In 1864 there was a gold rush that started in northern Minnesota. It went bust by 1866, there was simple too little gold to make mining it worthwhile. However, prospectors did discover huge amounts of iron ore.
In 1875 a Philadelphia business name named Charlemagne Tower began building a railroad which enabled access between the inland iron ranges and Lake Superior. Ore could be mined from the deposits in northern Minnesota, brought by rail to Lake Superior, and then shipped to iron and steel works further east via the Great Lakes waterway.
There are three veins of iron ore in Minnesota. The Cuyuna Range, (near Crosby, MN), the Vermillion Range (near Ely MN), and the Mesabi Range (near Hibbing, MN). By 1917 Minnesota was the United States chief supplier of iron ore for the making of steel for the war effort.
The ore of the Mesabi range was very close to the surface and the easiest to access. It was discovered that the main vein of iron ore ran directly beneath downtown Hibbing, so between 1919 and 1921 the entire town was moved two miles south so that the ore could be dug out.
The ore of the Cuyuna and Vermillion was so deep that the mines were tunnels in the earth, and in 1924 the Milford Mine of the Cuyuna Iron range was the site of the worst mining disaster in Minnesota history.
The miners had raised concerns to management that the mine face was too close to the bottom of Fulton Lake. The miner’s fears were ignored, after all there was a steel shortage after the war, and it was in the name of patriotism that the ore had to be dug out. When the lake bottom eventually flooded into the mine forty-one miners were drowned.
After the Milford Mine accident Cuyuna graduated from tunneling for ore to strip mining. Millions of tons of earth were dug out and piled nearby so that the iron ore could be more safely accessed.
The largest mine pit of the Cuyuna, the Portsmouth Mine, was at the forefront of space exploration in 1957 when the U.S. government held the Manhigh project. NASA needed to know the effects of high altitude on the human body. An army doctor volunteered to ride a Mylar helium balloon up twenty miles into the atmosphere. The balloon was so large, and the material so thin, that it needed to be sheltered from the slightest breeze until it was fully inflated. So, this ground breaking high atmospheric experiment commenced from the deepest point of the Portsmouth Mine pit.
The Manhigh balloon launching from Portsmouth Mine
The last mine of the Cuyuna range shut down in 1984. The mines filled with water and became deep cold lakes. Portsmouth Lake is now the deepest lake in Minnesota, after Lake Superior. Recently, the overgrown heaps of rubble of the Cuyuna range have been opened to the public as a mountain bike recreation area.
Portsmouth Lake as it appears today
Ore Waltz is a traditional Swedish tune which is fairly well known in Minnesota. The tune comes from Ore, Sweden another mining city - the iron from which the industrial revolution was built.
Click here to access the sheet music of "Ore Waltz"
Click here to access the mp3 of Elmo Wick and his band playing "Ore Waltz"