Life in the Iron Range

Letter From the Upper Midwest

At Mineview in the Sky, a tourist attraction in Virginia, Minnesota, you can see, with binoculars that cost a quarter to operate, white smoke rising from the top of hills laden with iron ore that are still being mined, while the towns around them sit nestled in the valley below.

Three decades ago, no one would have thought that people from Minneapolis would want to travel all the way up to Virginia, about an hour and a half from the Canadian border, to browse a gift shop with a full-scale model of U.S. Steel’s mining operation in Mt. Iron, buy ethnic Iron Range quilts, look at a landscape that resembles the surface of the Moon, or take group pictures in one of the large shovels used to scoop up the low-grade iron ore that is processed into the steel pellets known as taconite before being transported via the Messabi Railroad to the ore docks of Duluth, Superior, and Two Harbors and shipped by Great Lakes freighter to the steel mills of Gary, Hammond, and Cleveland.

And certainly, nobody would have thought that an aged couple from the Twin Cities would want to buy a cheap retirement home in an Iron Range town or on an Iron Range lake, to live out the rest of their lives in bleak little mining towns with boarded-up storefronts, towns the young and ambitious—such as Boston Celtics star and Minnesota Timberwolves vice president and head coach Kevin McHale or one Robert Zimmerman, a.k.a. Bob Dylan, who both...

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