Looking at Iron Range Communities with New Eyes

Aaron Brown is an author, community college instructor, and long-time resident of the Iron Range. He writes a popular blog, Minnesota Brown, and is a good friend of Chuck Marohn's. We're pleased to welcome him as a guest writer today.

The town of Coleraine, as viewed from across Trout Lake

The town of Coleraine, as viewed from across Trout Lake

On Minnesota’s Iron Range, it’s easy to overlook hope in the recent economic decline from this mining region’s epic 20th century industrial story.

Most in Minnesota look at the Iron Range as an almost mythical land under constant economic stress. Travelers know it as a string of towns on the way to distant, more popular tourist stops. Locals know everything by what it used to be when they were in high school. (For instance, did you know that last week in Hibbing they tore down the liquor store that used to be the KFC by what used to be the Red Owl? What *is* this world coming to!)

But for a region currently facing an existential crisis of global uncertainty in its traditional industry, now is a great time to look at towns on the Iron Range with fresh eyes.

I tried this a few years ago with the city of Marble. That post led to a long string of outraged comments by past and current Marble residents unhappy with my characterization of how their town looked. So I’ll try again, and this time I’ll leave Marble alone

As today’s Iron Range towns go, it’s easy to overlook Coleraine. The city is on the far western Mesabi Range, miles from current mining activity even though the town was expressly built to house miners. When Highway 169 bypassed Coleraine, the planners put an overpass over the town rather than trying to go around it. Because of the hilly terrain you’d find it easy to think the town is much smaller than it really is. You see the town in peeks and flashes, rather than straight line views down old streets.

For me — an Iron Ranger from farther east — Coleraine seemed most notable as a notorious speed trap, where one quickly learns that the drop from the 65 mph speed limit to 40 mph is not merely a suggestion. I knew some of Coleraine’s history — its unique status as a planned community in a region known for fast-growing boom towns. That came with some dark twists, as mining boss John C. Greenway and his assigns strictly controlled who could and couldn’t live in the town in the early years. But I hadn’t spent more than an hour or two there in recent years.

Carnegie Library in Coleraine

Carnegie Library in Coleraine

A few weeks ago, my wife was getting her haircut by a new hairstylist in Coleraine. I accompanied her with the goal of exploring the town on foot while she was in the chair. It was spring in Northern Minnesota, which meant a mix of warm temperatures, lake ice and winter trees. Despite the barren appearance, perhaps because of it, I started to see Coleraine as a canvas instead of a historical document.

First I walked down the main street, looping around side streets in zigs and zags. Like much of the Iron Range, the houses were about the same age. Unlike most Range towns, however, Coleraine built more space in between homes, allowing wider yards and a more room for individual landscaping and design choices. Because Coleraine never had to be moved the way Hibbing or Mountain Iron did, its original steel company amenities are still standing. For instance, Coleraine’s beautiful old Carnegie Library avoided the fate of Hibbing’s Carnegie library, which was hurled into the bottom of a pit as the mine consumed the old town. Today it offers a touch of architectural class in a town that has yet to sprawl or homogenize with current building trends.

Coleraine is built upon a natural body of water, Trout Lake. The town’s community elementary school is built on a hill above the lake. The playground has the appearance of being right on the water, which was just opening the day I walked by. The chaotic din of children carries clear to the other side of the lake, where the same sound seems more idyllic and sweet.

Trout Lake

Trout Lake

Trails extend around Trout Lake, out onto a peninsula where a small recreational area may be found. Something about my mood that day was deeply salved by this walk. As the trail curves around the lake you get a clear look back at the town, which suddenly seems more attractive and homey from that vantage point.

The way Coleraine is platted it’s got nowhere to build out. It’s penned in by neighboring Bovey and Trout Lake. It can only grow inwardly. And the town seems to know it, for the roads all seem to curve back toward the center, almost like a European town. You never get this sense driving over the highway. It’s easy to miss, too.

Historian Pam Brunfelt calls the Iron Range an “Industrial Frontier.” But when all the frontiers have been conquered, and industrial growth stagnates, what is left? The new frontier is not at the edge of towns like Coleraine, it’s right on top.

This town needs to be filled with rich content, not expanded with more air.

This town doesn’t need growth, it needs refinement and community strength.

The potential beckons like an unrealized reserve of human potential in the wilderness of the 21st Century.

(All photos by Aaron Brown)

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About the Author

Aaron J. Brown is an author and community college instructor from Northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio (KAXE.org).