Ghost Towns of the Arrowhead

A History of Places that No Longer Exist

 

Ghost towns rarely look the way they do on television, especially those in Northeastern Minnesota. There are no tumbleweeds, nor faded saloon doors flapping along a well-preserved Main Street. Winter sees to that. Instead, in Minnesota’s Arrowhead, ghosts tend to stay underfoot. Piles of rusting cans, abandoned vehicles, and the rough outlines of cinderblock foundations softened by overgrowth: these are the only signs of former life in the regions vanished communities. In the era of the suburb—the era of the commute—few recall a time when most people lived right next to where they worked. The families of Minnesota’s iron miners do; it is one of the few professions where the workplace and home are practically the same thing. That said, there used to be more mines, more miners, and more towns. This is, in part, the story of these places.

Part One: Arrowhead Ghost Towns of the Iron Range

The township of Elcore. (Image: Iron Range History Center)
The township of Elcore. (Image: Iron Range History Center)

Welcome to Elcor

The 1890s were an exciting time for Northeastern Minnesota. West Coast prospectors, immigrant mine supervisors, and East Coast financiers passed each other in a booming, eclectic Hibbing. In March 1895, a group was prospecting near modern-day Gilbert when they discovered a particularly rich ore deposit. The first mine to tap this vein was named Elba, which was opened in 1898 by the Oliver Iron Mining Company.

Early exploration of the mine suggested there were about 3 million tons of ore accessible using the underground mining technique s of the day. As soon as construction began, workers set up housing near the mineshaft. A second shaft, called Corsica, opened nearby in 1901. The influx of workers and families between the two mines prompted the formation of a community between Elba and Corsica Mines, which employed about 200 men each. In all, 1,000 laborers were employed directly by mines in the area.

Naming the community was not as straightforward as many Iron Range towns. Often, a settlement would simply assume the name of the mine, which was named by the mining firm which owned it. Regularly, the word “location” would be appended to the mine name to distinguish between the shaft itself and the associated settlement. So “Elba Location” would have been the town next to the Elba Mine.

And indeed the town was called “Elba Location” for a short time, but once Corsica opened nearby, residents there did not find the name suitable. “Elba” was considered, but it was already taken by a community near Rochester, Minnesota. To avoid confusion with much more southern Elba—and increase the chances of winning a post office—the names Elba and Corsica were blended to create a new name: Elcor.

Not only was Elcor awarded its own post office, but it also featured a school, a hotel, and more than 60 houses. The town’s prosperity mirrored the success of the mine—growing in boom times and crashing during busts. Elcore mines shipped about 400,000 tons of ore through the docks at Two Harbors. In 1921, just ahead of the Great Depression, demand for iron ore dropped, leaving stockpiles of ore beside idled steel mills in the east. Overnight, local employment in the mines dropped from 337 to 20.

The situation improved later that year when Corsica Mine reopened, sending 150 men back underground to put food on Elcor tables. Elba Mine would restart operations as well, although only for a short time; it would close permanently in 1925. Partly making up for the loss, Corsica increased capacity through World War II. Nearby, the communities of McKinley and Gilbert also prospered.

When Elcor was created, it was on company, not public, property. It founders held the expectation that the valuable ore below it would be removed from below—not from above. By the 1950s, however, technology had made strip mining much more economical than underground methods. To gain better access to the vein, it was decided that Corsica would be converted to a strip mine—the town of Elcor was suddenly in the way. In 1955 the mining company notified Elcor residents that their community would soon be swallowed by the Corsica mine, a rather unconventional eviction.

Today, where the houses, streets, school, and skating rink of Elcor stood a generation ago, a strip mine still operates.

The Biwabik Mine: the reason the town of Merritt was built. (Image: Zenith City Press)
The Biwabik Mine: the reason the town of Merritt was built. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Welcome to Merritt

Merritt was not a lucky town. Situated upon Embarrass Lake, only half a mile east of Biwabik, it was once home to about 300 Iron Rangers, a hotel (“The Merritt”), a bank, and a slew of saloons. Although its name is honors the Merritt family, credited for opening the Mesabi Iron Range, Merritt’s namesakes were not consulted before the moniker was chosen. This unexpected honor was not well received, as Dr. Barrett, editor of the first <Mesabi Range> newspaper, observed:

[INSET]“…nearly all of the [Merritt family] avoided the town in order not to be compelled to stop in the place overnight… whether the antipathy of the Merritts had any part in the placing of the railway station a mile or two west of Merritt cannot be more than conjectured, but certain that the decision not to give Merritt a railway station had a definite part in the destiny of the village.”[INSET]

And the Merritts certainly could have given the town the station—at the time, they owned the Duluth, Missabe & Northern Railroad, created to transport ore from their mines to the ore docks near their family home in West Duluth.

Merritt plats were drawn and sold between 1892 and 1893, closely following the discovery of nearby iron ore only a year before. The deposit would be developed as the Biwabik and Cincinnati mines. Judge J. T. Hale and Captain Joseph Sellwood invested in the land before the discovery, and it occurred to them to develop the lakefront property into a thriving mine community. Their plan worked better than they could have thought. By March 1892, 217 residents already called Merritt home.

When 99 of the eligible voters gathered on March 22, 1892 at the Merritt Hotel to incorporate, the town became the first settlement on the Mesabi Range to do so—none opposed. Tragically, only one year later, a wildfire sent those same people fleeing into Embarrass Lake as flames overtook the hilltop town. Residents clung to their most precious possessions as they waded into the shallows to escape the heat and smoke. Heavier items, such as pots and pans, were left on the shore. The town burned for a half an hour—little survived.

Although there were no deaths attributed to the disaster, many residents decided not to rebuild in Merritt, the new little town that could neither win the favor of its namesakes nor attract a railroad depot. Almost all of the Merritters relocated to Biwabik.

Miners at the Section 30 Mine c. 1905. (Image: MNHumanities.org)
Miners at the Section 30 Mine c. 1905. (Image: MNHumanities.org)

Welcome to Section 30

The only underground mine to operate in Lake County was drilled in Section 30, Township 63, Range 11. This cartographic description oddly came to double as a moniker for the place; Section 30 contained the Section 30 Mine and a nearby settlement also called Section 30.

Local miners remarked at the activity in the area before the new mine opened in 1910. “The territory,” they observed, “is literally alive with prospectors, drills, and visitors.” Section 30 is about three miles northeast of Ely, the nearest population center. On the other side of Section 30 was, and still is, wilderness; nobody simply “passes through” the area.

Though the mine was productive, conditions in the mine were harsh. One miner shared his experience with management this way:

[INSET]“When this [other miner] got killed, I was on the opposite shift from him, but I went up when the captain wanted us to drill the way he had [the other miner] drill. I said something was going to fall, and it’s going to come right on top. I went up and quit. And he was killed on the next shift. I left there and never went back.”[INSET]

In 1911, the mine shipped about 300,000 tons of ore, which was above average for the eastern part of the Iron Range. The settlement was mostly abandoned after rail rates increased in 1923, forcing the mine to close. Some residents remained, hoping the mine would reopen. While the area is still populated, the defining features of the Section 30 community—its hotels, dance hall, school, and store—are all gone.

Welcome to Mesaba

Mesaba was at its best when it was at the end of the line—the rail line, that is. The DM&N’s ore movers went no farther north, and this is where many immigrant miners and loggers first got off the train to find a job and a place to live.

Three steadily producing mines near the town site fed the local economy through the turn of the century: Graham, Vivian, and Spring Lake. When the railroad extended beyond the village, these mines were all that kept Mesaba alive. Vivian and Graham continued to produce as Spring Lake was neglected and allowed to flood.

When new mining technology allowed for the further exploration of Spring Lake, the Oliver Mining Company decided to reinvest. In 1909, Spring Lake reopened, bringing new residents into Mesaba, many of whom came to work in the mine.

Mesaba grew through the mid-1910s as the miners replaced the original homesteads and installed utilities. They predicted many decades of production to come—time which the town did not have.  The Oliver Mining Company decided to remove its support of the town when World War I broke out in Europe. The mine was allowed to flood and most of the town’s population dispersed throughout the Range.

Efforts were made to pump out the mine and restart operations in late 1922. While records are inconsistent about what happened after that, at some point the underground mines were converted into strip mines. In 1947, the last three voters opted to dissolve the village, and nothing remains there today. Mesaba was stripped away, and today its memory hovers in midair over the center of a mine pit.

The DM&N's map of the Mitchell and Redore. (Image courtesy Dave Aho of Mitchellyards.com)
The DM&N’s map of the Mitchell and Redore. (Image courtesy Dave Aho of Mitchellyards.com)

Welcome to Mitchell and Redore

The Duluth, Missabe & Northern Railroad carved out the town of Mitchell, now gone, for its employees in the adjacent rail yard. The Mitchell Yard would serve as the primary staging area between Hibbing and the ore docks in Duluth. This was a time when the most important machine at a railroad’s disposal was its workers’ bare hands. A rail yard needed men, and men need a place to sleep and eat.

Workers living in Mitchell were responsible for ensuring the smooth flow of iron ore from Hibbing area mines, including the famously massive Mahoning-Hull-Rust Mine, to the rail yards in Proctor, another staging site and the last stop for ore before it was hauled down the hill to the Duluth ore docks.

The Mitchell area was roughly divided into three sections: the yards, including a 12-stall roundhouse and repair shop; Mitchell itself, a company town consisting of 20 houses and a hotel; and a smaller community to the west of Mitchell, which called itself Redore for the Iron Range’s lifeblood: the dark red hematite the town’s resident miners pulled from the earth. Mitchell is likely named for Peter Mitchell, a prospector whose test pits near Hibbing did much to encourage industrial development in the area.

The town of Mitchell was an improvement over the boarding camp at Mitchell Yards it replaced. Its houses were designed to accommodate several men in close quarters, or a small family. The Mitchell Hotel stood two stories high and could accommodate about 100 men. The hotel advertised its services in the Hibbing newspaper, but always served the railroad’s interests before those of the traveling public. The majority of its patrons were laborers stranded temporarily between the Mahoning-Hull-Rust Mine rock crushers and the ore docks.

While there were few luxuries near the yards, residents could brag to neighboring towns that their main street, Mitchell Avenue, was paved. The only thing that the town of Mitchell seemed to lack was a road connecting it to Hibbing. Until a road was built, everyone and everything came and went over rail.

As families grew, so did the town’s borders, although it was a slow process. In fact, most of the expansion took place across a set of tracks that ran North-South into the yard, at Redore. The satellite of Redore would expand to include 13 houses. Oddly, the local post office was established in Redore rather than its larger, older twin. Stranger still, the post office was on the Mitchell side of the tracks, because it had more reliable road access to Hibbing.

A typical train heading from Mitchell to Proctor, a two-hour trip, would be pulled by a Yellowstone engine, followed by 180 70-ton ore cars and a caboose. Steam machinery required constant servicing, so the railroad positioned major yards on each end of the ore line. The route from Mitchell to Proctor was essential to the success of the Mesabi Range; steam power was not.

In the 1950s, the Duluth, Missabe, & Iron Range Railroad—created in 1937 with the merger of the DM&N and the DM&IR—began converting its fleet of locomotives from steam to diesel. This change, along with advancements in communications technology, rendered Mitchell obsolete. Long, expensive marshaling yards were no longer needed. Control was centralized and repairs could be done in larger, more distant, yards.

In May of 1960—almost a decade into DM&IR’s conversion to diesel—a DM&IR inspection train with a crew of 11 rolled though the Mitchell Yards. Soon after, the railroad announced that it would not upgrade the Mitchell shop for diesel service. Furthermore, the merger allowed eastbound traffic to be consolidated, bypassing Mitchell altogether. It was the end of the yards—and the beginning of the end of the town.

By the mid-1980s, only two of Mitchell’s almost 40 buildings remained, and Redore was already erased. All that was left was the 12-stall repair shop and an abandoned house; today, the latter is gone.

Ghostly Greetings from All the Others

The Iron Range is home to many other ghost towns, including North Hibbing, Spina, and Meadow. As the Iron Range ages, more of these mining communities will be added to the list above—there are already empty streets in Leonidas and Sparta is losing steam. A sad fact of mining communities is that that the companies that built them almost never intend for them to be permanent. The ore below the settlements has always been more important than the people who live there. That’s why the mining companies paid for the entire town of Hibbing to be moved south between 1919 and 1921, and why the state is about to reroute Highway 53: in 1919 Hibbing was—and today the highway is—in the way of profit. Once the raw material is gone, the mining companies lose interest in the community rather quickly. By their very nature, all mining operations are temporary. The same goes for the communities that were built only because of their proximity to the mines. Unless they can find something other than mining to drive the economy, more Iron Range communities are doomed to disappear along with the ore, be it hematite and taconite, or copper and nickel.

Click to read Part 2, “Arrowhead Ghost Towns outside of the Iron Range”

Part Two: Arrowhead Ghost Towns outside of the Iron Range

Workers construct the docks and taconite processing facility at Silver Bay, 1953. (Image: polymetmining.com)

Welcome to Taconite Harbor

The North Shore is not usually thought of as mining country, and it isn’t. But one scenic strand saw heavy development in the 1950s because of mining nearly 50 miles away. Taconite mining began in the wake of World War II to forge new steel after the Ally war machine had nearly exhausted the Range’s supply of hematite, a high-grade form of iron ore. Taconite is a low-grade ore that forms nearer to the surface than hematite.

In the 1910s, a process was invented at the University of Minnesota to create hard pellets, resembling rusty marbles, from concentrated taconite powder. The process of mining, concentrating, and pelletizing taconite is extremely expensive, and only economical on a massive scale. It was not until the effort of extracting iron ore from underground reserves was totally cost restrictive that two companies were organized to produce taconite pellets on a full scale: Erie Mining by Pickands Mather & Company and Reserve Mining by Armco Steel and Republic Steel.

As the firms acquired the mineral rights to low-grade deposits, once considered useless, they began to plan how to build and connect their mines, pelletizing plants, and maritime shipping facilities. The staffing requirements for these was immense, necessitating that each firm build a company town for their workers. Where these company towns were placed reflected the way they processed taconite.

Reserve would combine pelletizing and shipping at one location, where they established Silver Bay in 1954. Silver Bay was designed to receive ore from the Babbitt Mine, which was later renamed the Peter Mitchell Mine; the mine shared a namesake with an aforementioned ghost town, Mitchell. Erie took a different approach by combining mining and pelletizing at one location–where they built the new Iron Range town of Hoyt Lakes in the early 1950s. It would incorporate in 1955. From the Hoyt Lakes furnaces, still-warm taconite pellets would be shipped to a new dock about 28 miles northeast of Two Harbors, Minn. by a company railroad. The dock, though massive, would require relatively few workers to operate and maintain it; Erie would not be building its own Silver Bay.

In 1953, about a year after it broke ground on its new company town, Erie began work on its Hoyt Lakes pelletizer. That same year, crews began blasting at the dock site directly across from two long islands that sat parallel to the shore, a location Erie Mining coined ‘Taconite Harbor’. Hundreds of temporary jobs were created on the North Shore overnight when Erie Mining put up $3 million in contracts. To house these workers, the company created a temporary trailer city between the lakeshore and highway, one that would eventually include about 500 8- by 20-foot trailers. Nearby, a permanent two-story structure housed a restaurant and grocery. Pictures show rows upon rows of trailers adjacent to a big parking lot, the predecessor of the now-ghostly Taconite Harbor community.

The LTV taconite processing plant near Babbitt, built in 1953, has been idle since 2001. (Image: polymet.com)

Barge cranes lifted 325,000 tons of concrete into place between the two natural islands to form a breakwater to protect the concrete dock from Lake Superior’s famously ruthless storms. The dock could accommodate two ships at the same time alongside its concrete face, and load ships faster than any of the state’s other ore docks in (Duluth, Two Harbors & Silver Bay) and Wisconsin (Superior & Ashland). Not only was it quick, but it was also designed to handle an immense 7.5 million tons of pellets annually. Just to the north, ground broke on a power plant that would produce enough electricity to power a small city—and in Silver Bay work began on a processing plant that would require that electricity to operate.

When construction crews finished and Taconite Harbor came online in 1957, the company pulled the trailers away and began shaping a smaller and more permanent community: the town of Taconite Harbor. Its two-dozen houses offered some of the best views of Lake Superior along the north shore. Homes came in 3- and 4-bedroom models, and those assigned to foremen included fireplaces. It was a good place to live.

The processing plant at Hoyt Lakes and the plant and dock at Taconite Harbor were a big success; up to 150 boats visited the dock annually and it broke several loading records, such as when the Edmund Fitzgerald took on 29,689 tons of taconite in 1968. While “the Fitz” did not sink after leaving Taconite Harbor (Allouez’s Dock #1 in Superior holds that distinction), the Daniel J. Morrell, a 603-foot ore carrier, was headed for Erie Mining’s new dock on November 29th, 1966 when it snapped in half, taking 28 men down with her.

A postcard of ‘Taconite-comma-Harbor’, likely printed in the 1950s or 1960s. (Image: Zenith City Press)

The combined pelletizing-shipping plant in Silver Bay was still turning out taconite for Reserve in 1973 when it was cited for ejecting 67,000 tons of waste rock into Lake Superior in one day. The ensuing nine-month-long legal battle climaxed when US District Court Judge Miles Lord ordered the pelletizer at Silver Bay shut down in April 1974. Over night, about 3,000 workers lost their jobs. At the time, the plant was responsible for producing about 15% of the nation’s iron ore. Eventually, courts ordered that the company must dispose of the tailings on land, which it does to this day.

Life and work at Taconite Harbor was not much effected by the ruling, though Erie Mining was increasingly in financial trouble. In July 1986, amidst its own Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, LTV Steel acquired and absorbed Erie, renaming everything to ‘LTV’ in the process. As the company restructured there were massive layoffs, and the Hoyt Lakes plant even closed. Many of the homes in Taconite Harbor became empty as former Erie employees moved elsewhere. For a short period, some of the homes were rented to the public.

LTV did not see itself as a landlord and it was eager to shed costs of its lesser company town on Lake Superior. In 1986, LTV asked the residents of Taconite Harbor to find another place to live, and the houses were sold and moved, one by one, down Highway 61. Those that did not sell were demolished.

The evicted residents reacted with a sense of finality. “I don’t know where we are going if we cannot stay here,” said the wife of an LTV electrician who had raised three children in the company town. Another resident complained, saying that, “It’s understandable. It’s just that it’s a shock. I understand their point, but it doesn’t help me.” The population dropped from 74 in May 1986 to 12 in November 1987. The company’s goal was “to have the town empty by June [1987],” according to a spokesman. The last house was not moved until 1990.

After restructuring, LTV proposed to use the town site as a storage dump for dolomite and limestone, two ingredients in the taconite pelletizing process. This plan was cancelled for environmental reasons, and the land remains unused. Today, where the houses stood are overgrown, empty streets, and trees veil the streetlights in a forgotten neighborhood. The dock shut down in June 2001 and remains unused, although Minnesota Power still operates the nearby power plant.

A Great Northern Power Company gas-powered passenger car followed the old Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad tracks along the St. Louis River between Forbay and Fond du Lac. Forbay was built by the power company in today’s Jay Cooke State Park in 1905. (Photo: Jon Severson)

Welcome to Forbay

A generation before Taconite Harbor was built, another monumental construction project necessitated a work camp and settlement, this time near Fond du Lac, Minn., south of Duluth. In 1905, work began on two hydroelectric stations on the Saint Louis River.

Great Northern Power hired an army of workers to complete the project, which included creating a canal almost three miles long. The canal created an artificial lake, under which stands the Fond du Lac power station to this day. Connecting the lake and station are twin 368-foot long pipes, allowing gravity to pull high-pressure water into the turbines to create electricity. The Thomson dam, which also stands, is more conventional, using a concrete wall to create water pressure to run its turbines.

Temporary camps of trailers, shanties, and tents sheltered the Great Northern workers, including many European immigrants, most of whom were recruited for the project from Serbia. When those temporary settlements disappeared in 1907, it was a sign that electricity was flowing, not that work was done. With no community near the power stations and transportation unreliable, especially in the winter months when repairs are typically done, Great Northern started building a small community near the Fond du Lac station to house the families of the men who kept it operating.

“Fore bay” is the technical name for the reservoir that feeds a power station’s turbines. With a slight change in spelling, this was adopted as the moniker for the company town; it would be known as Forbay. The village included only seven houses, a small school, and a boarding house, the last of which provided ample work for local women. In the winter, a clearing was flooded to create a skating rink for the children. To move people and goods to Forbay, a railroad track was laid from the community of Fond du Lac, though no train would ever chug along the route.

Forbay Lake. (Image: Google Maps)

Rather, a Mack Rail Car—essentially a gas-powered trolley—was purchased to serve the community. It was thought that this was the only type of vehicle capable of navigating the hills bordering the river, especially in winter. Residents, who described the journey in the Mack as a frightening experience, no doubt celebrated when the first road road connected Forbay to West Duluth in 1933. Forbay’s 20 students were ever afterward bussed to Lincoln Park Elementary, leaving Forbay Elementary to be demolished in 1936 after 31 years of service.

Trolley service was halted on October 5, 1949, when the Mack made its last run from Forbay to Fond du Lac. It would later be scrapped for $500. In the 1960s, Minnesota Power, which had taken over the operation of the dam from Great Northern, ceased renting the Forbay houses. Roads had improved in the area, the company reasoned, allowing employees a short commute.

Some of the houses were moved to Fond du Lac, where they stand to this day. At the former town site, almost nothing remains. In some places, the gas trolley rails are visible where they still cross concrete roads. Piles of trash, too—mostly rusty cans and broken bottles—can be found in the woods as well. Most traces of Forbay were erased by the floods of 2012.

A Tomahawk Timber logging crew, some time in the 1940s. (Image: Ely-Winton Historical Society)

Welcome to Forest Center

Forest Center was a company town where lumbermen and their families settled, beginning in 1946, when Tomahawk Timber bought rights to log 155,000 acres in what is now the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

About a quarter of today’s BWCAW and much of the Arrowhead inland from the North Shore was logged before the Great Depression. More timber would have been harvested, but the wet, rugged landscape of Northeastern Minnesota did not accommodate logging equipment available at the time.

Logging technology consisted of teams of horse-drawn sleighs hauling out logs felled by hundreds of men with handsaws and axes. The only mechanized equipment was the McGiffert log loader, manufactured by Duluth’s Clyde Iron Works, which was created in 1902 and worked off steam power. Because of the area’s swampy soil, the logging was done in the winter—a centuries old tradition. From November to April the ground was frozen solid, but Ice roads could be created to haul timber on sleighs pulled by draft horses. Chainsaws and other petroleum-powered heavy equipment fundamentally modernized logging in the 1930s, opening up the area like never before.

Between cheap labor provided by the Civilian Conservation Corps and the US Forest Service authority, new roads were laid into remote, old-growth sections of forest. The first big harvest began near Angleworm Lake in 1939 by the firm Carlson and Oppel, but less than a decade later a big player, Tomahawk Timber, was cutting more board feet than all the others. Most of the wood was shipped to Wisconsin, where Tomahawk’s parent company—Kraft Paper—operated multiple paper mills.

One of Forest Center’s pre-fab houses being put into place. (Image: Ely-Winton Historical Society)

Initially, the modern lumberjacks of Tomahawk Timber survived in wagons. During the cold weather months Tomahawk’s employees used bulldozers and trucks to clear roads for the summer months, dragging rocks out of the way and hauling in gravel to make temporary pathways.

Slowly, as the roads improved, the ’jacks could live further from where the actual logging was done. They could establish more permanent, residential living with their families rather than temporary camps with other unwashed men. Soon, modest woodframe houses replaced trailers. Families grew in the wilderness, necessitating a school. By the early 1960s, the company had established a small, permanent community about 40 miles northeast from Ely. They built a grade school, but 53 homes, a general store, and a lumber mill—all for a population of about 250. They called it Forest Center.

Welcome to Illgen “City”

It wasn’t the first time someone had tried to develop that spot. It is near the site of Lake Superior’s Crystal Beach Sea Cave, where in 1902 John Dwan and some fellow investors began mining corundum to make sandpaper in their rented former flour mill on Rice’s Point in Duluth. But they only found anorthosite, not corundum—and Duluth proved too humid for proper manufacturing, so they moved to St. Paul and called themselves the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing company, better known today as 3M. The ruins of their mining operation still litter Crystal Beach.

Illgen City photographed in the 1930s. (Image: Zenith City Press)

In 1924, Iowan Rudoph Illgen purchased the 3M property at Crystal Beach, moved his family north, and set up a sawmill, a store, a ‘hotel’, and some cabins. He called his retreat Illgen City, though it was never incorporated. He named a nearby waterfall Illgen Falls, and even made postcards of it to sell in his shop, but it didn’t last. Illgen City is long gone, but it is not really a ghost town as much as it is a ghost resort.

Forest City didn’t last either. Public concern about the future of the Arrowhead’s wilderness had been growing since 1909, when the Superior National Forest was first established. It culminated with the Wilderness Protection Act of 1964, which established the BWCAW, essentially outlawing logging roads in the region. With the exit of Tomahawk Timber, the townspeople dispersed. In 2001, a wildfire erased whatever remained of Forest Center.

Ghostly Greetings from all The Others

Minnesota’s Arrowhead is home to other ghost towns, including Meadow, North Hibbing, Spina, Cooley, Chippewa City, Mineral Center, North Cascade, Parkersville, Pigeon River, Cramer, and Sawbill Landing. Still other places settled by European immigrants in Minnesota’s early days did not have schools, post offices, stores, or often even names—these too have been lost to time. As have fishing villages populated by Norwegian immigrants—such as Little Two Harbors near the Split Rock River—that once dotted the Minnesota North Shore from the Knife River to the Pigeon River.

As the Iron Range ages, more of these mining communities will be added to the list above—there are already empty streets in Leonidas and nearly so in Sparta. A sad fact of mining communities is that that the companies that built them almost never intend for them to be permanent. The ore below the settlements has always been more important than the people who live there. That’s why the mining companies paid for the entire town of Hibbing to be moved south between 1919 and 1921, and why the state is about to reroute Highway 53: in 1919 Hibbing was—and today the highway is—in the way of profit. Once the raw material is gone, the mining companies lose interest in the community rather quickly. By their very nature, all mining operations are temporary. The same goes for the communities that were built only because of their proximity to the mines. Unless they can find something other than mining to drive the economy, more Iron Range communities are doomed to disappear along with the ore, be it hematite and taconite, or copper and nickel.

 

A History of Places that No Longer Exist

5 Responses to Ghost Towns of the Arrowhead

  1. Thanks! I had some conflicting information about the store in Forest Center, so I took out Oppel’s name until I can find something substantial. For example, I have a picture of the store in Section 30. There is another Oppel’s that used to exist in Tower, if I recall, in addition to the (seemingly unrelated) Oppel’s in downtown Duluth. I linked to a map with some of the northern ghost towns here

  2. I agree with Mr Stueland- “the wilderness, necessitating a school. By the early 1960s, the company had established a small, permanent community near today’s mile marker 60 along Highway 61. They built a grade school, but 53 homes, a general store (Oppel’s), and a lumber mill—all for a population of about 250. They called it Forest Center.”Are we talking about the Forest Center on the shores of Lake Isabella or was there another Forest Center at the site you describe above on Hwy 61. There was an Oppel’s store in Section 30 near Ely- was there another at Forest Center on Lake Isabella?? or is this another error. I wonder as in this article you mention a Forest City and twice Forest Center- maybe there was a Forest City on Hwy 61 and the Forest Center on Lake Isabella. Please respond.

  3. Thanks for the corrections. One futher—the picture of the LTV taconite processing plant is at Hoyt Lakes not Babbitt. That is where Polymet wants to process its copper etc. so I suppose that is why it supplied the picture.

  4. I was a little confused by your description of the location of Forest Center. The Forest Center that I know of is now entry point 35, Isabella Lake in the BWCAW. This is many miles from Lake Superior and highway 61. Are we talking about the same place?

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