This article is excerpted from a chapter of Eating the Earth, a work in progress about industrial mineral extraction and material resources in the U.S.
Circling Chicago, single economy Rust Belt cities and towns bend, shudder, and collapse, some rising again on their elbows under the flag of service or tourism economies. Deindustrialization in Detroit ripples backward, in particular to the steel manufacturing and iron ore industries that for many decades linked their production in huge volume to the manufacture of cars. In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (UP), the town of Ishpeming, in the Marquette range, once the site of some of the richest iron ore deposits in the country, is attempting to reinvent itself as a destination for recreation. Public tours of the Empire Iron mine leave from the National Ski Hall of Fame. The National Ski Hall of Fame is U-shaped, like a ski jump. The building resembles an IHOP, but the Cornish pasty, not pancakes, is the UP’s most famous tourist food. The pasty (pass-tee, not paste-y) was brought by the Cornish immigrants who came to work in the mines in the middle 1800s. The one I bought from a roadside stand was a doughy round lump filled with ground meat and weighed about five pounds. It sat next to me in the car as I drove past gigantic tailings piles, one of which is Michigan’s second tallest peak.
Ishpeming is the site of the first U.S. ski jumping tournament, held in 1870, and the epicenter of the Upper Peninsula’s 150 year-old iron mining district. Where there used to be 100 underground iron mines, owned by multiple operators, there are now only two, both huge open pits, and both owned by one company, Cleveland Cliffs (now Cliffs Natural Resources). At the lip of the Empire Mine we looked into a hole a mile deep and a mile wide. The bottom of the hole is the lowest point in Michigan. The terraced edges looked like small leapable distances from up above; the colored dust like powdered pigment spilling over and mixing in gorgeous combinations of reds, purples, blues, oranges, and greens; at the bottom, a small pinched pool of deep blue and green. This has to be pumped out, and stored somewhere, along with the tailings, both mullock (waste rock separated from the ore when mining) and gangue (waste separated from the ore when it is enriched).
Our guide Katie grew up in Ishpeming and was a sophomore majoring in geology at Michigan Tech. She was not motivated by a passionate love of science. Her passion was to get out of Ishpeming. She wore the iron oxide-dyed t-shirt with the mining company’s logo on it, but she worked for Manpower, the temporary agency. She also worked at McDonalds five nights a week, from 6 pm to 3 am.
When I visited Ishpeming in 2006, Katie said it used to be that you could always find work in the iron mines, straight out of high school. But instead Cleveland Cliffs had been laying people off well-paid production work, and hiring low-salaried temps to do miscellaneous things like these tours—if they hired at all. Even working two jobs, Katie was $400 short of making her fall tuition.
Katie said 1300 people were employed by Cleveland Cliffs operations in the UP in 2006—but this included those working on the railroad that brought the ore to the docks, as well as the managers. Inside the beneficiation plant we walked a mile through room after room of huge churning steel machinery, dimly lit. Katie said there were five or seven workers in the plant that day, we just didn’t happen to see them. I noticed two men in the control room by the computer monitors. One guy was asleep, his head tilted back on the chair and his mouth open. Another guy sat with him, staring at our group of 25, not smiling. Shifts in the ore beneficiation plant and the mine, both of which ran 24 hours 365 days of the year, were 7/7/7: seven days morning shift, followed by five days off; seven days afternoon shift, one half day off; seven days evening shift, then one week off. The average starting pay was $22 an hour (then) but the company didn’t hire out of high school any more. You had to get some kind of college degree.
You could say that any mining operation is bound to run out of ore at some point. But a fine calculation of factors, including demand, perceived scarcity, new technologies, automation, environmental regulations (or lack thereof) as well as cheaper labor elsewhere, make the richness and viability of any ore deposit a remarkably relative thing. The dark red arteries of hematite in the iron ranges near Lake Superior were more than 50% iron ("so rich you could weld it") and supplied all the ore for the U.S. steel industry for a hundred years. In the 1940s and 50s, however, the iron-rich ore petered out ("leaned out," they say in the business). The industry faltered and mines closed. Then a Minnesota mine invented a process for concentrating veins of lean, blue-grey ore, called taconite, and the industry revived. To process taconite, you have to remove much larger quantities of mullock from the mine with the ore, and separate the two (hence Michigan’s new, and growing, mountains, potential ski slopes); grind the ore to a fine powder; extract the metal particles from the gangue with magnets or corn starch; then form the particles into balls at the balling mill. In Ishpeming, the balls are kiln-fired and shipped out from two ports on Lake Superior—Marquette and Escanaba—to steel mills in Gary, Chicago, Detroit, Canada, and China.
A few weeks after visiting Ishpeming, I visited U.S. Steel’s Gary Works in Indiana, where ore from Ishpeming and from mines in Minnesota arrives at the mill by boat. At the port, raw materials piled on barges and along the banks include maroon balls of ore, and dense black coal, but also something that glittered silver, and piles of grey, brown, greenish gray, and off-white. Phosphorus, tungsten, molybdenum are all added to steel to alter its qualities for different purposes, as well as plain old limestone, used as a flux to help purify the metal. Cranes lift calibrated quantities of each material into bins following a precise recipe for a given heat and alloy of steel. A conveyor belt, fitted with scooped pockets, ratchets up the ore mix and drops it down into the blast furnace, in relative proportions to the coke coming directly from the coke ovens. Material moves through this plant in a continuous flow. Railcars transport materials between buildings: coal in open box cars; molten iron in "subs" like black Easter eggs, open and smoking at the top; just-cast steel slabs on flatbeds, glowing red.
Elbert Gary founded the town of Gary in 1906 to provide labor for the first, and still the largest integrated steel mill in the Northern hemisphere (it covers 13 square miles). "Integrated" means that all operations related to steel-making are concentrated in one place, especially, the coke plant, where coal is cooked for eighteen hours to remove its tars and gases, leaving raw carbon, burned with the iron ore to give steel its special qualities.
In the 1920s, jobs in the steel mills attracted African Americans who headed north in the Great Migration; in 2000, African Americans made up 85% of Gary’s population. Mr. Brooks, my guide at the mill, who was African-American, said it used to be you could always find a job on the lake, not just at U.S. Steel but at LTB, National, Bethlehem, Inland—then they all went under except for Inland in East Chicago which was bought by Mittal, an Indian company, which recently merged with Arselor Steel. ArselorMittal is now the largest steel company in the world, with mills in 12 countries and a footprint in 60. The appliance, construction, shipbuilding, and packaging markets continue to consume sheet steel, but without the same hunger as Detroit. U.S. Steel’s Gary Works, which has been "dedicated to the automotive industry," has reduced its thirteen blast furnaces to four over the years, and its labor force fell from a high of 30,000 in the 1960s to 4000 in 2009. Mr. Brooks had been a crane operator in the south plant for 15 years, but he had switched to "special assignments," including video and communications projects and unexpected things like my anomalous tour (Gary Works doesn’t give tours, except to "new recruits," rare birds these days).
Between the coke plant and the blast furnaces, skeletons of former mill buildings, many hundreds of yards long, remain standing, even though their corrugated steel cladding has been stripped off and melted down. These skeletons support giant green pipes carrying by-product gases from the coke operation to provide power for the mill, an efficiency of "integration" that helps to reduce costs. ◊