Native American Origins
Long before any large-scale mining took place, American Indians in Minnesota used rock and mineral resources in their daily lives. Spear points, knives and scrapers were formed by flaking and chipping chert and flint. Ceremonial paints were made from grinding different colored rocks into powder. Clays were used to make pottery. Pipestone, a red rock also known as catlinite (CAT-lynn-ite), was used to carve pipes. Legend has it that the stone was made from the flesh and blood of their ancestors. The quarry in southwest Minnesota was considered sacred ground where all Indians met in peace. Today, Pipestone National Monument, in Pipestone, is located on the site of the quarries.
In 1820, the U.S. military used limestone to build Fort Snelling at the junction of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. Early pioneers from Sweden, Norway, Germany, Scotland and Italy brought stone cutting skills with them to Minnesota. The first granite quarry was opened in the St. Cloud area in 1868. Limestone, marble, sandstone, and granite were important in the construction of bridges and buildings.
Minnesota continues to be a strong supplier of quarry stone. The stone has a variety of uses, including interior tiling, counter tops, monuments and memorials, and decorative and structural panels for buildings.
The discovery of gold in northern Minnesota led to the Vermilion Lake gold rush of 1865-66. However, hardly any gold was found. Tiny amounts of gold were found embedded in quartz. Mining the gold out of this hard rock was not profitable. The gold prospectors abandoned the area by 1867. Then, in the summer of 1893, gold was discovered on Little American Island in Rainy Lake (along the U.S.- Canadian border). Miners hoping to make it rich flocked to the northern region. The Little American Mine has been the only productive gold mine ever to operate in Minnesota. Although many miners moved on to find their fortunes elsewhere, the gold rush led to the settlement of many communities in northern Minnesota, including International Falls. Today, a number of companies are actively exploring for gold in Minnesota.
Minnesota's iron ore was actually discovered while miners were on their way to seek gold. Since their aim was gold, the iron was ignored. As it turned out, the iron would become more valuable to northern Minnesota than the gold.
Iron ore was discovered on the three iron ranges at different times. The first ore shipped from the Vermilion Range was in 1884, the Mesabi Range in 1892, and the Cuyuna Range in 1911.
The mines were operated through the hard work of the miners. They used shovels and pickaxes to take the ore out of the rock. Horses and mules hauled the ore out of the mine. Later, steam shovels and engine-powered tools were used. Mining was dangerous work. Many miners were killed in mine accidents. The worst mining disaster in Minnesota happened in 1924 on the Cuyuna Range. Forty-one miners drowned in the Milford mine when a nearby lake broke through the underground mine, flooding the tunnels.
The mines attracted immigrants from almost every nation in Europe. Thousands of immigrants were arriving in America at the same time as the mines were opened. The Minnesota mines provided jobs for many immigrants. Most of the jobs were for unskilled, manual labor that required great physical strength.
Towns were built around the mines. As the mines were expanded, many towns were moved to new locations because they were built on top of iron ore. Part of the city of Hibbing, known as the "North Forty", was moved to make way for mine expansion. If you visit Hibbing today, you can see remains of sidewalks, house foundations and street lights near the Hull Rust Mahoning Mine overlook.