“It was a wonderful town to grow up in,” said Maki, 59, president and CEO of the Superior-based Lakehead Constructors, describing boat clubs and water-ski shows in the summer. “There was a real sense of family.”
The story of the Erie Mining Company is a rich one, featuring an employee history of 10,000 people and scores more, like Maki, who were caught in its sway.
Maki’s father, Vernon, was a chief draftsman in the engineering department for a mine that lived from 1957 to 2001 as LTV Iron Mine — etching a permanent vein of memories for those associated to it.
The history is living on through an ambitious project which has already produced a dynamic hardcover history book published in 2019, “Taconite, New Life for Minnesota’s Iron Range: The History of Erie Mining Company.” The book is currently being brought into schools and libraries throughout the state.
Additionally, the history project has resulted in an oral history catalog of 155 interviews, a traveling exhibit, and is in the process of developing a new permanent exhibit for the St. Louis County Historical Society at the Depot in Duluth titled, “A County Built on Iron.”
“This was, for me, a very personal thing,” said Ron Hein, 83, of Duluth. “I felt that, along with the other 10,000 people that worked there, this shouldn’t be something that goes into the dustbin of history. This was a big deal — the pioneering effort, expense and time it took to economically process taconite. The company and people were visionary who wanted to see that happen. They made that commitment.”
Hein, the catalyst of the project, was a Brigadier General in the Minnesota National Guard and is on the Historical Society board. But it’s his years first as a welder and later as director of organizational development with the mine that are driving him and his team of almost a dozen other Erie Mining Company loyalists to finish the project. When it’s all said and done, Hein and company will have raised some $750,000 to fund the project.
Hein launched the project in 2013 when he posed the idea at an annual Christmas party for salaried employees of Erie Mining Company. The response was overwhelmingly in favor.
“From the beginning, we were interested in not only documenting the history, but we were concerned about educating the younger generation,” Hein said.
To that end, a teacher’s edition of the 350-page history book is currently in production, and this fall nearly 2,000 copies of the book are being mailed to schools and libraries throughout the state.
“Last week I delivered a check for $50,000 to the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation to set up an Erie Mining scholarship,” said JoAnne Coombe, executive director of the Historical Society. “This whole project came with an organized, competent and enthusiastic team that was willing and continues to do the heavy lifting.”
Hein described annual $1,500 scholarships from the project to be given to students at Mesabi East and Cook County high schools in Aurora and Grand Marais, respectively. Taconite Harbor, 33 miles south along the North Shore from Grand Marais, was another Erie Mining Company town.
The complex history project has resonated beyond the Twin Ports.
“I was struck with how wonderful, organized and thoughtful that book was when I got my first copy,” Scott Brown, president of Pickands Mather Group, said on the phone from Cleveland.
A photograph in “Taconite, New Life for Minnesota’s Iron Range: The History of Erie Mining Company” shows some of Erie Mining Company’s original Hoyt Lake employees gathered to celebrate the production of 300 million tons of product, a milestone reached in 1997.
Brown comes from a family with six generations of people associated with mining, himself once having worked at Hibbing Taconite. Pickands Mather was the company that launched the Erie Mining Company. Brown acquired what was left of the company, and it is now a logistics operation.
“We’ve been extremely happy to support those guys both financially as well as giving them direct access to a bunch of people here who were involved in the Erie Mining project,” Brown said of the history project.
Brown held an event in Cleveland to introduce Hein and his team to donors and important figures involved in the mine’s history. A similar event at the Kitchi Gammi Club in Duluth brought out local benefactors.
Most of what is left of the project is to create the new permanent exhibit at the Depot, to replace what Coombe called a “tired” mining history exhibit on the Depot mezzanine floor. Designs have already been completed by Split Rock Studios of St. Paul.
All told, another $200,000 is needed to be raised to build the exhibit, which continues to have a 2021 completion date attached to it.
“With COVID-19, it’s been hard to get people together,” Hein said.
Those who know Hein don’t expect he’ll do anything but succeed.
“We’ve managed to amass 15 traveling exhibits and theirs is the most sophisticated — it even comes with its own trailer,” Coombe said. “They’re retired military, retired executives. They do it right, and they make us look good. When I float an idea, they embrace it.”
Last summer, Brown rode the North Shore Scenic Railroad from Duluth to Two Harbors with Hein and his team.
“It’s a great group,” Brown said. “They’ve produced an incredible product and they continue to produce.”
The book itself is a marvel. Written by Hein and the other former employees, it’s filled with historical photographs. The text delves into science and sociology in addition to the company’s mining history. It describes the race to process ore pellets from taconite rock as natural iron ore deposits became depleted. It also features a center gatefold timeline that highlights quintessential dates in Iron Range mining history.
Of Hoyt Lakes, the book reads, “Work began in 1954 with clearing the townsite out of the northern Minnesota wilderness and starting construction of the first 200 houses.”
The cover of “Taconite, New Life for Minnesota’s Iron Range: The History of Erie Mining Company.”
Maki recalled some of those earliest days, when his father, Vernon, and mother, Barbara, joined the other “mudders” in raising a town from scratch. Early on, there were no sidewalks and the streets weren’t quite done, staining pantlegs with mud.
“It was a great success story — building a new town, a power plant and railroad,” Maki said. “There were two elementary schools in that town and they were both filled. There were 100 kids on every block, it seemed.”
Today, Maki said Hoyt Lakes has been made to wait too long on a verdict for proposed copper-nickel mining nearby. It’s had an emotional and economic toll on the town, he said.
“It’s sad for me to watch the East Range the last 20 years — it’s dying off,” Maki said. “I wanted to see the book done and I got behind it right away. I thought the story needed to be told.”