Like the other Iron Range cities, Virginia was a boomtown, built following the discovery of iron in the area, but it also became one of northern Minnesota’s most important lumber towns. At one point early in its history, Virginia had both the world’s largest white pine sawmill, the Virginia and Rainy Lake Mill, and the largest iron mine, Missabe Mountain.
The dual industry city, platted in the middle of virgin wilderness (hence the name, though it helped that one of the promoters of the new town was originally from the state of Virginia), swelled to 5,000 people in its first year of existence. That same year, 1893, the town was wiped out by a forest fire, and though locals rebuilt, it took a second citywide blaze seven years later to convince Virginians to build with brick, stone, and concrete.
Because of its wealth and grandeur Virginia became known as “The Queen City of the North,” a moniker it retains today. Its central location and variety of services make it the best base for visiting the Iron Range.
Sights and Recreation
The city’s main draw, the Mineview in the Sky (Hwy. 53, 218/741-2717, 9 a.m.–6 p.m. daily May–Sept., free admission) offers a panoramic view of the Rouchleau Mine. The massive cavity, cut right along the eastern edge of Virginia, stretches nearly three miles long, a half-mile wide, and 450 feet deep, though the bottom 200 feet are now filled in by water.
It produced 300 million tons of ore before closing in 1977. You’ll also find a 240-ton capacity production truck and a few other mining vehicles parked at the overlook, and any mining questions can be answered by the staff of the information center. You can get another view of the Rochleau pit at the Oldtown-Finntown Overlook (east end of 3rd St. N.).
The Olcott Heritage Museum (800 9th Ave. N., 218/741-1136, 11 a.m.–4 p.m. Thurs.–Sat., $1) in Olcott Park is very well presented. Because there are so many mining exhibits in surrounding towns, this museum focuses on logging and also has a good display about the city’s twin fires. Relics of the bygone days, such as a foot-operated dentist’s drill, are housed in a 1910 Finnish log cabin and 1930s tourist cabin (back then a night cost just $1.50).
Next to the museum is the Olcott Park Greenhouse, and you’ll find a giant loon (21 feet long) floating in nearby Silver Lake.
Mesabi Recreation (720 9th St. N., 218/749-6719, www.mesabirecreation.com, 9:30 a.m.–6 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 9:30 a.m.–4 p.m. Sat., noon–4 p.m. Sun.) can set up active travelers with bike, canoe, kayak, snowshoe, and cross-country ski rentals.
If you are looking to explore the Range’s crystal-clear mine pits, you should talk to the people at Tall Pine Divers (416 Chestnut St., 218/749-1561). They do sales, service, classes, and air fills.
The Pine View Inn (903 17th St. N., 218/741-8918 or 866/263-0535, $49) on the north side of town is a good value. The rooms are old but pass the white-glove test, and a sauna is available on a first-come, first-served basis so you don’t have to share.
Also a bargain is the more centrally located Lakeshor Motor Inn (404 6th Ave. N., 218/741-3360 or 800/569-8131, www.lakeshor.com, $49), which overlooks Virginia (aka Bailey’s) Lake.
You get a pool, whirlpool, sauna, and free pass to the nearby Quad Cities Optimal Fitness Center at the Coates Plaza Hotel (502 Chestnut St., 218/749-1000 or 800/777-4699, www.coatesplazahotel.com, $59), Virginia’s best hotel.
Out on the highway, the Americinn (5480 Mountain Iron Dr., www.americinn.com, 218/741-7839, $129) offers spacious rooms and great service.
There is a wonderful atmosphere in the historic Rainy Lake Saloon (209 Chestnut St., 218/741-7665, 11 a.m.–1 a.m. daily, $6–22). The menu is the most varied in town and includes some Mexican, Italian, and Cajun besides the expected American fare.
Also popular is Grandma’s Saloon and Grill (1302 12th Ave. S., 218/749-1960, www.grandmasrestaurants.com, 11 a.m.– 2 a.m. daily, $7–16). Wild Cajun chicken with wild rice is typical of their somewhat spiced-up American menu.
You can get a filling pub meal with an Iron Range twist at Adventures (5475 Mountain Iron Dr., 218/741-7151, www.adventuresrestaurants.com, 11 a.m.–1 a.m. daily, $8–18), from burgers to wild rice meatloaf to breaded walleye.
Despite the name, the menu at the Saigon Cafe (111 2nd Ave. N., 218/741-6465, 11 a.m.–8 p.m. Mon.–Thurs., 11 a.m.–9 p.m. Fri., 4–9 p.m. Sat., $6–17) is mostly Chinese, though there are Vietnamese and Thai options.
If you want a Chinese buffet head to Jue’s (312 Chestnut St., 218/741-7695, 11 a.m.–9 p.m. Mon.–Thurs., 11 a.m.–10 p.m. Fri.–Sat., $6.25 lunch, $8.25 dinner).
The coffee shop and deli tucked into the back corner of the Natural Harvest Food Co-op (505 3rd St. N., 218/741-4663, www.naturalharvestcoop.com, 8 a.m.–8 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 9 a.m.–9 p.m. Sat., 10 a.m.–3 p.m. Sun., $3–5) has a deck overlooking Virginia Lake.
The Italian Bakery (205 1st St. S., 218/741-3464, 6 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 6 a.m.–3 p.m. Sat., closed Sun., $0.50–2) opened for business in 1905 and it is still turning out Iron Range specialties like pasties and potica.
They’ve lost a lot of the atmosphere by adding a gift shop, but Canelake’s (414 Chestnut St., 218/741-1557, www.canelakes.com, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Wed. and Fri.–Sun., 9 a.m.–8 p.m. Thurs.) still make handmade candies as they have since 1905.
© Tim Bewer from Moon Minnesota, 3rd Edition