One Determined Engineer & the Creation of the Taconite Industry

The drive from Chicago to Ely, Minnesota, goes northwest through Wisconsin, crossing into Minnesota at Duluth. Route 53 winds up steep terrain through the city, heading into Duluth Heights and Hermantown. It’s pretty much due north past the Duluth Airport as signs of human activity thin out. Rice Lake Road winds north and east through the Clouquet Valley. Railroad tracks here and there are the signs of mining, save for some signs and a few vistas that hint at activity. Towns are few and far between. The names are intriguing: Embarrass, Virginia, Markham, Hibbing (Bob Dylan’s childhood home, where he was known as Robert Zimmerman) and Eveleth. They call out for online searching, when you can find a good signal on your phone. This is sparsely populated country between the towns. The air smells good and the trees are thick. It’s lovely in the summer and bitterly inhospitable in the winter. The region has the coldest recorded temperatures in the lower 48 states.

The route shifts east at Tower, a town of 500 souls with an old railroad engine painted shiny black closet to its two stoplight downtown. Tower was a creation of the Duluth and Iron Range Railroad and a small museum explaining this is housed in the old depot. You can visit the Soudan Mine museum, located in the nearby Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park. Lakes dot the landscape. It’s impossibly to gauge their sizes or connections with each other without a map. Underground is the Mesabi Range, America’s largest area of iron mining. When first explored, companies mined for extremely iron rich ore. That ore started thinning out. For the past fifty years or so, the mining has moved to taconite, a different kind of iron ore with its own special manufacturing processes. It’s been a massively profitable enterprise with global reach. With no real connection to the steel industry or the region, I had no idea what taconite was, save what I learned on wikipedia search from the car.

That changed after a recent visit to Minneapolis. In the city I came across a charming independent bookstore, Magers & Quinn, filled with new and used volumes and well-informed clerks eager to share opinions. It’s the kind of bookstore that makes you want to find a good chair and devote more time to reading. In their local section I found E.W. Davis’s Pioneering with Taconite, a hardcover book with a mod cover from the Minnesota Historical Society. Published in 1964 and written with humor, diagrams, photos and first-person explanations and anecdotes, this surprisingly fascinating volume explains how and why taconite mining and production came to northeast Minnesota. The industry was shepherded into existence thanks to the support of the University of Minnesota and the drive of one determined man.

The author is E.W. Davis, a wily inventor and academic entrepreneur who was known as the “Father of Taconite.” Trained as an engineer and hired by the University of Minnesota to teach math, Davis was tapped in 1913 by the Dean Appleby, head of the School of Mines and the institution’s Mine Experiment Station, to investigate a sample of rock from the eastern part of the Mesabi range. Appleby, as Davis recounts, was a “firm believer in the practical application of academic theory.” So, too, is Davis. He joined the Experiment Station the following year and figuring what to do with the rock sample was no easy task. It was hard and dusty, banded light and dark. Magnetic particles were throughout, though more heavily concentrated in the dark bands. After a lot of trial and error, Davis figured out that sorting the pulverized rock under water was the best way to proceed. He created a wet magnet separator, one of many creations on this long and complicated journey. Davis built the tool to answer the question at hand. It’s this kind of problem-solving that would mark Davis’s career and give us, the reader, a real sense of the challenges faced by Davis and his colleagues. There was iron in the ground, but no known way to figure out how to turn it into a profitable product. It would require many tools, many minds and a great deal of time and hard work.

Davis was to remain at the university’s mining station for more than forty years. He walks us through the various techniques tried, the experiments, and the many wins and the even more numerous failures. A 1920s initiative, backed by considerable funding, lead to no meaningful success as broader changes were taking place in the iron and steel industry. The work on taconite proceeded, nonetheless, for the coming decades as they engineered their way through a host of challenges. Davis’s persistence and smarts was essential.

Smelting is the traditional iron or steel making process, heating an iron ore with great heat until it becomes liquid. Oxygen is blown through the mixture, removing impurities (“slag”) from the metal, which then can be cast or milled. People have been making iron this way for thousands of years. The difficulty with making metal from taconite is that the percentage of impurities in the ore, the non-iron bits, is high. Davis and his team faced innumerable difficulties and problems throughout the entire process if they were going to convince the mining industry that taconite was profitable. It was plentiful and relatively easy to mine. But as how to make it all happen?

First, the team had to figure out the most effective way to break down the ore into smaller pieces. Davis goes into detail explaining the various trials and experiments – and he does it very well. I’d never given it much consideration before but it’s a real-life problem with real-life answers. Ore is in the rocks. How do you get it out of the mined mixture effectively? The technology changed over the years as they tested different crushers and mills. Turns out there are rod mills (think of a big rotating drum with ground rock and steel rods in it) good for more coarse grinding and ball mills (think of a big rotating drum with ground rock and steel balls in it) for more fine grinding. The rocks needed to be broken down so that they could be processed, separating out the metallurgical rich from the rest, which are called “tailings.

Cobbers are name of the machines that do this work, separating out the iron-rich bits of crushed rocks from everything that wasn’t used. Davis’s experiments with wet magnetization helped the team develop a number of different kinds of cobbers to process the ore. Once that step was completed, the material had to be “agglomerated,” or put together into some form that would allow for handling and eventual melting. It makes sense if you think of how steel is made, with a hot furnace that has super-heated air blasting through it. Dusty material cannot be added; it would just blow away. The Minnesota team decided, after much work, that “sintering” was best technique to agglomerate the ground iron-rich powder. That meant adding coal to the pulverized ore and then heating it until it fused into a hard mass.

The Mine Experiment Station spent many years working through various sintering techniques. They made briquettes, blocks and bricks, none of which had the qualities sought by the blast furnace operators, the people who eventually would make the material into steel. By 1938 they came across a solution that met industry demands: a small ball of sintered taconite, about the size of a little snowball. The balls would melt evenly and consistently in a blast furnace. Davis’s description of the numerous trials attempting how to craft the right size balls or taconite are like those of a chef struggling with a difficult recipe. Too much of this or not enough of that – and you’re left with a mess that no one wants. Or an unusable processing machine clogged with wet iron ore. By the latter half of the 1940s, they had it figured out. Taconite mining and production today still uses pellets or balls.

In the latter chapters of the book, Davis gives a relatively benign account of the rewriting of Minnesota’s tax code to make the taconite industry profitable. Later research highlights the complications of the endeavor. This was no small matter and Davis and the mining industry worked hand in hand to effect major legislative changes. Davis talks us through the tests that convinced state government to allow for mining tailings to be dumped in Lake Superior. With Davis anticipating significantly more innovations in the 1960s, as he finished the book, there’s a sense of industrial progress throughout. It’s understandable, too, as he’s writing from decades of challenges set and met. He expects more jobs, more mining and more profits. Real environmental concerns are absent. Those problems are very much with us today as Minnesota and the US wrestle with the opportunities and costs of mining.

I’m certain that there are more recent accounts of the steel mining and manufacturing industry, comprehensive studies that evaluate industry demands with environmental, political and community concerns. I’d wager, too, that in the business scholarship there are books and reports that give more contextual analysis of the development of the taconite industry within larger mining and manufacturing trends. The ecological consequences of the mining and processing are significant and should not be minimized. All of this is necessary for broader comprehension. Just like technological innovation, historical understanding evolves and improves over time. That’s no reason, though, to discount this book. It gives us is something really quite special: a first-person account of how a hands-on academic led a group effort of decades of problem-solving to create an industry. We learn how this happened, step by step, and it’s impressive work. Pioneering with Taconite is an informative and very engaging read.

David Potash

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