May 11, 2014

The Vermilion Trail

Initially, the Vermilion Trail, the oldest road in the Arrowhead region of Minnesota, was a footpath and trail for horses.  It holds so much history. Marvin Lamppa has written about the Lake Esquagama location as an important location early in history. There are burial mounds of the Woodland Indians, about 1000 A.D. and many Native tribes afterward. Besides a road, a chain of lakes and streams flow nearby and eventually empty into Lake Superior. Soon after the end of the Civil War, veterans arrived on this road because of the news of a Gold Rush at Vermilion. There was gold, but it was embedded in quartz, and it proved too expensive and difficult to extract. Geologists arrived to evaluate the iron. Native people willingly relocated when plans were put in place to begin mining. They were given "scrip," not money.

Night Train Red Dust focuses on the Vermilion Trail or Highway 4, and some of its stories are excavated, as layers of earth might be, to reveal a different time. A common story form is 'the road story.'  The Canterbury Tales, for instance, focuses on pilgrims. Mark Twain's stories centered around the Mississippi River. My work offers several perspectives on one stretch of road, a hundred miles perhaps, in a landscape itself that is being mined and shipped on trains to ships in the Duluth harbor to go to the steel mills. It is not just people who are on the train, but the earth.

The first iron extracted from Vermilion Range was rich. The first diamond drill came in and more rich ore deposits were found in the Hoyt Lakes region.  As more mines opened, miners arrived.  Mining locations were essentially "man camps."  The city of Biwabik (geographical coordinates are 47° 31' 59" North, 92° 20' 24" West) had eleven mines. Beer was shipped down the Embarrass River to great celebration. There were not many women when the mining started. However, there were two brothels. Mining was extremely dangerous and there were few safety regulations. Labor strife occurred, and there were big strikes.

Eventually mining inspections were required, and the number of deaths and injuries decreased. At the time the mines began, there was no "industrial medicine." This field developed as the health care needs of the workers emerged.  Early in the history of the Iron Range, two doctors, Mary Bassett Bray and Charles Bray, came to Biwabik and set up a hospital. They began to treat crush wounds, chemical exposures, and Caisson's Disease (the bends) caused by miners coming up too quickly from the deep underground tunnels of the mines. Eventually more immigrants arrived from many countries.  Marriages and families formed. The Vermilion Trail road was the way in and out. Winter travel was easier while it was frozen. In spring, summer, and fall, news reports reveal trucks and equipment bogged down to the axles in mud-holes. It has never been an easy road.

On the Iron Range in about 1900, forty different languages were spoken, a characteristic that made the region more similar to New York City than any other region at the time.  By the time the road was paved from Biwabik to Duluth, (Nicholas Shank was the first man to drive his car all the sixty miles from the small town to the city), it was called Highway 4.  For awhile, it was dubbed the Rudy Perpich Memorial Highway.  Now it's called the Vermilion Trail. Over six billion tons of rock have been removed from the Iron Range, but it still has incredible beauty. At the far east side of the Range is Ely and the federally protected region: Boundary Waters Canoe Area. 

The inscription that I chose for Night Train Red Dust is from Muriel Rukeyser's poem, "The Book of the Dead." "These roads will take you into your own country," she wrote, reminding people how closely connected we are, and how the exploitation of minerals and mine-workers were both closely connected to the economy and culture.  Her work was a hybrid work, containing stories, stock market reports, medical reports, and other things. The material lent her poetry an amazing strength. Perhaps only poetry with its condensed and powerful emotional language can finally impact a culture. Muriel Rukeyser published her collection of poems in 1938, U.S. 1. This is an excerpt from the Academy of American Poets website:
A political activist as well as a poet, Rukeyser devoted much of her time and writing to issues of feminism and social justice. She once worked for the International Labor Defense, and wrote for several publications on political issues, traveling to places such as Alabama (Scottsboro trial), Barcelona (People’s Olympiad, which was a 1936 alternative to the Nazi-run Berlin Olympics) and Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, to investigate ongoing poor health conditions among miners there in the wake of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster.
The construction of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel, beginning in 1927, during which workers were instructed to mine silica without proper protection, resulted in hundreds of miners, mostly African American men, developing the fatal lung disease silicosis. Rukeyser interviewed victims and their families; her detailed chronicling of the faces and voices of this tragedy resulted in the riveting poem sequence, “The Book of the Dead," which would be regarded as one of her most powerful pieces of poetry. “The Book of the Dead” was published as a long sequence in Rukeyser’s book U.S. 1 in 1938.
Like the coal mining region, the Iron Range is a microcosm example of a community economically supported by operations that pose environmental hazards. This is same place where many, many communities now find themselves. It continues to be a place of crossroads. The Iron Range impacted the development of the United States, and the iron from this region has fed the industrialization of the country and its military operations during World War I and II. Not only has the region influenced the pace and technology of development, the Iron Range has a rich history of resistance and organized political effort.

For a long time, the people who have lived in this region, near these roads, have worked with the balances of power.  We see the positive gains that they made with the co-operative movement and unions. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn came into the Iron Range in about 1916 as a union organizer for the IWW, known as the Wobblies. She wasn't here long.  Later on, she became one of the founders of the ACLU.  There were other women and men in the community doing important work--other doctors, journalists, ministers, teachers, musicians, and miners.

There is an independent spirit, "sisu" (a Finnish word for both spit and persistence), and a value on critical thinking. Not only is this region rich in minerals, but many of the people from this region are remarkable and have made significant contributions. Finnish socialists who were "black-listed" at the mines or who were unwilling to work in the toxic environments, worked at logging and ran small farms. They formed dairy co-operatives, and they helped sustain each other. Unions were and are necessary; they offer workers a collective voice. Unions influence companies and legislative policy decisions to take into account the needs of the employees. The Iron Range has had excellent teachers and schools. There have been strong leaders (like Paul Wellstone, for instance.)

In fact, it was not until 1975 when the iron ore/ taconite industry first experience significant competition from a foreign market, Brazil. After the high quality ore was depleted, a technology was found to be effective for use with lower grade ore. The taconite industry boomed. In the summer of 1975, when I was a summer hire at Minntac, a wild cat strike occurred. Initiated by millwrights, the employees who assembled the now giant machinery inside the large scale taconite plant, the workers wanted pay equity with their equivalent workers in Pittsburgh. The wildcat strike was soon settled--after a lawsuit for loss of income was filed by US Steel against the millwrights. They were court ordered to return to work, and they did. This was the summer that Brazilian ore first arrived in the steel mills, and it marked a shift in the entire iron and steel market.

At the time, I didn't know this. I was only a nineteen year old poet who had not yet learned how to effectively use my writing skills and I didn't know much about economics. Over the years, I learned and understood this tiny region of the United States has been a bellwether of the country. I think it will continue to be so, economically and environmentally. 

At the current time, corporations are interested in copper and other minerals. Northern Minnesota is faced with important decisions.  It seems the minerals that the corporations want to extract now pose a threat to the another compelling natural resource on the ground: water.  The land of ten thousand lakes, known for incredible beauty, is at a critical point. What will happen next? What will travel into this region, and what will travel out?

To see live links to over 100 sources, including historical archives, online sources, and stories that helped me write Night Train Red Dust, visit:

For more information about Muriel Rukeyser, see

To read all my posts about Muriel Rukeyser:

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