Visit Iron Range towns like Babbitt, Hibbing, Virginia and Eveleth, Minnesota this election season and it’s not just signs supporting candidates that decorate lawns and businesses.
Signs with slogans like “We Support Mining” are pretty much permanent fixtures in this part of the state, where mining has been an important pillar of the economy for well over a century.
The signs may be numerous, but the number of people actually employed in mining in Minnesota isn’t: Mining is directly responsible for about 0.2 percent of Minnesota’s jobs and less than 3 percent of its economic output, according to state data.
Despite making up a relatively small share of Minnesota’s economy by those measures, mining is a big political issue in races for Minnesota governor, Senate, and Congress. What makes this relatively small industry such a big political deal?
Mining has a long history in Minnesota, beginning in the 1800s when prospectors looking for gold in the northeastern part of the state struck on something different in the region’s reddish landscape: iron ore. At first, they passed up the mineral to continue the search for gold. But, by the 1910s, iron ore was mined and shipped from the Vermilion, Mesabi and Cuyuna ranges. Soon, mining was one of the state’s biggest industries.