Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Surprise Revival for Iron Mines of Minnesota

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Surprise Revival for Iron Mines of Minnesota

Article excerpt

Spring comes slowly to Minnesota's Iron Range. It's home to the world's largest hockey stick, a place where the lakes are still frozen in late April and vowels roll slowly off people's tongues. For the past couple of decades, the region's economy has seemed frozen as well, its bedrock mining industry slowly dying.

In the past year, however, a new life has been blowing into these ochre hills from an unlikely place. You see it in the noise and dust that spews, 24 hours a day, from the recently dormant iron mine just above town, and in the guarded optimism of residents, used to bad news and silent cranes that claw at some of the world's largest open- pit mines.

In a weird twist on the typical globalization story, China is reviving a local economy that's been one of the most stubborn pockets of unemployment in the United States.

The Asian nation's insatiable appetite for steel fuels global demand for the metal and the ore used to make it. As steel- producing nations around the globe turn out more ingots and flat wire, mines here are once again producing some of the raw material - though most of it is not going directly to Beijing or Shanghai. In one case, a Chinese company helped buy and reopen the bankrupt mine here in Eveleth, sending its ore to Canada to replace raw material bound for China.

Whatever its circuitous route, the result is the same: At a time when many Americans lament the loss of manufacturing jobs to China, steel mills there are producing jobs for lunch-pail workers here whose families have worked the mines for generations.

"If you'd have said a year ago this would be happening, I'd never have believed it," says Joe Strlekar, president of local steelworkers 6860, whose workers were already training for new jobs after being laid off in May, only to get their jobs back when the mine reopened. "Instead of everything coming back into this country from China, it's good to have something going the other way."

This region was built on mining, in a very literal sense. Eveleth's location was moved in 1900, after iron was discovered beneath the town. Erie Mining created Hoyt Lakes from scratch, constructing houses, schools, streets, and shops. In Chisholm, the 81-foot statue of the "iron man" - a miner with pick and shovel, perched atop steel beams - stands guard over the carved-up red hills of the Mesabi Range, testament to a century of labor by the Finns, Serbs, Italians, and Slavs who settled this area.

Families here talk of uncles or grandparents blackballed for union work; oral histories in the Iron World Research Center tell of mine accidents and polka dancing, of 12-hour night shifts and using Sears Roebuck catalogues to teach new arrivals English.

Since then, the region has struggled to diversify. Forestry and mining still provide the most coveted jobs. But only 4,000 mining jobs remain, down from 16,000 in 1980, and many have wondered if Minnesota's iron ore days would become a relic. Thousands left during the mass layoffs of the 1980s, and in 2001 the LTV mine - Erie's successor - shut its doors for good, putting 1,400 people out of work.

So the news that the Eveleth mine was reopening in December came as a welcome surprise. With the dollar down and steel prices soaring, all six state mines are at full production for the first time in years. "It was a very nice Christmas here for a lot of people," says Paul Bachschneider, president of the area Chamber of Commerce.

Bill Matos, a blaster at United Taconite who's worked at that mine for 30 years, says the news was "bittersweet." He was pleased to get his job back, but rues the old company's bankruptcy, which froze his pension two months shy of retirement. "Now I'll have to work at least five more years," says Mr. Matos, in heavy boots and brown Carhartt overalls.

Matos always knew this was the work for him. His grandparents came here from Austria in 1904, and he's never wanted to leave. …

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