In 1887, the Merritt Brothers and a crew led by Capt. J.A. Nichols discovered rich hematite ore under 14 feet of mud near the future townsite of Mountain Iron. After three years of wading through stinking mosquito swamps, alternating with hellish winter conditions, these men turned hope of discovering the Mesabi Range into reality.
Almost 30 years later, in 1916, Slovenian immigrant Joe Greeni stood in line to find out how much he’d earn in pay that week. He would utter the words “To hell with such wages. We’ve been robbed long enough. It’s time to strike.” Thousands would join him, shutting down all the mines on the Mesabi.
These moments shaped Iron Range history, leading to the Iron Range present. Not because they were successful at first. The Merritts would be undercut by John D. Rockefeller. The IWW strike of 1916 would be broken. Instead, these events reflect the twin human desires for materials and quality of life that still spark political action today.
Two new books from the University of Minnesota Press helped inform this view. Gary Kaunonen’s “Flames of Discontent: The 1916 Minnesota Iron Ore Strike” explores the conditions that created the largest labor uprising in Mesabi Range history.
Meantime, Grant Merritt — grandson of Alfred Merritt — writes “Iron and Water,” detailing his family’s personal relationship with the iron ore business and his own efforts to balance mining with environmental protection as a government official. Taken together, these volumes cast long shadows over current events.