Tom's Blog

Caravans of Immigrants to Minnesota’s Iron Range

By Tom Mattson:

Arriving on Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range in a small caravan, the pictured visitors of Mexican heritage savor some of the Iron Range’s highlights—and have such fun doing it! I observed the travelers and their pets near the Rouchleau Iron Mine overlook at old Finntown in the city of Virginia while I secluded myself in my car doing prep work to tell travel stories on a podcast. As I was leaving, I greeted one through my car window, then stopped, got out, and was lucky to meet 18 strangers.

Most of these travelers live in diverse parts of Minnesota, but one is visiting from Mexico. The woman in the center holds my book, Meeting Strangers, Making Friends: More Surprising Travel Adventures from the Minnesota Storyteller. I gave it to them as a welcoming gift. I pointed out that the book tells about adventures to Mexico, Cuba, the Galapagos Islands and the American West, and as far afield as Peru, Burma, Bhutan and Africa.

Next, the caravaners are traveling to Hibbing to view the world’s largest working open pit iron mine, the Hull Rust Mahoning, with perhaps a drive past Bob Dylan’s childhood home. And hopefully they’ll see the Minnesota Discovery Center and Minnesota Museum of Mining in Chisholm. As I left for the podcast, I told them my father had worked here at the Rouchleau Mine.

As an aside, I’ll tell you that I’m a curious person and when I first saw them, I hoped to say hello and ask where they’re from. As I was leaving, though, only one of them was nearby. He was emerging from the narrow woodsy walkway that extends above the abandoned mine pit, now partly water-filled.

“How can I greet this stranger?” I asked myself. As a native of nearby Biwabik, I’ve ventured out on the walkway several times, but nevertheless inquired, “Is that a good view?” He didn’t understand, so I asked “Es una buena vista?” We then spoke in Spanish as the large group came back from another direction. He lives just over the border from McAllen, Texas, he told me. Most or all of the others speak English.

I opened my trunk, pulled out a book, signed it and gave it to one of the women. “May I take a photo?” I asked. They were happy to oblige. I emailed it to one of them that evening.

The Rouchleau is one of the deepest mines on the Mesabi Range at 450 feet. It is where my father worked, and where he died in a snowy nighttime accident under the wheels of a train.

Tragedy was not new in Iron Range mines. It’s likely that thousands of immigrant miners from 43 countries were killed in accidents between the 1890’s and the 1920’s. In fact, 78 miners died in just four accidents, including two disasters in Virginia, one on the Vermilion Iron Range, and one on the Cuyuna Iron Range.

Lives were saved largely because of the marches, protests and strikes of heroic immigrant miners, their wives and families, and dedicated national activists. They combatted the use of fear that was employed in attempts to dismantle their civil liberties.

Learn much more from the gripping historical novel by Biwabik native Megan Marsnik, Under Ground, that traces the life of Katka Kovich who immigrated from Slovenia to the Iron Range as a 16-year-old girl. Immigrants arrived by horse cart, foot, dogsled and rail, including in boxcars—very diverse caravans!

In a similar vein, find yourself living in an amazing family of Greek heritage in 1940’s Vallejo, California. Nancy Econome has authored The Classic Grill: A Tale of Greek Gods and Immigrant Heroes. A review by Richard Moreno points out that “the tale particularly resonates because of the artful way that Econome draws parallels between her characters’ 20th-century Greek immigrant experience and the current American anti-immigrant environment.”

My earlier book of world adventures describes the joyful ethnic celebrations of today’s Iron Range citizenry, and the 60,000-year migration of my ancestors from Africa to Finland and to the Mesabi Iron Range, as documented by DNA analysis by National Geographic’s Genographic Project. That book is The Other Worlds: Offbeat Adventures of a Curious Traveler.

It happens that writers Megan Marsnik, Nancy Econome and I are all grandchildren of immigrants. And I think you see other grandchildren of Minnesota immigrants (as well as immigrants themselves!) in my photo of today’s joyful travelers to the Iron Range.

(This article was featured in Northern Minnesota’s weekly newspaper the Hometown Focus on May 21, 2021, under the headline Immigrants’ Joys and Struggles: Present-day visitors lead to a look back at the Range’s past.”)

Loading iron ore into a rail car in the Rouchleau Mine pit in 1966. The partially water-filled pit is now spanned by the Virginia Bridge, Minnesota’s tallest, 200 feet above the water. Rouchleau operated from 1893 to 1977. Photo courtesy of the Iron Range Historical Society.