Iron Range Ghost Towns
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 townsite 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.
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 through 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.