Though not the only iron range in Minnesota , the Mesabi Range gave up far more ore than the Vermilion and Cuyuna combined and is the only one still worked. This is a land pocked by massive open pit scars and enormous rusty scrap hills, and many people dismiss the Iron Range as a tourist destination when, in fact, it is one of Minnesota’s most interesting regions.
Today the mining industry employs about 3,500 people, a far cry from the 15,000 working here as recently as the 1980s, and former miners talk about how many years they would have had on the job if they hadn’t been laid off. Some parents still give their children the same old advice that they and their grandparents heard in their younger years—get a good education so you can leave—but things are changing.
The population’s strong work ethic has attracted new industries like call centers to the Range in recent years, and now there is talk of copper, nickel, and zinc mines; new power plants; and modern “electric minimills” to produce steel right here at the source.
Some people believe these new plants could make the Iron Range the center of the steel world. Despite the changes, regional unemployment remains above the state average, and city populations continue to decline.
The operational and retired mines have become fascinating tourist attractions, and you can watch 37-cubic-yard shovels loading 240-ton production trucks at the working pits. Environmentalists might cringe, but even the most ardent Luddites are likely to be awed by the scale of it all.
Back in the early 20th century the new mining jobs attracted immigrants from across Europe, making the Range nearly as diverse a melting pot as New York City, and that ethnic heritage remains strong here as the various festivals, churches, and menu items will attest.
A new travel option, the Mesabi Trail (www.mesabitrail.com ), will stretch 132 miles between Grand Rapids and Ely , making it one of the longest paved recreational trails in the world. At the end of 2009, 102 miles were complete, with a 75-mile chunk running from Grand Rapids through Hibbing , Chisholm , Mountain Iron , and Virginia  to McKinley. A two-day ($5) or annual ($15) Wheel Pass is required for adult users and can be purchased at area businesses or self-service stations at trail access points.
The Iron Range Tourism Bureau (403 1st St. N., 218/749-8161 or 800/777-8497, www.ironrange.org , 8 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Fri., closed Sat.–Sun.) based in Virginia is one of the best-run tourism organizations in the state, and if you have a particular interest in something—like bird-watching or fishing or shopping—they’ve probably got a brochure and/or a webpage about it.