Taconite keeps Minnesota's Iron Range working

Kathy Cobb | Associate Editor

Published October 1, 1996  | October 1996 issue

In Minnesota, mining jobs are the issue. At one time underground iron ore mines stretched across three iron ranges in northern Minnesota, but by the early 20th century it was the Mesabi Iron Range that brought Eastern European immigrants to the region to mine first a high-grade ore, then taconite. Taconite, a hard rock that contains about 65 percent iron when processed into pellets, feeds U.S. steel production-and Minnesota's Iron Range economy.

Seven operating taconite mines currently provide about 6,000 jobs directly, down from 16,000 in 1979, when the industry reached an all-time production high of over 54 million tons. "Taconite is still the dominant industry and the dominant exporting industry in the region-and dominant in employee compensation," says Richard Lichty, research director for the Center for Economic Development at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. "Northeastern Minnesota's economy is still reliant on the four 'Ts': taconite, tourism, transportation (shipping) and timber," Lichty says.

Ironically, Minnesota's taconite industry may soon face an employment dilemma. The industry will see thousands of retirements in the next five to six years, says Wayne Brandt, executive director of the Iron Mining Association in Duluth, and his association is working with the area's technical and community colleges as well as high schools to build a future work force. A few years ago the concern was a work force that was short on industry, but that has turned around, Lichty says. "Now there's industry and a waning work force."

Minnesota taconite mining in 1995

  • Seven operating taconite mines produced 45 million tons of taconite, that is 70 percent of the nation's supply.

  • Taconite producers paid over $101 million in state taxes.

  • About 8.8 billion tons of taconite remain on the Iron Range, representing about 200 years of mining at current rates.

Source: Iron Mining Association of Minnesota