Excerpt from Mesabi Pioneers

Arthur Maki gripped a woolen cap in his calloused hands and stared out the window of the lone passenger car. The Three Spot engine had tugged him all this way, through the northern Minnesota woods. Out there was a blurred wall of evergreens and brown ash, and the maple trees were already focusing themselves into blossoming buds. A whistle pierced the rhythmic chugging; a flock of sparrows shot into the swaying trees and vanished.

The train lurched and steel wheels screeched against the rail. Telegraph poles that had whizzed past the windows now loomed and marked time as the train slowed. Smoke and steam billowed into the woods. Ahead the trees thinned and two rows of wooden shacks appeared as though they had been carved from the forest itself—in fact, they had. The train depot, painted green as though it were trying to become part of the forest again, leaned away from the tracks like a drunken miner. A white wooden lettered sign hung over a window: Mesaba.

Arthur had last seen this town in ‘89 on his way to the mines in Tower and Soudan. For nearly two years he slept in the hall of the Northern Flame Temperance Society with fifty other Finns. Every morning he trudged across a dirt field to the mine entrance, wrapped himself in heavy waterproof jacket and pants, took four candles from the supply offered by the foreman—cost later de- ducted from his pay—and rode the steam-powered cage down into the shaft. The Cornish mine captain, Cousin Jack—Arthur never knew his real name, that was simply what everyone called him—would assign him and three other Finns to a drift where they worked mostly in the dark picking at the soft ore one thou- sand feet below the surface. It was humid, dank, suffocating work, and Arthur feared the cave would take his life. Every evening when he stepped out of the cage and into the fresh air, he gave thanks.

Tower itself was a lawless place, rife with saloons and gambling and prostitution. Each night as he walked back to the Temperance Hall he passed bar fights and street fights, harassing gangs of drunk Finns and Italians and Slovenians, bands of violent mine guards playing deputy sheriff. He was glad Minnie had stayed in Duluth to have their baby.

As the train shuddered to a stop, the sleeping conductor tum- bled off his bench with a thud against the wooden floor. He rubbed his wrinkled eyes and muttered, “Mesaba Station.”

The only other passengers in the car were a Finnish woman and her son. The boy, all of twelve, was asleep with his head on his mother’s lap. Though a black veil obscured her face, Arthur recognized her. A week before, her husband, the boy’s father, had been killed in the Minnesota Mine when the drift he had been working reached a pocket of water and flooded.Twenty-one other men died with him. Arthur was unpaid for the time he spent re- covering their bodies and pumping the water out of the shaft. It was then, as he’d been standing beside the line of shrouded figures, that a group of widows came over the rise from the camp, led by the woman on the train. She examined each bloated face until she found the one that was her husband. Later she was given the opportunity to remain in miner’s housing if her son agreed to take his father’s place in the drifts. The woman had refused, and within an hour a guard had escorted her and her son out of the house they had occupied for more than a year.
In her Arthur saw Minnie and shivered at the image of his wife trudging over that hill to find his body. When he received a visit two days after the accident from Leonidas Merritt offering him a job, he was eager to say yes.

A wind whisked the train’s white cloud across the tracks, and into the open door on a gust of cold air.

Arthur slipped his canvas packsack onto his broad shoulders. As he pulled his tool bag from the shelf over his head, metal clanked against metal. He had wrapped his tools well, but still they knocked about. The axe handle he had carved from birch was strapped to the side of the bag and bumped against his leg as he climbed the three steps down to the station platform. My grand- father was a tall, muscular man with roughly cut short blonde hair and even without a cap he had to duck to get through the door. He wore denim pants and a flannel cotton shirt over long underwear that had faded to the dull gray of birch bark. Though the April air was still crisp, he left his fur lined long coat unbuttoned and his gloves stuffed in a pocket.

It was not Lon Merritt who met him that day, but his nephew, Johnnie. As John emerged from the smoke, his pale, dirt smeared face made him appear past thirty. He removed a leather glove and extended his right hand to Arthur, betraying sleeves frayed at the cuffs.

“Mr. Maki,” he said. “I’m John Merritt. I’ll be leading the party.” Arthur held the man’s gaze and then gave a small, quick nod of his head. Like most Finns, he was a man of few words.

“Call me Johnnie. Everybody does.” He smiled. The hand dangled, untouched, between the two men. Arthur stared, unblinking.

“Right,” Johnnie said. He slipped his hand back into his glove and turned. Arthur followed him.

Inside the leaning depot, three burly men stood in a half circle around a stove, warming themselves in its sooty heat. Long beards hid faces worn by years of hardened work; even Johnnie had a caterpillar mustache. Arthur was the only one with a smooth shave.

“Gentlemen,” Johnnie said. “This is Arthur Maki, our carpenter and builder. Mr. Maki, this is Captain Alfred Wood, Mr. Verne Richardson, and Captain Eustis Gill.”

Captain Gill bit the end of his pipe and puffed a mouthful of white smoke. “Tis good to finally meet you, brother,” he said. “We’ve heard much about the Finn who works magic with birch.” His beard danced as he spoke.

Verne Richardson smiled broadly, yellow teeth bared around a thinly rolled cigarette. “Please to meet you,” he said. He had narrow eyes and wide cheeks and skin the color of ironwood. “I am a timberman myself,” he said.

Arthur was glad to see another woodsman among them, but said nothing.

The third man plucked an unlit cigar from his yellowed teeth. “Daylight’s wasting,” Captain Wood said. His lip curled with a scowl as he turned from the others.“Let’s get on with it.” He slung his pack over his broad back and lurched out the door. Beneath his big chest his legs were like twigs and with each step Wood looked
as though he might topple over.

Richardson lifted his own pack and leaned toward Arthur. “He’s tough but fair. Been like that since I met him.”

The train whistle blew and pushed out of the station. Arthur thought of the widow and her son and silently wished them a safe journey.