This dissertation describes the history of the Lake Superior iron mining district, or Iron Range, as it battled against economic decline in the twentieth century. The study addresses four main points significant for historians of the modern United States. First, the Iron Range's struggle with decline offers a useful vantage point for understanding the interconnected role of deindustrialization and liberalism in the late twentieth century. On the Iron Range, politicians at the local, state, and federal level committed themselves to active government involvement in the economic health of the region and especially the iron mining industry. Through high wage, unionized mining jobs, liberal politicians expected that Iron Range residents would continue to support their ambitious plans for active government involvement in social and economic life. Deindustrialization undercut this alliance in a way that liberals and Iron Range residents did not anticipate. As globalization and automation reshaped the iron mining industry, liberal politicians found that their policy tool kits contained few remedies for long-term industrial decline. They had surprisingly few answers for residents of the Iron Range facing shutdowns and layoffs. Conversely, deindustrialization revealed the pragmatic core of many working class Americans' commitment to liberalism. Iron Range miners supported Minnesota's DFL liberals precisely because of the economic benefits liberalism offered to them. Industrial liberalism, it turned out, was built on a foundation of industrial growth. When that growth ended on the Iron Range, politicians and residents worked diligently to maintain their previous political patterns, but the alliance of industrial liberalism gradually eroded as the twentieth century wore on and industrial decline continued. The Iron Range has not followed the now familiar pattern of industrial workers moving from left to right in the late twentieth century, but the politics of the Iron Range suggest a more complicated transition away from industrial liberalism.
The Iron Range's response to industrial decline also suggests how the predominant policy response to deindustrialization, economic development policy, was enacted as a local response to national and global problems in the twentieth century. The Iron Range and the state of Minnesota made a concerted effort to avoid the fate of many other industrial regions suffering from decline in the postwar era. In many respects, the Iron Range was unusually successful in fending off the blight of deindustrialization. It retained jobs--often at great public cost--and avoided the fate that befell smaller cities dependent on the steel industry. The Iron Range thus offers an example of the possibilities inherent in vigorous economic development policy during the postwar era. If local and state governments carefully managed their resources and spent enough public money, it was indeed possible to keep industrial jobs alive and fend off the worst effects of deindustrialization. The Iron Range's success with economic development, however, also illustrates the limits of local economic development efforts in responding to what was ultimately a global phenomenon. Despite the earnest efforts of economic development professionals on the Iron Range, it was ultimately impossible to reverse the iron mining industry's increasing automation and globalization during the second half of the twentieth century.
It is impossible to separate deindustrialization and technological change in the postwar history of the Iron Range. More than any other factor, technical innovation in the mining industry displaced jobs throughout the twentieth century. Work was increasingly shifted from human laborers to machines through automation. The taconite industry offers the starkest example of how automation--and technological change in general--was a double-edged sword for the Iron Range. On the one hand, the taconite industry opened up vast new deposits for use as iron ore, likely prolonging the life of the Iron Range's mineral deposits by many years. On the other hand, the taconite industry could only become a reality by deconstructing the existing natural ore mining industry. Through technical innovation and the rhetoric of depletion, Edward W. Davis simultaneously constructed the taconite industry and dismantled the natural ore mining business. Touting taconite as a technological miracle to save a depressed Iron Range, scientists and engineers often ignored the destructive work that accompanied their creation. In a larger sense, both industrial regions and labor historians have yet to grapple with the complicated implications of technological change. In much economic development literature, for example, there is still hope that "high-tech" miracles will revive sagging rural economies or that new communication technologies will erase inequalities of distance and capital. Additionally, historians of labor and industry have often downplayed the central role of technological change and automation in reorganizing patterns of work throughout the twentieth century.
Finally, the Iron Range's attempt to promote cultural tourism and particularly heritage travel based on mining's history raises thorny questions about the role of history and heritage in depoliticizing industrial change. On the Iron Range, history became a vehicle for moving deindustrialization out of the realm of politics and into an apolitical realm of nostalgia. In museums such as Ironworld, mining's history was simultaneously celebrated and foreclosed as a possible future for the Iron Range. The heritage professionals and historians who created this romanticized story of the Iron Range were not malicious. They were usually driven by a desire to honor and celebrate the lives of hard-working immigrants and the rich communities they created in a harsh landscape. But historical interpretations have consequences and one consequence of their interpretation was to depoliticize industrial change in northeast Minnesota.
University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. July 2009. Major: History. Advisor: Lary L. May, PhD. 1 computer file (PDF) vi, 330 pages. Ill. (maps)
Manuel, Jeffrey Thomas.
Developing resources: industry, policy, and memory on the post-industrial Iron Range..
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