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Women at Eveleth Mines

The mining country of northern Minnesota seems to breed a special kind of person. Locals call the people who live on the Iron Range “Rangers.” A typical Ranger is a tough, blue-collar Democrat who works in a mine, drinks in the off hours, and goes ice fishing on the weekends. Rangers have strong opinions, and tell good stories.

Denise Vesel started working at Eveleth Taconite in 1977. She still works at the mine, which is now called United Taconite. - Photo by Stephanie Hemphill

Denise Vesel fits the bill. She’s worked at a mine for nearly 30 years. She works hard, and used to drink hard, and her stories are colorful and laced with creative cursing. Like the story of the time her foreman told her she’d have to ask permission before going to the bathroom, even though none of the men had to ask.

“I told him there’d be a blue moon in hell when I ask permission to go to the bathroom,” she says. “And there’d also be a blue moon in hell when I announce to the pit when I’ve got to go to the bathroom.”

“The pit” is where Vesel works. It’s an enormous crater, where huge machines dig ore to ship down the Great Lakes to steel mills. Mine pits are strung all along the 100-mile Mesabi Iron Range, a chain of canyons carved from the forests and bogs. Whole towns have been picked up and moved so the miners can dig where the houses used to be. From the rim of a pit, the shovels and trucks at the bottom look like toys in a giant sandbox, but they’re huge. A tire from one of the trucks is twice as tall as a person. Denise Vesel operates a rotary drill in the pit.

“It’s this big machine that looks like a double-wide trailer house on tracks with this huge steel that drills holes in the ground,” she says. “And they fill those holes with dynamite and explosives and that’s what they blast, for the shovels to scoop up and haul it away.”

When the mines blast, the nearby towns tremble.

Vesel loves the work, and she says she gets on with most of her coworkers. Most of them are men. Since Eveleth Mines started hiring women in 1975, women have never made up more than 5 percent of the hourly workforce.

Vesel was hired in 1977. She says a few men let her know right away that she wasn’t welcome. Some called her Amazon. Some called her slut, or bitch. Or worse. One man tormented her. He poked her and grabbed her. He melted her hardhat. One day, Vesel had had it.

“He starts punching me in the arm,” she says, “and I’m like, I’m hung over, I didn’t feel good, I didn’t want to be there that day. And I yelled at him a few times, 'Knock it off!' ... And he wouldn’t. And I just made a fist and I backhanded him as hard as I could. And all of a sudden I heard a snap and he grabbed his side and called it quits.”

Vesel found out later she had broken the man’s ribs. She says he left her alone after that.

Next: Women at Eveleth Mines - part 2

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