Excerpt from Minnesota's Iron Range by Marvin Lamppa

Marvin Lamppa - Photo by Stephanie Hemphill

There were ore trains running through Embarrass, Minnesota, when I was a boy. On summer nights, I listened to the powerful steam-driven Mallets as they began their slow ascent of the Mesabi heights and fell asleep to the long melancholy of their whistles. There was daily passenger service, too. A 15-minute ride on the noon train would find me in Soudan at my Aunt Elina's, where there would be boat rides to the island cottage, swimming at McKinley Park and where my lifelong affair with Minnesota's Iron Country had its start.

Soudan had all the appearances of a mining location in those days: company-built houses, fenced-in yards - no private businesses. The only place where you could get an ice cream cone or, for that matter, buy anything at all was at the "Oliver Club" on the corner of Centre Street and Main, across the street from the hospital. High above the town was the mine - remote, unapproachable, its steel headframe silhouetted against the sky, sheaves continually turning, ore rumbling through its crushers. It seemed as natural as life itself and as permanent as the hills around it. I think it was the same for many of the men who worked there. The mine was there when they became miners - it would be there when they were gone.

My grandfather spent a good part of his life as a barman in that mine. His job was to tap the hanging wall of a stope with a steel bar after a blast in order to drop down loose rock, making it safe for miners to enter. After he retired he came to live with us in Embarrass. Although he talked more about his boyhood days in Finland than about the mine, he did present my parents with two huge mineral specimens. My mother used one of them to hold the back door open on hot summer days. It was on one of those summer days that I discovered my first ghost town.

I don't remember exactly how it happened or who was with me, but a few friends and I learned that a seldom used dirt road a short distance from my house led to an old abandoned mining town. We left early and within an hour were bicycling over unmaintained corduroy toward the Mesabi heights. It was a surprisingly short trip - the road turned rusty red and we were there. The place was like nothing I had ever experienced.

At the top of an empty hill was a two-story brick building with the words "Village of Mesaba" etched in stone above the door. One section of the building had windows with bars. A jail! The building reminded me of village halls that I had seen in Aurora and Biwabik, except there was no town surrounding it. The decaying remains of a boardwalk led to a street overgrown with grass. On what was once a corner, a rusting sign read "Broadway and ...." I couldn't make out the rest. Farther down the way, like some movie of the Old West, was a saloon - at least we thought it was a saloon - with its door hanging half open on a single hinge, windows broken and interior covered with rubble and dust. Imaginations soared. My interest in history grew.

As I look back now, the most incredible discovery came when we found out the town wasn't entirely abandoned. One house was occupied; there was still an old-timer in town. He said he was the last mayor of Mesaba and was more than willing to tell us about the town. He talked long into the afternoon about lumberjacks, miners, immigrants and entrepreneurs. He described long-vanished hotels, restaurants, saloons and gambling halls. Hours passed and then, as we pedaled homeward in the evening dusk, I was aware of a feeling of connectedness with the past, a sense that something special had happened and I was somehow part of it. It was on that day that I became a "Ranger."

©2004 Marvin G. Lamppa

Minnesota's Iron Country is published by Lake Superior Port Cities Inc. and is available through their catalog or by calling 888-BIG-LAKE.

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