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Mining remains a big deal in Upper Peninsula

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula has been a mining-oriented place ever since the 18th century, when explorers were astonished to discover enormous chunks of pure copper in the Keweenaw Peninsula, north of Houghton. 

The iron ore deposits uncovered west of Marquette in the 19th century were so rich that unprocessed ore was shipped directly to blast furnaces to be made into iron. Once those deposits were worked out, vast quantities remained of less pure, but plenty rich, iron ore.  Ever since, this has been one of the U.P.’s biggest industries, extracting, processing and shipping iron ore to steel mills in Cleveland, Ohio, and Gary, Ind. 

I’ve just returned from a family vacation at our cabin “Up North,” where we toured the Tilden iron mine near Negaunee, owned and operated by Cliffs Natural Resources Company. The scope and scale of the mine flabbergasted us.

As we approached, we saw looming up a three-story rust-colored building that seems to run on for a mile or so. Hills of waste tailings as high as the biggest ski hill rise up to the south.

The ore is dug out of an enormous open pit, the black-dark red rock with multiple terraces descending deeper and deeper into the ground. Several copies of the University of Michigan’s “Big House” stadium could fit in the pit, with plenty of room to spare. In fact, after many years of mining, the bottom of the pit today is the lowest point in the entire U.P.

The rock is blasted loose by setting off deep explosive charges in the pit. Vast shovels -- the newest capable of hoisting hundreds of tons of rock and costing up to $30 million --unload ore into transporter trucks, themselves three stories high and capable of hauling 360 tons at one go. The tires for those monsters are 10 feet high and covered with chains to protect them from the sharp rock.

I had assumed that was all there was to it. Blast the iron ore out of the ground, smash it into pieces and ship it off to the steel mills. Not so.

Most of the effort, cost, skill and scope of the operation is required to convert the raw iron ore into hard one-inch balls with high enough iron content to be fired into metallic iron in blast furnaces. 

This involves grinding the ore down into a texture as fine as face powder, a noisy and dust-filled process undertaken in enormous rotating grinders. Afterward, it’s mixed with water to form a gooey dark red slurry. Tiny bits of metallic iron, heavier than the surrounding silica, drop to the bottom in enormous settling ponds.

This sludge is moved by conveyer belt to enormous rotating cylindrical furnaces running at 2,300 degrees that evaporate the remaining water and then fuse the resulting dry power together into tiny, hard balls -- “pellets” -- ready to be loaded into freight cars and dumped into Great Lakes freighters moored at the dock in Marquette’s upper harbor. 

The mine started pellet production in 1963. Through 2011, Tilden has produced more than 257 million tons of pellets. Penny ante it isn’t. 

The interior of the enormous plant is filled with noise -- you are issued ear plugs for your tour. It’s a place of dark red dust, huge gears, links of chain bigger than your arm, massive rotating cylinders, conveyer belts snaking soundlessly here and there. It reminded me of the greatest -- and most terrifying -- industrial sites of the 19th century, but the whole thing controlled and managed today by complex computer networks. 

Cliffs is the largest employer in the U.P., with more than 1,700 employees. Thanks to 20th century technology managing a 19th century industrial process, there couldn’t have been more than 15 production workers on the floor, big, dusty tough men with swinging strides and gigantic lunch buckets. They’re well paid -- more than $80,000 in wages and benefits. 

And they represent today the generations of tough, strong, determined “Yoopers” who wrenched the metals out of the ground, wrestled down the giant trees from the forests, sailed the boats and caught the fish -- all in the mythic heart of our wondrous state. It’s a place of historic legends -- think Paul Bunyan and Babe, his blue ox -- and contemporary pride and purpose.

In these days of cultural scorn for hard-working men with horny calluses on their  hands and a determined stride, their work and the ways they go about it make me nod with pride and admiration.

Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments via email.

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