Sunday, August 3, 2008

Carry Me Back From Ol' Virginny

The workshop was most enjoyable and educational but it's always good to get back home. The train isn't the fastest way to get around but it's a nice relaxed method. I had a five hour layover in Chicago on the way up, so I took a nice walk around the city. Only about two hours on the return trip, but time enough for a big, fat Chicago style hot dog and a soda.

Our home base was in Virginia, Minnesota, hence the title of the post. Virginia is an old Iron Range town that has about twenty bars and a couple of full service liquor stores along a six block stretch of the main drag. I doubt there will be that many next spring. Gas prices and the Minnesota smoking ban are all having an effect. Who's going to want to go outside and have a smoke when it's 30 degrees below zero this winter? Plus, beer and alcohol aren't cheap up there either.

We visited the Soudan Mine and went down about a half mile deep. The cage was raised and lowered by an Allis Chalmers hoist made in 1924. It's run by a guy sitting in a chair who watches a big dial with the different levels marked on it. When the cage is at the proper level, he pulls on a big lever and it operates the brakes. It's really nothing sophisticated but works really well. We also visited the Hull Rust and the Minn Tac mines. These are big open pit taconite mines. In fact, the Hull Rust is the world's largest. The equipment here is enormous. Big electric shovels load 240 ton trucks that hall the iron ore bearing rock to the crusher. It's then refined into taconite pellets and sent to the steel mills.

In addition to visiting the physical facilities, we learned about the people of the range and the history of their struggles with the climate, the mine owners and the politics of the region. I had no idea the Finns were so closely aligned with the socialist and communist movements. I heard from one of the speakers that they came to this area to escape being drafted in the Russian Army. I didn't realize until later in the week this meant serving for 25 years. As hard as life must have been for these people, it still would have been better than that 25 year hitch in Russia.

Our last morning, we heard from a former taconite mine worker and union organizer. He was pretty darn interesting. He said he was involved in a debate to determine if the iron mines were important to the national security of this country. The general consensus of the federal government was we could always by iron ore on the open market from our trading partners, Russia and China or someone else. I think most anyone would concede having our own supply of the major ingredient in making steel would be in our best interest. We also heard from a couple of politicians from the area and two people from Iron Range Resources. Everyone was very interesting and very much focused on what's ahead for the Iron Range.

I met some really nice people, both from the area, and from through out the United States. Our hosts treated us all very well and made sure the workshop was a success. Thanks to all of you.

No comments: