Excerpt from Mesabi Pioneers

Mountain Iron. The name brought memories to mind that were not even mine—images from stories Pappa used to tell. He was a good storyteller, much more so than my father, who was more concerned with making money than lingering over the past. Pappa came to the range in the spring of 1891 when it was a vast, trackless jungle of pine, tamarack, spruce, ash, maple, cedar and birch punctuated by a stony ridge that resembled the knotty spine of an emaciated giant. The natives called it nibaad misaabe: the sleeping giant. It was home to deer and elk, bear, moose, and wolf. The skies were filled with bullfinches, cardinals, and blue jays. Hawks and eagles perched in the high branches. Ducks, swans and geese paddled the myriad lakes and ponds, and herons and egrets stalked through the rushes.

The native Chippewa migrated overland from the shores of the great salt water in the east, what we now call the Atlantic Ocean, and settled on the shores of Leech Lake, Red Lake, Gichigami—what the Chippewa called Lake Superior—and the dense forest in between. Once there, they tolerated the French Canadian fur traders who trapped minx and fox on their lands, and bartered with the few white settlers for food and tools. In the summertime the pine bogs swarmed with blackflies and mosquitoes. In winter, snow piled fifteen feet high and the land was as white and as frozen as the arctic.

Back in 1865, when the state was not even a decade old, a lanky land surveyor and merchant named George Stuntz found what he called a “mountain of iron” up near Lake Vermilion. It would take him twenty years, and the work of the Minnesota legislature, before any of the iron he found would be brought to market. Then it was a shrewd Philadelphia lawyer by the unforgettable name of Charlemagne Tower—a giant in coal—who sent geologist Albert Chester to test Stuntz’s mountain. Chester reported red gold in the form of 75 percent pure iron ore. Tower invested heavily and built the town that came to bear his name on the south shore of the lake. To get his ore to market, he chopped a rail line through the dense forest. He was seventy-eight when a syndicate of steel magnates and oil men, John D. Rockefeller among them, pressured Tower to sell his mine holdings. It was history that would repeat itself six years later.

For a while people thought that the Vermilion range contained all the usable iron Minnesota had to offer. Experts believed that to get high-quality ore you had to dig under layers of hard rock deep in the ground. The only other natural resource in the state, they said, was wood—lots of it. Huge swaths of state-owned pine forest were leased to the first men to file claim with the land office.

But rumors persisted. Men came out of the woods holding aloft chunks of red-hued rock they had found lying on the ground.

And Leonidas Merritt was one of them.

He believed the iron was there, that it had to be there. He and his brothers, timber cruisers by trade who specialized in finding stands of white pine, discovered chunks of iron ore laying on the ground. While he amassed a timber-based fortune, he continued his hunt for the cache of iron ore he believed lay along the vast nibaad misaabe. But even when he brought samples back to Duluth, sacks full of gray clay and hunks of metallic rock, when he showed them his maps with markings pointing to long stretches of land where the compass pointed neither north nor south but straight down into the ground—even then he was received with blank stares and incredulous shrugs.

“It’s just surface ore,” the mineralogists told him. “Doesn’t mean anything.”

“That’s the washout from some long dried ocean,” others said. “There ain’t enough iron on the ground to sustain a mine.”

Even the United States Geological Survey said, “Not a single deposit of iron ore of such size and character as to warrant exploration has shown up.”

Leonidas—everyone called him Lon—and his brothers fixated on the idea that there was iron ore in the woods. Pappa said he thought Lon must have had a little Finn in him to have such determination to achieve a goal that the entire world thought was crazy.

For the Merritts and for mining itself, help came from two fronts. The industrial revolution increased a demand for steel, and America, recovering from the bloody and protracted Civil War, was becoming a world leader in industrialization. America needed steel, and steel needed iron. With an abundance of land, America seemed ripe to take advantage of the age of mineral exploration. Speculation was rampant: where would the minerals come from? Then came Minnesota’s Braden Act of 1889, which authorized the state to negotiate leases and contracts for any of its land, for the purposes of mining and shipping iron ore. Suddenly there was a bounty on deposits of ore. Men did not need to dig it out of the ground—they simply needed to find where it lay.

Lon insisted he already knew; he spent his family fortune digging the ore out of the ground. Then he spent another fortune trying to get his ore to market.
It was to this place and in this time that Arthur Maki, Pappa, my grandfather, came into Lon’s life. Born Arvid Mäkelä in Jalasjärvi, Finland, in 1864, at a time when Finland was a territory of the vast Russian state, he was the bastard son of a Russian colonel. Raised by his mother and stepfather, Hilda and Matti Mäkelä, he learned carpentry and farming on their small farm until his eighteenth birthday, when he was conscripted into the Russian army. After two years he walked out of camp one dark winter night and kept walking until he reached Helsinki, where he boarded a boat and came to America.

He spent some time in New York before he heard about jobs in the west. He traveled by train, sleeping in freight cars or in haystacks. In Minneapolis he attended a Finnish Lutheran church where he met Minnie. They were married a few months later and together rented a room in a Duluth boarding house run by Hephzibah Merritt, Lon’s mother. Arthur helped around the house, fixing walls and repairing furniture, and Lon liked what he saw. He offered Arthur a job.

“When we find the deposits we’ll need a good carpenter,” Lon told him.

Arthur was reluctant. He wanted steady money, but what Lon was offering was not stable or firm. It was speculation, and that was no better than a bet, as far as Arthur was concerned. Instead he took a job working in the mines around Tower and Soudan. Minnie stayed in Duluth to work at the Merritt Hotel; it was the only time in their lives that they were separated.

Meanwhile, Lon persevered. On November 16, 1890, a German engineer named Josef Nichols sunk a drill in section three of Township 58-18—what would become the Mountain Iron Mine—and found the iron went down six feet. For Lon Merritt, the rush was on.

Lon and Arthur had a lot in common. Both were spiritual men who prayed daily and attended church regularly. Both men believed in keeping the body pure. Unlike most other hardy men of the day who spent their lives in the harsh environments of northern Minnesota, they neither drank nor smoked. Most importantly, both men believed in the power of man, believed that with a strong will and a strong back they could move mountains.

“Come and work with us,” he implored my grandfather a second time in early 1891. “We need you.”

As Arthur considered it, the look on his clean-shaven face betrayed no emotion. My grandfather was a stoic Finn with the disposition of a three-days-dead walleye.

“You will be in from the beginning,” Lon said. “With a share of the profits.”

My grandfather’s thin eyebrows lifted. “And the profits will be huge.”

Being rich was not one of Arthur Maki’s goals. He simply wanted to live without struggle, to live safely and comfortably with his wife always by his side. In this place, in this country, where he had been for nearly five years, he understood that life without struggle meant life with money. For himself, for the big family he yearned to have, that was what he wanted.

“Joo,” Arthur said. “I come.”

There were those who thought that the Merritts were working beyond their knowledge, and it is of some conjecture that had the Merritts “stuck to pine” as it were, they might have wound up among the richest timber barons in the country. Instead, Lon brought a group of men into the woods to sniff out something he believed was there. For Lon, that is almost all it was: belief.

Se alkoi Mountain Ironissa,” Pappa used to say when he told the stories of those early days. It started in Mountain Iron. He knew very little about iron. Arthur Maki could dig, sure, and while he was creative in the construction arts, he never considered himself a leader. He was a builder, a carpenter. “A doer,“ he used to tell me. He came to the Mesabi Range to follow orders and find a quiet place to raise his family. He hoped a small mining camp in the woods would be that place.