Mine closures, jobs lost, families uprooted, relocating out of state to find work. This has been the fate of thousands of workers in the Iron Ore mining industry since 1980. When Taconite first came on the scene back in the late 60’s huge retooling and construction projects took off all over the region. Now new processes and techniques require another rebuild in the mining industry. Many new construction jobs and permanent positions will soon be opening up.
As the percentage of iron in the natural iron ore was dwindling, a new process came on line to extract and condense the iron into small balls containing a very high percentage of iron. Taconite mining required huge complexes that crushed the ore into a powder, extracted the iron through a magnetic process, and formed the material into small balls the size of a youngsters marble. The result was a very high grade product that was ready for use in the steel mills out east.
This brought construction workers to the area in droves. The small towns dotting the iron range expanded and grew as fast as they could. Unable to provide enough housing, temporary trailer parks were established on the grounds of the County Fair. Forcing the workers to move during the week the fair was in operation. Large mobile home parks sprang up, the economy was growing, life was good for the area. From 1970 to 1980 the Iron Range of Minnesota thrived. A good middle class income was available to all who wanted to work the mines. Many families had two, or three members employed either directly at a mine, or through off shoot industries in the area that popped up to support the mining industry.
By 1980, the mining industry started suffering set backs, competition, lower demand, followed by large layoffs. Shortly some mines began closing down. The area went into decline. The mobile home parks, once full to capacity started emptying out. Left empty to be overgrown by weeds, only the lonely power meters on posts replacing the families who were forced to leave the area to find work.
In recent years, the most promising hiring events have been such things as the filming of North Country, a movie depicting the sexual harassment incidents that took place years back. Once again the area had become known for its quaint little towns.
Now the Iron Range is preparing to take back its name. Minnesota Steel is preparing to build an Iron Nugget plant, PolyMet Mining Corp is proposing a new copper nickel mining operation. Up to 3,400 construction workers and 1,300 permanent employees will be required for these two projects. Minnesota Power has a $200 million project to make improvements at their Boswell Energy Center at Cohasset that will require 800 construction workers. Excelsior Energy is proposing a Coal Gasification plant. Another 1,000 construction workers and up to 300 permanent employees will be needed there.
Iron Range mines employed more than 16,000 workers in the late 1970’s. That number has reduced to about 4,000 today. Throughout the Northern Minnesota area there are currently about 5,000 construction workers. If all these projects start about the same time, the influx of out of state workers will be huge as there just isn’t enough qualified people to fill the need. Once again, the area will be the benefactor of a large increase in population, enjoying the boost in the economy that will come with it. Good times are set to return to Minnesota’s Iron Range communities.