Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Iron Giant -- Footprints

Of the iron ranges along Superior, Mesabi in Minnesota is the greatest. When only Ojibwa lived there, the place was called Misaabe-wajiw, or "Giant's Mountain". And it's here that the Giant's left his largest footprint to date.

I'd no particular desire to visit. But being deeply engaged in the discussion over Gogebic Taconite's Penokee project, I viewed it as a duty.

It's one thing while wandering the untrammeled half of the Gogebic to try and imagine it gone. It's quite another to view the closest approximation -- to fill in imaginings with hard reality and contemplate the real world consequence of an ancient mountain range replaced by a 23 mile long, mile and a half wide, thousand foot deep hole in the ground.

So I ran southwest off Superior's Minnesota shore to track the Giant. That wasn't hard, considering you can see the trail from space:

This is what Earth looks like, when you've removed more than a billion tons of material from its face, nearly half of that waste.

Though you can take a few days to tour the Mesabi Range and Minnesota strongly encourages you to do that, I'd just come off our trip to Pukaskwa and back so relied on my invaluable Gazetteer to cut straight through the heart of the matter.

First stop along the way was the town of Virginia and the popular tourist overlook featuring its pride and joy:

I'm told Virginia is seriously undermined, that much of the town sits atop a cavernous void left by removing great quantities of high quality iron from deep reaches. 

But abandoned underground mines are everywhere along the south shore of Superior, so that makes Virginia MN nothing special. Countless towns and villages are dependent on crumbling pillars of stone or decades old timbers steadily rotting in moist, inaccessible darkness -- all that remains to prevent whole communities from disappearing suddenly in cataclysmic collapse.

With high quality iron mostly mined, today we scrape what's left right off the face of the Earth.

Standing at the overlook in Virginia as dust from scabbed hills in nearly all directions rises to the clear August sky, looking down at water filled canyons where the metal'd played out long ago and only the scar persists, I thought I'd really seen something. And nearly blew off the rest of the day in order to head home to my own sleepy iron range of days gone by -- the long settled, now silent Gogebic.

Duty persevered and I pressed on to Hibbing, childhood home of Bob Dylan and current home to the Iron Giant.

Hibbing seems a charming enough place and reasonably prosperous to boot. Detoured by a car show held on Main Street, I found myself briefly on Bob Dylan Drive. A happy bonus I didn't pursue, as I was then deep on the trail of the Giant, still hoping to make it out of Minnesota, through Wisconsin, into Michigan and all the way back to my own personal harbor of safe refuge before darkness fell.

They make it easy in Hibbing, to find the Hull Rust Mahoning Mine. It's well marked by signage, though I still can't decide whether having the word rust in the name of an iron mine is wholly appropriate or strictly perverse. A free mixture of both I suppose and typically American, for sure.

On the way up the hill to Hull Rust, you first pass the Greyhound Bus Museum  and then a park called "North Hibbing", which even at a glance seems a peculiar place. More on that in a bit.

From there it's only a short drive to a notable tourist spot festooned in genuine carnival atmosphere.

At more than three miles long, better than two miles wide and made deeper than 535 feet with every shovelful removed, the Hull Rust is a National Historic Landmark, said to be the biggest active open pit iron mine in the world and is compared by its barkers to the Grand stinkin' Canyon.

Behold the fabled Hull Rust in all its pictorial glory, viewing from left to right:

Trust me, it's way bigger than it looks here. Truly, the footprint of a giant.

Having seen what I came for and done what I must, I turned for home but on the way out stopped briefly to grab a few images of the curious "North Hibbing", figuring to research that at a later date.

Turns out "North Hibbing" used to be Hibbing MN, until the increasing appetite of the Iron Giant ate it up. Made national news in 1919, it did. Today it's the most strangely evocative park I've seen in all my travels around the Superior Basin, featuring tree-lined streets with curbs bordering sidewalks and stairs that lead to nowhere -- and all beneath old timey street lamps installed to illuminate nothing, except perhaps a faded past and then only in the dark of night.

Exhausted from eleven days on the road and shaken by having at last met the Iron Giant firsthand, I hurtled east through Minnesota. A roiling storm ran parallel to the south. Towering clouds boiled tens of thousands of miles up then down again, for hours throwing perfect light along my way. I never so much as paused.

When I reached the legendary hills upon which we hung Duluth to obliterate all evidence of millennial cohabitation with the lake and give vast wetlands older than collective memory over to Capital concern, I finally saw Superior spread out again before me. Gray light flowed to blue to green and beyond any perceptible horizon, the whole of the world rising and falling and changing with every living breath of the greatest inland sea.

Then the storm broke above me but only briefly, racing ahead to fail through Wisconsin.

In full light I made it back to Michigan and Bessemer, back to the Gogebic's shaded hills and the comforts of home, thanks to the length of days in August.

And with that, the summer season of this year for gathering drew to a close.


OK fine. So there's a big-assed hole in the ground and it's a tourist attraction of passing interest for folk wandering the otherwise rural wilderness of Minnesota. What of it, right?

Well, here's the thing...

For those of you who've followed along, you'll recall Gogebic Taconite's interest in the Penokee Hills of the Gogebic Range. If you're new to this Odyssey or otherwise crave a refresher, look here, here, here and here, then here.

Then look at those images of Hull Rust again. The Cline Group's proposal was to make where the Penokees now rise a hole in the ground a bit less wide, twice as deep and 20 miles longer than the giant's footprint upon Mesabi that you can see from space. Take that Minnesota, with your puny tourist attraction:

Distance from Hibbing to Virginia MN

But you might well ask:

"Wasn't legislation written specifically to allow for Governor Walker's Cline Group buddies to replace the Penokees with a massive hole and dump the 100 million tons or so of resultant waste atop the local watershed so to threaten the pristine Kakagon/Bad River sloughs and through those Lake Superior itself actually defeated by the Wisconsin State legislature?"

And to that I'd reply, "Sure. Along strict party lines, save for a single Republican Senator who broke rank and was labeled a turncoat, as it was his vote alone that scotched the deal."

"So what's the problem", sez you.

On November 6th, the good citizens of Wisconsin gave the their State Senate a Republican majority of two. Soon to be three, pending a special election to be held this December in a solid Republican district.

When first we began this Odyssey, the Iron Giant was stirring, after many years of slumber. Today he's freshly awake.

No matter that at present he's likely vacationing down in Florida within spittin' distance of a yacht called "Mine Games", be assured -- he can see Wisconsin all the way from there.

And needs no satellite to do it, either...


  1. Just for accuracy's sake, Bob Dylan wasn't born in Hibbing, MN. He & his family moved to Hibbing from Duluth when he was 6 years old. <);^D%~

  2. Of course you're right and I've amended the post to reflect that. In my defense I can only say that was among the most harried days of the entire project. Anyway, I appreciate the correction. Not only are facts critically important, but when someone like you is kind enough to point out an error, it tells me folk are paying attention. Thank-you.