Hibbing: A Legacy of Mining

History, Iconic Communities, On the Road
on February 10, 2002

When workers at the Hull Rust Mahoning Mine blast rock loose to excavate taconite, residents of nearby Hibbing, Minn., feel the earth shake. But no one seems to mind. They know the mine is their lifeblood.

“Everything here revolves around mining,” says Joe Rootes, 50, a Hull Rust maintenance mechanic who has worked in Minnesota’s Iron Range mines for more than 30 years. “Most businesses are tied in with mining somehow.”

Like many Hibbing residents, Rootes followed his grandfather, father, and four uncles into the mines, which have supplied the nation with iron ore for more than a century. And Rootes, like other Iron Rangers (as local residents call themselves), are proud of the work they do for America.

“When we say we are Rangers, we are saying we can handle mining, this tough outside work, and the winters here,” says Tom Lind, Hull Rust’s pit foreman. “We work hard and we’re proud we’re from the (Iron) Range.”

Mining has been the primary industry in Hibbing (pop. 17,071) since its beginning. The town is named after Frank Hibbing, a German immigrant and iron ore prospector who discovered surface indications of extensive ore deposits in the area the year before the town was founded in 1893. (Ore is found in a rock called taconite.) The town site was laid out near these deposits and quickly attracted immigrants from around the world who settled and built the community.

“When Hibbing was incorporated, it was nothing more than tar paper shacks and tents,” says Gene Nicolleli, a longtime Hibbing resident and local historian. “The population was maybe 100, but it grew to 20,000 by 1915.”

As the town grew, so did the mines. Beginning in 1919, about 200 structures in Hibbing were moved two miles south to the hamlet of Alice to make way for the expanding pits. At one time, there were more than 20 different mining companies and mines near Hibbing—and as the mines expanded, they connected, creating Hull Rust, the largest open pit iron mine in the world. At 2,291 acres, the pit is more than 3 miles long, up to 2 miles wide, and 600 feet deep.

Since ore shipping began in 1895, more than 1.4 billion tons of rock have been removed from the pit. Over the years, the ore has been used to build America’s furnaces and factories, ships and skyscrapers, bridges and automobiles. The mine is likely to supply the nation for years to come.

“There’s enough ore in this pit for 200 years if it’s taken at the rate it is taken now,” says Herb Thellin, a tour guide at Hull Rust’s tourist observation deck.

With 900 workers, Hibbing Taconite—which operates the Hull Rust mine—is the town’s largest employer. “This is a one industry area,” Thellin adds. “When the mines work, everybody works.”

Mining isn’t Hibbing’s only legacy. In 1914, the town gave birth to Greyhound Bus Lines when a couple of enterprising miners found a way to transport workers to and from the mines. Hibbing also is the boyhood home of Robert Allen Zimmerman, better known as singer/songwriter Bob Dylan, who graduated from Hibbing High School in 1959.

Still, it was mining that built Hibbing. The industry is celebrated each July during the Mines and Pines Jubliee, and its history is chronicled at the Minnesota Museum of Mining in nearby Chisholm where visitors, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, can learn about the early years on the Iron Range.

“Our greatest resource is our people,” Lind says. “I guess a lot of it is in their attitude. We’re Rangers.”