sure to come back ‘round to the Gogebic as needed, to press informed questions as regards the future.

Under any circumstance, especially those in constant flux during dire times like these, mining the field for hard evidence figures to be a more profitable venture than merely betting to collect on familiar promises easily ignored once the hand’s played out with the resource good & gone…

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