Hole in the Clouds
Oct 10, 2009
After some of you fussed yesterday about the lack of a story to go with the picture, I've got a story for today--the beginning of a two-part story, in fact. It could be classified as another entry in an irregular series dealing with places I've never been to and probably have no business writing about.
(Image credit: Detroit Photographic Co., via Shorpy)
The picture looks down on the harbor of Duluth, Minnesota, in 1905, from a vantage point near the top of the city's new inclined railway. The railway may look like part of the town's extensive industrial infrastructure, but it was actually a people-mover, built by the city in the late ninteenth century at the instigation of real-estate developers who wanted to sell houses high up the hill above downtown. "The Incline" operated for about 50 years, powered by an electric motor at the top and working a little like an elevator, with a dummy-car counterweight on the left track that moved downhill when the passenger car on the right track was pulled uphill.
What I didn't know about Duluth could fill several hard drives. Here's what little I did know: it's Bob Dylan's hometown, and the winters are ridiculously cold. The Dylan factoid is only partly true--yes, he was born in Duluth, but he really grew up a hundred miles north in Hibbing, Minnesota, a mining town that had to relocate itself because the mine got too big. As for the factoid about Duluth winters: yes, of course, they really are brutal, with a spell of forty below or worse most years. But "the Incline" was so steep that snow never piled up too deeply on the tracks, not even during blizzards.
As for the things I didn't know about Duluth: Number one, around the time of this photo, it was among the wealthiest towns in America, claiming more millionaires per capita than anyplace else. It thrived because of a confluence of geology, geography, and the highest technology of the era.
In the 1870s, northern Minnesota had a gold rush; no commercially significant gold was ever found, but the prospectors did stumble on high-grade iron ore in the hills north of Duluth. They'd discovered Minnesota's Iron Range, one of the largest iron deposits on earth and the subject of tomorrow's part of the story.
By the 1880s, Duluth and the Iron Range were connected by railroad. Ore from the mines was off-loaded from the trains at Duluth onto large ships. The ships would have been stuck forever in Lake Superior, unable to exit, had not construction been completed around that time on the mechanized locks at Sault Ste. Marie, which helped ships to descend the 21 feet between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. The ore ships from Duluth sailed a thousand miles across the Great Lakes to the newly constructed steel mills in Indiana and Pennsylvania and Ohio and New York, where newly invented Hulett machines automatically unloaded the ore from the ships and dumped it into blast furnaces. As soon as the new steel cooled, it was snapped up by new factories assembling cars and tractors and locomotives and wringer washing machines and everything else that used to be made in America.
All cities that boom must implode. (I don't know if that's true, but it sounds about right.) What happened to Duluth was World War II, with its extreme demand for iron ore to build tanks and planes and ships to replace the ones that were being consumed in battle. The Iron Range couldn't keep up; huge wartime scrap-metal drives were needed to supplement the mines.The track of the inclined railway was itself torn up and sold for scrap. By about 1950, all the good ore in the entire Iron Range had been clawed out of the earth and shipped away through Duluth. The city languished.
Fortunately, scientists at the University of Minnesota had seen this coming and were hard at work on a work-around. Within a few years they came up with a way of using the Iron Range's low-grade ore, called taconite, Taconite isn't as valuable as the old stuff, and it has to be compete with cheap ore now coming in from places like Brazil, and anyway, most of the old steel mills and factories are no longer operating, but Duluth remains a fairly active port to this day. Last year, it handled 500,000 railroad carloads of taconite. The railroad also brings grain to Duluth from all across the northern Plains, which also gets loaded there onto ships.
But nowadays, more valuable than wheat or taconite to Duluth's economy are tourists. Now that the smoke is gone from the old ore processing works, the city's scenic lakeside setting attracts vacationers interested in all the outdoor activities of the north country: boating, fishing, hunting, snowmobiling, and so on. Along the top of the hill is a string of popular state parks. Even the sand bar that protects the harbor, seen in the distance in the photo, is now a park, and also a seaplane base. Visitors are buying up the old houses on the side of the hill to use as vacation homes.
Somewhere in the city, I can't figure out where, is a trail they've named the Bob Dylan Walking Path. Must be near Highway 61.
Oct 11, 2009
This now quiet flooded hole in the ground was once part of the world's largest open pit iron mine, near Bob Dylan's boyhood home in Hibbing, Minnesota. One-fourth of all the steel ever made in the United States used iron ore from this one mine. The ore sat here for two billion years unmolested, waiting for oxygen to appear in the atmosphere, for life to appear on the surface of earth, and for that life to evolve sufficiently to dig all the iron out of the earth. The digging took about 50 years.
They don't make these big iron deposits any more. Now that the air has oxygen in it, iron will rust away instead of piling up like grains of sand. There are natural processes nowadays that manage to accumulate some iron despite the atmosphere, but they operate on a much, much smaller scale.
Minnesota's Iron Range is what's called a Banded Iron Formation, a BIF. There are fewer than a dozen large BIFs around the world, in Minnesota, Africa, Russia, Australia, Venezuela, Brazil, and Labrador. They are all at least a billion years old; the biggest ones are around two billion years old.
Two billion years is also the age of some of the oldest life forms preserved in the fossil record, organisms called cyanobacteria, ancestors of modern algae. Vast "mats" of cyanobacteria fossils have been found near Hibbing and near many of the world's other banded iron formations.
Here's one theory: cyanobacteria, sometimes called blue-green algae, were capable of photosynthesis. Like modern plants, they gave off oxygen, which accumulated in the atmosphere and the ocean. The cyanobacteria lived in the ocean, probably near the surface, and the ocean water contained high concentrations of iron, probably leached from early volcanic rocks. Photosynthesis added oxygen to the ocean, which made the iron precipitate out of solution, sinking to the bottom. The iron sediment piled up, and we got our BIFs.
But there's a catch: cyanobacteria are anoxic organisms, which evolved and apparently thrived in a world without oxygen in the air. Their own behavior--photosynthesis--may have contributed to atmospheric changes that literally poisoned them. In other words, they may have caused their own extinction. It may have been a mass extinction, which could explain the huge mats of fossilized cyanobacteria associated with BIFs.
It's hard to imagine how the cyanobacteria could have avoided their fate; they are single-celled organisms with little more brainpower than some of our contemporary politicians. A few varieties did evolve to survive in anoxic niche environments, such as hot mineral springs, but overall their way of life was unsustainable.
Which raises the obvious question: can we humans do any better? As our way of life leads to changes in the atmosphere, can we evolve to survive on an overheated planet? And/or are we smart enough to control the atmosphere to make it more favorable to survival of our species?
Feb 28, 2010
In the cookhouse at a logging camp near Effie, Minnesota, cleaning up after dinner was obviously a job that took a little while; the work might have gone faster if only the place had had running water.....
Russell Lee took this Farm Security Administration photo in 1937.
Looks like the dishwasher's only company may have been the naked woman in the little picture tacked up on the window frame.
Farm Security Administration
(Image credit: Russell Lee, FSA)
Mar 15, 2010
The little country store in northern Minnesota that Mom and Pop were keeping in 1937, when photographer Russell Lee happened by for the Farm Security Administration, was once a big and bustling emporium. Back in 1910, it had employed eight clerks, plus a butcher and a bookeeper. But in 1923, the nearby iron mine closed, and the Vermilion Range mining town known as Section 30 quickly became a ghost town, as weather-beaten and empty as Cripple Creek and the other more famous ghost towns out west.
When this photo was taken, the mine had been closed and the town abandoned for fifteen years. The photographer noted that the town of Section 30 was "bust." How, then, are Mom and Pop getting by? The store building is being kept up, the storekeepers are eating somehow. They look cheerful and relaxed, not at all like the haunted, haggard figures in so many Depression-era images.
I don't really know the answer. There were seasonal logging camps in the Section 30 area, but they were probably too isolated to reliably support even a little crossroads store. No new economic activity ever sprang up to replace the old mine; today, there's nothing but woods in that neck of the woods, plus some rusted old mining machinery.
Iron ore was identified in Section 30 back in the 1880s. Two groups of men tried to claim the property and mineral rights, using two different strategies to get title to the land. One group went to the nearest courthouse, in Duluth, and bought the land with "Sioux half-breed scrip"--currency issued to Indians for land transactions with the government; the men had bought the scrip from Indians who had nothing to do with the land. A second group of men filed homesteading claims on the land and built houses there to prove up their claims. The two groups sued one another, and to pay for the lawsuits, they had to bring in extra partners, including an ex-congressman. The competing claims dragged through the courts until 1902, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Indian-scrip group (which included the ex-congressman); the homesteaders' claim was invalidated because homesteaders are not allowed to sign contracts conveying partial ownership of the land until their claims are proven up, even though such contracts had been necessary in order to defend the claims in court.
The mine turned out to be even richer than anticipated; the motherlode was just eight feet below the surface. Active mining began in 1903, and the town of Section 30 filled up overnight. Twenty years later, the boom went bust, yet fifteen years into the bust, here are Mom and Pop making a living and a life, somehow, in Section 30.
(Image credit: Russell Lee, FSA)
Dec 3, 2011
Maybe the gingerbread man was in that Folger's coffee can?
Government photographer John Vachon immortalized this scene while he was doing his Farm Security Administration work in Minnesota and the Dakotas in the spring of 1940. But he didn't record any explanations.
(Image credit: John Vacon, Farm Security Administration, via Shorpy)
Dec 16, 2011
Some babies are just born to pay attention. Here in this 1892 portrait we have the future mayor of Wadena, Minnesota, Bernard Burch, and his sister, the future Mrs. Edna Chesnut.
Edna Burch Chesnut
Aug 19, 2014
Somewhere near this scene, just out of camera range, there's probably an old inscription scratched by a pocketknife into a barn rafter: "Norman Rockwell was here."
It's Minnesota in the springtime. You can tell it's Minnesota because the little boy with his back to the camera is still wearing his winter hat, with the earflaps folded up.
The photographer is not known, but there's a caption written on the Kodachrome slide: "Dam at Blue Earth, just below the cemetery, May 4, 1952."
(Image credit: unknown)
Jan 15, 2017
Frank Lloyd Wright designed a gas station in 1927 for his city of the future, to be built in the Buffalo, New York, area. The city never did get built, but the gas station became a reality in 1958, in Cloquet, Minnesota, near Duluth.
It is believed to be the only Frank Lloyd Wright–designed gas station in the world. It's still in operation today, though it was recently put up for sale.
Frank Lloyd Wright
Mar 4, 2018
How the cooks dried the silverware in a Minnesota lumber camp, summer of 1937.
(Image credit: Russell Lee via Shorpy)