The History of Babbitt (through 1922)

The village of Babbitt is situated in the northeast part of section 18-60-12, with its mills in section 7. It is about sixteen miles from the village of Mesaba. There was a time when Mesaba grew from nothing to a center of trading and outfitting.

In 1890-91, after the discovery of marketable ore on the Mesabi range to the westward, Mesaba, the nearest point on the Duluth and Iron Range Railway grew, it seemed, to a place of fifteen “hotels” and many stores “in a few days.” Most of the westward expeditions were outfitted at Mesaba, and for a year or so returned to that station for supplies. Now, with the new mining developments to the eastward it would seem that Mesaba is again coming into a degree of temporary importance. It was necessary to build a wagon road from Mesaba to Babbitt, and in that work the mining company employed a number of men. For some part of the distance of sixteen miles the route lay over the trail cut by George R. Stuntz in the ‘60s, after the “gold rush” first brought the Vermilion Lake into public notice. And it was probably over this trail that George R. Stuntz led Professor Chester in 1875, for the latter avers that his unfavorable report on Mesabi ore was of “only the lean magnetic belt of the Mesabi range, in towns 59-14 and 60-13,” which is the grade of ore now, being treated by the Mesabi Iron Company. The village of Babbitt began to take shape in the spring of 1920, when the Mesabi Iron Company began to erect its ore-treating plant in the vicinity.

The village rapidly grew in population to approximately 400 persons, and while Babbitt will probably never become one of the large villages of the Range, it is expected to at least maintain its present importance for many years-indefinitely, one might say. The reason why the village will not expand as have other villages of the Mesabi range is that it is dependent upon enterprises such as that of the Mesabi Iron Company, and although the plant now being brought into operation is but the first of the mills the Mesabi Iron Company plans to build near Babbitt, if conditions are favorable, the chances of benefit coming to that village from similar, but independent, mining enterprises is remote, as the Mesabi Iron Company owns outright, or has leased, or has the option of much of the mineral land within a radius of ten miles of Babbitt, which for long is likely to maintain the status of “a one-company town.” Corporate powers for it may not be sought for some time, but its affairs appear to be well administered, and the town-planning has been good. The townsite was platted off the ore body, so that the heavy ultimate removal expense incurred by other mining villages will be avoided at Babbitt. The buildings erected by the mining company for the housing of the population are models of utility, the large barrack-like buildings being of what is known as “the unit plan,” an arrangement whereby, when necessary, the long buildings may be divided, section by section, and with very little additional expense converted into detached one-family cottages. A hospital has been built, and is under the direction of Dr. P. J. McCarthy. There are also many individual dwellings.

There has been no independent building in the village; indeed, there is no outside enterprise. Neither is there likely to be for some time, the policy of the company being to discourage speculation in real estate. And as almost every man in the village is in the employ of the company, the accommodation provided and the general mode of living bears to that of the communal order, most of the employees relying mainly upon the company for eating and sleeping quarters.

In course of time, as more married men come in with their families, the general plan of domiciliation will probably change.

Babbitt takes its name from Judge K. R. Babbitt, who for many years has been chief legal advisor for the firm of Hayden, Stone & Co., and who died at the time a name was under consideration.

Judge Babbitt was formerly a resident of Denver, and his wife was a sister of Thos. Cullyford, who for many years operated the St. Louis Hotel, at Duluth.

It is not proper here to enter to any extent into a technical description of the Mesabi Iron Company’s plant, but it may be stated that there is every probability that St. Louis County will benefit largely from the exploitation of its deposits of low-grade ore by the Mesabi Iron Company. That company entered upon its present venture very carefully. It spent $750,000 in experiments before deciding to embark upon the heavy outlay the Babbitt plant represents. It has cost the company more than $3,000,000 to establish the plant there and bring it into operation. Yet its capacity is only 3,000 tons a day, which fact gives one an indication of how enormous will be the enterprise if the plans of the directors are carried through to the full. It has been stated that eventually the company expects to treat 100,000 tons of ore daily at mills in the vicinity of Babbitt.

The construction of the present plant, the first mill unit, was begun early in August, 1920, and within a fortnight the steel superstructure was being erected upon the concrete foundations. The mill is 1,350 feet long, by 130 feet wide, and the plant is in five sections, planned so as to give continuous process. The process, in brief, is to mine, crush, pulverize the substance mined, and then separate ore from rock by magnetic attraction, the concentrate then being formed into a clinker of high-grade ore. The process, if commercially successful, will bring within marketable possibility billions of tons of low-grade Mesabi ore. The treatment of low-grade ore of the Eastern Mesabi is by no means a new endeavor. David T. Adams, who made several exploring trips along the Mesabi range between 1883 and 1890, when ore was discovered at Mountain Iron by the Merritts, writes:

In, or about, the fall of 1888 I gathered about 500 pounds of banded ore and slates in township 50-14, in the interest of Judge Ensign, Colonel Gagy, Major Hoover, and a Mr. Peatry, and I took the ore to New Jersey (the name of the place I have forgotten) and had a concentrating test made, on a magnetic concentrator invented by one George Finney—possibly the first of its kind in existence. The separation was successful.
The ore after treatment analysed well over 60 per cent in metal, but on account of the high cost of treating the ore at the time, and the low prices of ore, nothing further was done by us in try’ng to commercialize the magnetic ores of the eastern Mesaba. In the winter of 1888 and 1889, I did some work, in section 11-59-14, on the magnetic formation, with no success.

However, the experiments made by the Jackling interests have satisfied them that their process is financially possible, and in view of the reputation of the projector, the average person expects that success will attend the operations at Babbitt, thus giving St. Louis County, literally, a new industry. The immense deposits of the Eastern Mesabi are so placed that it is possible, in most places, to mine the ore without much difficulty, there being no deep overburden—in some places not any, and at the deepest point in the Babbitt neighborhood not more than nine feet. Quarrying, therefore, is possible without heavy initial outlay for striping. It is planned to load the ore by steam shovels, although of course the quarrying will be done with explosives. From the crushers, the ore will pass, by conveyor belt, to the roll plant, thence to the ball mill plant, thence to the magnetic separating plant. It reaches the sintering plant comminuted to 100 mesh, and there takes the form of a clinker of high-grade ore with so little phosphorus as to be negligible and without moisture, a radical conversion certainly, from the original low-grade state of only 27 to 30 per cent iron. There is also a by-product of crushed rock, which the company hopes to market, believing it to be well suited for the making of concrete.

If successful, the Mesabi Iron Company certainly has an immense field in which to operate. Drilling has discovered magnetic ore to a depth of 500 feet, in places.

Sources:

  • Van Brunt, Walter, ed. Duluth and St. Louis County, Minnesota Vols. 1 – 3. The American Historical Society. Chicago: 1922.
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