Hill Annex Mine State Park preserves northern Minnesota iron mining history. Park tours show visitors part of a former open pit iron ore mine, complete with vintage buildings and equipment.
But go see it now. This history is disappearing!
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See Iron Range history at Hill Annex Mine State Park
Hill Annex Mine State Park is located on the Mesabi Iron Range in northeastern Minnesota.
This is the most important of three areas in the state where iron-bearing rock was mined. Iron ore mines here fed the nation’s steel mills through two world wars and made this part of Minnesota what it is today. It was the region’s lifeblood for about 60 years. However, as reserves of high-quality ore ran out, even once highly productive mines struggled to remain viable. Over time, Hill Annex, like most, closed. But not every mine closed. Even today, iron ore – in the form of taconite – remains a vital part of northern Minnesota’s economy.
At Hill Annex Mine State Park visitors can learn about Minnesota’s Iron Range history at two levels:
- Fossil hunts tell the story of the Iron Range in geologic terms through rock formed more than 65 million years ago.
- Mine history tours tell the story of open pit iron mining in Minnesota from around 1910 through 1978.
This is a fascinating historic site, but also an endangered one. One that may one day close.
To some degree, it’s an old story. There has been a threat the park will close almost since it opened. Now, every two years, that possibility seems to rise again. And, in response, the park is given two more years of life. But there’s no long-term commitment to keep the park operating. Nor is there funding available to preserve the park and its structures.
That inaction is taking a toll.
While waiting to see if active mining will someday return to the site, nature has been hard at work.
All of the historic structures in the mine pit are now beneath many feet of water. Those above the pit await the day when rising water levels begin to destabilize soils. And everything is slowly rotting from 40 years of exposure to Minnesota weather.
Amazingly, there is still a lot to see.
But don’t wait to visit this treasure trove of mining history. Go now!
(The park is open Fridays and Saturdays until Labor Day, and then again in summer 2020 between Memorial Day and Labor Day.)
Read about all about this complex park, its history, what you’ll see in the park, and thoughts on its future below. Or use these links to skip ahead and start planning your visit now!
- The story of Hill Annex Mine is the story of the Iron Range
- New life for a historic mine
- Get to know Hill Annex Mine State Park
- Why Hill Annex matters
- The future is uncertain
- What’s next
- We could have saved Hill Annex Mine
- Plan your visit
The story of Hill Annex Mine is the story of Minnesota’s Iron Range
Northeastern Minnesota has long exported its natural wealth to the rest of the country and the world.
First came the Voyageurs seeking furs, particularly beaver pelts to make fashionable hats for men. But political tension rose along the Canada/USA border and the supply of local fur dwindled. In response, the Voyageurs moved farther north.
Loggers came later, following the always-retreating forest through Minnesota Lake Country. And, as they worked, the first miners began to arrive.
Those early miners followed the illusory promise of gold. Failing in that pursuit, they left. But, as the loggers finishing their work in the northern forest, a new group of miners arrived. This time they came seeking iron ore.
By the time the northern forests had fallen and the logging camps closed, iron mining was rapidly reshaping the physical and cultural landscape of northern Minnesota.
Hill Annex Mine history
A long narrow band of very high-quality iron ore runs through northeastern Minnesota in an area called the Mesabi Range. It’s part of a larger iron range that runs through much of the region, but the Mesabi was the heart of northern Minnesota mine country.Although the presence of iron-bearing rock was noted earlier, 1890 is generally cited as the date when iron ore was “discovered” on the Mesabi Range. The first lease for mineral exploration at Hill Annex came shortly thereafter, in 1892. It took another decade for actual mining to begin, but when it began, it began in a big way.
Hundreds of mines have operated on Minnesota’s Iron Range. Hill Annex was one of the most productive of them. Over the mine’s life it produced 63 million tons of iron ore, making it the state’s sixth largest producer. Located on one of the state’s richest deposits of ore, in its early years it produced ore of such high quality that it could pretty much go directly from the earth to the steel mill.
Mining as part of an integrated steel industry
Iron mining quickly became integrated into the steel industry itself as large steel companies in eastern states sought to control the inputs they needed. On the Mesabi Range, this seems to have resulted in many mines being operated by the Oliver Mining Company under US Steel.
But not Hill Annex.
At the urging of his sons, Minnesota railroad entrepreneur James J. Hill acquired a small northern logging railroad in 1897. That purchase came with some land in an area where miners were searching for iron ore.
Despite Hill’s original reluctance to purchase property on the Iron Range, his sons saw it as a good investment for both its railroad and mining potential. Thus, more land purchases followed.
Louis Hill may have been the force behind many of these purchases, as he is credited with convincing his father to buy properties that became the both Hill Annex Mine and the most profitable mine in Minnesota, the (still operating) Hull-Rust-Mahoning Mine.
The lease for what would become the Hill Annex Mine was granted in 1900, with exploratory drilling in the following years. However, mine development didn’t begin in earnest in 1912 under a subsidiary of Hill’s Great Northern Railroad. Then, in 1917, the property was leased to a subsidiary of the Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation. A direct competitor to US Steel, Jones and Laughlin retained an interest in the mine until it closed in 1978.
(Jones and Laughlin had other mines in northern Minnesota as well, including the Lind-Greenway Mine in nearby Coleraine.)
Keeping up with technology for optimal production
In a pattern that would be repeated over the decades, the managers at Hill Annex were always quick to adapt the latest technology to to meet their needs.
Although the Mesabi Range is famous for its open pit mines, mining in the region began underground. Unlike more northern areas where mines like the Soundan Underground Mine operated, Hill Annex and other mines on the Mesabi Range quickly discovered the ore deposits here were best reached via large open pits.
Early mining was also largely done by hand or using basic equipment hauled in by horse. But with the Hills involved, even at a distance, it wasn’t long before the mine had a railroad spur. And with that railroad spur came heavy-duty steam-powered equipment that could move tons of soil, rock, and ore quickly and efficiently.
While the first ore mined at Hill Annex was so pure it didn’t require any serious processing, lower grade ore did. Over time, those additional processing needs required additional facilities. New washing and crushing facilities were built and later expanded.
By about 1930 the original steam-powered equipment, appears to have been replaced. New electric shovels replaced steam-powered ones. Electric locomotives were brought in to haul ore out of the mine pit, replacing the steam engines still used in other large mines.
In the years immediately following World War II, the mine pit became too steep for the electric trains to function safely. The problem was solved by replacing the trains with a trucks and conveyor belt system that linked the entire mining operation. Trucks hauled ore to loading stations in or just above the pit. From there, conveyors moved the ore to processing facilities and on to be loaded into rail cars for shipping to eastern steel mills. At the same time, other conveyors moved waste rock out to tailings dumps.
By the 1950s the mine exhausted its reserves of high-grade ore. And lower grade ore required more processing to maintain the same level of production. New facilities were needed. Rather than upgrade and expand existing facilities yet again, the mine invested in a new heavy media plant, prep section, and tailings basin.
Those were the mine’s last major upgrade. By the 1960s, mine technology in Minnesota was focused on taconite production, not the natural ores Hill Annex produced.
Victory in war required Mesabi ore
Hill Annex had a huge supply of particularly high-quality ore available. With limited processing needs, the mine could quickly produce huge amounts of ore.
World War I created a rise in production and, by the 1920s, Hill Annex Mine was sending a million tons of ore to eastern steel mills each year.
That number dropped substantially during the depression. Still, in 1936 more than a million tons of ore was prepared for shipment in the newly expanded facilities. Just a few years later another expansion allowed the mine to ship over two million tons.
But World War II quickly brought a big increase in production. Even before the USA entered the war, Roosevelt’s Lend Lease program had Iron Range mines working at full capacity producing ore that went to Pennsylvania and Ohio to be turned into iron and steel before becoming weapons that would go to British and French troops in Europe. Minnesota was a primary producer of iron ore, and miners willingly worked overtime to keep the flow of ore moving. After Pearl Harbor was attacked, mines turned to women to help fill the gap left as men answered the call to fight.
For nine months in 1942 Minnesota produced 70% of the iron ore needed for small necessities like battleships, cargo planes, and tanks – Minnesota Historical Society
While I haven’t found stories from Hill Annex Mine itself, its production records mirror these trends. In 1939 over two million tons of high-grade ore were shipped out of the mine. That number rose to more than three million tons in both 1941 and 1942. Those were record years for the mine and seem to indicate that Hill Annex, like other Mesabi Range mines was doing everything it could to produce as much ore as possible as fast as possible. Minnesota’s mines contributed so much to the war effort that, late in 1942, the Excavating Engineer journal proclaimed: Battleships are Born in Minnesota!
With high-grade ore gone and the rise of taconite, Hill Annex closes
But iron ore, and particularly high-grade iron ore, is a limited resource.
Massive production during the war years may have won World War II, but it exhausted Hill Annex’s high-quality ores. It also made what ore remained more difficult to reach.
By 1944 Hill Annex Mine was working so deep in the pit that the electric rail system could no longer manage the increasingly steep slope. That’s what led to the innovative truck and conveyor system.
The 1950s brought more changes as the mine struggled to maintain production levels with lower-quality ores. Processing ore and reclaiming iron from early tailings piles required more updates and new facilities. But even with these, the amount of ore produced fell far below previous levels.
Taconite, a heavily processed iron product derived from a type of low-grade ore, became commercially viable in the 1960s. Although expensive to produce, taconite’s consistent size and quality soon led steel mills to prefer it even over high-grade natural ore.
And then, in 1978, Hill Annex Mine shut down.
I’ve been unable to find any stories about that day. Did the miners working at Hill Annex know it was their last day? (They must have feared it, as mines across the Range were shutting down or on the verge of doing so.) It seems the shutdown itself happened quickly, with ore left on conveyor belts and tools sitting where last used. It’s as if as the last shift ended, someone cut the power and everyone just walked away. Forever.
New life for a historic mine
An old mine is a big liability. Once closed, Jones and Laughlin Steel needed to figure out what to do with it.
One option was to give it away.
So, the mine and its buildings and remaining equipment were “sold” to the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (a state agency that was an independent governmental organization at that time) for $1. And then the mine opened for tours.
The mine was listed on the National Register of Historic Places In 1986.
That listing includes seven contributing buildings and four structures from the period between 1912 and 1957:
- Prep section [?] (1953)
- Conveyor belt (1945 or later)
- Wooden water tower (1919)
- Tailings basin (1957)
It’s a fraction of the 48 buildings and structures on the site, but represents most of the buildings located in the mine’s administrative area and nearby production facilities.
Get to know Hill Annex Mine State Park
Today most people think of state parks as places to experience nature. It’s where they go to hike, camp, canoe, and fish.
You are not allowed to do any of those things at Hill Annex Mine State Park.
This is a different kind of park, one of a number of state parks established to preserve places with historical significance.
Hill Annex Mine, like Soudan Underground Mine and a number of other parks, was created to allow Minnesotans to learn about the state’s history right where it happened. Iron mining shaped northern Minnesota. Hill Annex Mine State Park lets visitors see for themselves what an open pit mine looked like, how it operated, and how people lived and worked in mine country.
It wasn’t created to preserve a natural area, although wildlife is plentiful within the park. And, because of the dangers posed by a former industrial site, no one is allowed to freely roam through the woods, climb the tailings piles, fish on the lake, or set up their tent for the night. You can only experience the park through a guided tour.
Visit the museum
Start your visit at the park’s excellent museum.
The park’s visitor center and museum are inside what was once the Calumet Community Club.
Hill Annex Mine built the Club about 1915 to serve as a gathering place for miners. Early in its history, the Club had bedrooms to house young mine engineers who didn’t have a house of their own. Apparently, the building also housed the mine laboratory and offices for the mine’s manager and engineers for a number of years before it closed.
The Community Club stands in area that later included a (now demolished) school and houses built for mine managers and engineers. (All these were moved or demolished over the years.) Once it would have blended into the rest of the city of Calumet. Today the immediate area is mostly filled with trees, but look carefully as the bus tour begins and you’ll still see old street lights, sidewalks, and other signs of the houses that once stood here.
Most of the Community Club building is now a museum. It tells the story of iron ore mining in Minnesota and the people who came here to live and to work in those mines. That story comes to life through a mix of signage, historic photographs, artifacts, and period rooms representing various offices, laboratories, and lodging from the building’s past.
Stand in the bucket
Back outside, there are a couple things to see, including a really big scoop outside the Club house.
Very early in Hill Annex’s history, mine work was done mostly by hand. But it didn’t take long for the railroad to arrive and, when it did, huge steam shovels came on the scene.
Over time massive steam shovels were replaced by more modern ones. But all were used to strip off soil and rock covering the iron ore and scoop broken chunks of ore into rail cars or trucks.
These shovels came in a variety of sizes, with buckets that ranged from 4 to 10 cubic yards in capacity. This one falls in the middle. With a capacity of 6 cubic yards, it held about 12 tons of ore.
(You get to check out the whole steam shovel, not just the bucket, on the mine tour.)
There’s a mine pit out there
An overview at the end of the parking area provides a view into the mine pit – which is now a very deep lake.
Unfortunately, the viewing stand that used to be here wasn’t available when I visited in 2018, and the surrounding vegetation limited what I could see. But don’t worry, you’ll have opportunities to get a better look at the lake that fills the pit during the bus tour.
Get on the bus
A bus tour takes visitors around the mine site at Hill Annex Mine State Park. You can’t get close to (or see) much except water in the mine pit these days. However, you will see the exterior of a number of buildings and odd structures above the pit. And you’ll see a lot of old mining equipment everywhere.
Bus tours start behind the museum. They are conducted by former mine workers who are very knowledgeable about mining in general and this mine in particular.
As you travel through the complex, the guides explain what you are seeing and share stories about the mine and its people.
Through the woods
Watch as the bus leaves the Community Club at the start of the tour. You’ll see the old street lights and other signs of the neighborhood once located here. Not far behind you’ll also see the water-filled mine pit.
By the way, all of the forests you’ll see on the tour came after the mine.
Here, as in most places, mining probably began after the timber was already gone. (James J. Hill could buy a logging railroad cheaply because there was no longer a need for it. But when the mines opened, those old logging railroads made it easy to bring equipment in and ore out. And earned Hill plenty of money for his investment.)
There wouldn’t have been space for many trees anyway, because mines need lots of space to store all the material leftover after removing and processing the ore.
While much of the ore removed in the mine’s early days was so pure that it needed little processing, there was still a lot of excess rock and debris that needed to go somewhere. Much of it, including lower-quality ore-bearing rock had to go somewhere.
That somewhere was massive tailings piles.
After it closed, Hill Annex served as a real-world lab for testing mine reforestation. Practices developed here were then used in reclamation projects across the Iron Range.
So, some of the woodlands we pass through during our tour were purposely planted as part of those tests. The rest are the work of birds, squirrels, and the wind.
Little lessons tucked between the trees
As we drive, the trees and brush alternately conceal and reveal an array of rusted signs, dilapidated buildings, disintegrating equipment, and long-abandoned vehicles and machinery. Sometimes equipment from different points in time end up together, like this electric locomotive resting in front of the conveyor that replaced it.
Most of the equipment in the park is sitting pretty much where it was left it all those years ago. However, a few things have been moved or even brought in from other mines to provide a more complete picture of mining activity over the decades. This is particularly true of older equipment that would not have been in use anymore when Hill Annex closed in 1978.
One example of this is a steam drill and wooden tripod that sit along the road as a display.
Equipment like this would have been used for exploratory drilling in the mine’s early years. Even while Hill Annex was still operating, this system had long since been replaced by more powerful and efficient equipment.
A water-filled pit and some big machinery
Our next stop includes a close-up look at the water-filled mine pit, various types of ore, and some big mining equipment.
Children on my tour seemed to love playing with the chunks of ore, although I doubt they were impressed by the varying qualities of the pieces on display!
The mining equipment on display includes this drill (used to create holes that could be packed with explosives to break up the ore deposit), a blasting shack (used by the blasting crew to hide when the explosives were set off), an electric shovel (to scoop up the blasted material) and a dump truck (to haul it away.)
All of this is located at a relatively low spot along the rim of the mine pit. As the water level in the pit continues to rise, this likely will be the next area to flood. But, for the time being, it seems to still be accessible.
(The tour used to continue past this point. However, the road and most of the sights beyond here are now under water.)
Northern Minnesota is lake country. But, amid the many natural lakes, the Iron Range also has a large collection of abandoned mine pits that have filled with water to become lakes. The mine pit at Hill Annex is now one of these.
The pit at Hill Annex is 500 feet deep and stretches ¾ of a mile across at its widest point.
It has not yet completely filled with water. However, it has filled to the point where it and neighboring pits have merged to form one big water body. And the water is high enough to hide almost all evidence of the mining operation that created it.
For many years rail cars brought ore out of the mine. However, by the 1940s the climb out of the mine was too steep for the rail system.
At that point a system of conveyors was built. Dump trucks would haul material from the bottom of the pit up to a loading area (called a “pocket”) about midway up. There the load was transferred to a conveyor that brought it up out of the pit and sent it on to a processing facility. (You’ll see the processing facility later on the tour.)
Part of that conveyor system is still visible in my 2018 photo above.
Here’s a photo of the same spot from sometime before 2012:
The section you see in my photo starts in the middle of this one.
That conveyor belt once stretched all the way across the mine pit down to a loading area some 260 feet below ground level. Now most of the conveyor is gone and the loading area it once connected to is far below the surface of the water.
I’m pretty sure that’s a picture of that loading area (the A Loading Pocket) that’s now under water.
A dry pit becomes a lake
When Hill Annex Mine became a park, one thing that made it particularly unique was the ability to see into the bottom of the pit. Every other historic mine was filled with water. But this one, because it became a park immediately after closing, started out relatively dry.
Of course, it was dry because the mining company pumped water out of it 24/7.
Laws passed in 1980 require companies to restore and reclaim former mines. That includes ongoing water management. But Hill Annex, like a lot of mines on the Mesabi Range, closed before that law passed. That means mine companies were free to walk away without doing anything to restore the land or manage water in the pits they created. At Hill Annex, that left the park to deal with rising water.
It seems logical that a pit in the ground would collect rain water and run-off from the surrounding land. If that were all, keeping the mine pit dry would be pretty easy. Unfortunately, the vast majority of water entering the pit at Hill Annex is groundwater. Over time, additional water entered the pit as overflow from adjacent abandoned pits that are also filling with water.
I assume (or maybe just hope) that at some point the water table rebalances and groundwater stops flowing to the surface through these old pits. Groundwater can’t keep flowing to the surface forever, can it?
I do know this problem isn’t unique to Hill Annex Mine. Nearby, the city of Bovey faced rising waters from a different set of flooded mine pits. After trying various solutions, it appears the answer there is to divert the water elsewhere. That’s a solution that may be used at the Hill Annex Mine some day as well.
Losing history beneath rising water
When Hill Annex first became a park, one of its most unusual features was the infrastructure located within the pit. These weren’t visible in other abandoned mines and they were really interesting to see. Park tours went down into the pit to get a better view. And, with less than 100 feet of water down there, the pit’s loading area and other facilities were above the water level.
To keep these facilities visible, IRRRB (the park’s original owner) and the Department of Natural Resources periodically pumped water out of the pit. But pumping was expensive and the pump that came with the mine seems to have been less reliable or effective than needed. Water levels rose.
Boat tours became a popular way to tour the pit, as visitors could easily study the mine’s geology while viewing loading areas, conveyors, and the zig-zag pattern of tracks and roads leading out of the mine. Even when water submerged the loading area, the boat tour was still a fun way to see what remained.
Pumping continued sporadically until 2009. By then loading facilities within the pit were well below the water’s surface. Over two decades, repeated requests for funding for pumps or other options to manage the water continued to fall on deaf ears at the legislature. So, water continued to flow into the mine.
In the years since pumping ceased, the water level rose another 60 feet. (It rises about 5 feet each year.)
Boat tours ended when the pit’s eroding edges made it dangerous to be on the water below. The bus tour into the pit probably ended before that. The bus tour above the mine was shortened more recently, when water reached a portion of the road and most of the sights along it.
Today the loading facility that once sat midway up the mine’s side is under about 150 feet of water.
And the water is still rising.
But now the water is probably only another 50 feet or so from the highest level it will reach. Assuming nothing is done to manage it, water from Hill Annex and the adjunct pits will spill over into a nearby lake. And then, I think, that lake will also overflow.
Of course, as the water continues to rise, it creates other problems. Those problems include the potential to destabilize land beneath the historic buildings above the pit. If that happens, the entire park will probably close.
A close look at some big machinery
There’s some big equipment on the slope above the water and drill.
The Euclid dump truck was used to haul material from the lower levels of the mine up to one of the loading stations. This one is probably from the 1950s. It only looks small because the shovel is so large!
The mine had several sizes of Marion shovels. These huge shovels stripped away dirt and boulders to uncover the iron ore. They also scooped up ore and dumped it into trucks. Over the decades, Hill Annex used a variety of these huge shovels. This one dates to the 1950s, but large shovels like this were used from the mine’s early days. In the 1920s the mine’s steam shovels were so efficient that they set a variety of records for the speed and quantity of material removed.
(This is the same type of shovel the bucket by the visitor center was from, but I don’t know how big this one is in comparison.)
Visitors can go up into the cab of both the dump truck and the shovel to see what they look like, albeit after sitting outside, open to Minnesota weather for decades. These machines still ran when they were left here. I’m pretty sure that isn’t possible any more.
The shovel was the highlight of my tour because you go into both the cab and the machinery behind it. It was a perfect photo opportunity for geeks.
Ore processing overlook
Back on the bus we pass more abandoned equipment of all types. A lot of it, however, seems to be part of the conveyor system that linked the mine. It brought ore up from the mine. But, once it reached surface level, other conveyor belts moved it between processing facilities and hauled waste material away.
Today much of the system lies hidden in brush. It’s slowly rusting away as the years pass.
The bus takes us to the top of a tailings pile. A tailings pile is a great place to get an overview of the area, and this one provides a good view of mine processing area. (There are several different viewing areas on this and other tailings piles. All tours seem to go to a couple of them, but they seem to change periodically.)
This is an ore processing area. It was built in the 1940s, when lower quality ores required processing that were unnecessary in earlier years.
Loading Pocket D
The structure on the right is a loading area. I think this one (the D loading pocket) probably looks a lot like the A pocket that’s now underwater.
However, using this loading area required fully-loaded trucks to very slowly wind all the way up and out of the mine to dump their load. Then they had to turn around and head all the way back again.
Apparently, this was a very slow process, as our guide recounted from his days of driving truck at a nearby mine where all material was hauled out of the mine by truck:
At the Lind . . . we had to haul the ore up out of the pit to the screening pocket. . . . While driving out of the Lind pit I read Louis L’Amour cowboy books to pass the time. I certainly am not a fast reader but would read a page before checking where the truck was going, it was that slow! – Greg Brohman
Using the loading area in the pit made the truck trip much, much shorter. That saved a lot of time. So, because it wasn’t very efficient to haul material up out of the mine by truck, this loading area was only used if the one in the pit or the conveyor were not working.
The facility on the left is a crusher. A loading area (like the one submerged in the mine pit) is to the right. The conveyor still connects the two. (I think the bit of conveyor that is still visible above the water in an earlier picture once connected to this crusher as well, but I couldn’t tell from where we were.)
As its name suggests, the crusher was used to break up ore. Ore entered the facility by conveyor. Inside it was somehow broken into smaller pieces. (I’m not sure exactly how) After crushing, coarse material came out of one end and fine material came out of another. Both then moved by conveyor to separate processing facilities.
Heavy Media Plant, offices, workshops, and water tower
The last place the bus pauses is near the administrative part of mining complex. Most all of the buildings in this area are included on the National Register of Historic Places.
The bus pauses here, but you can’t get out and look around. That’s a bummer, because there is a lot to see and it’s hard to photograph it through a bus window!
Heavy media plant
Even into the 1940s ore quality at Hill Annex was generally so high that the only processing needed before shipping was washing. However, as increasing amounts of lower-grade ore were used, existing processing facilities were no longer adequate. The heavy media plant was added early in the 1950s to replace existing facilities.
The heavy media plant was used for two processes:
- Fine (very small) material was separated from waste rock using a gravity process called a Humphreys spiral.
- Larger material went through a sink and float process using liquid compounds (heavy media) to separate out undesirable material.
This was the last step in the process. Ore moved directly from the heavy media plant into rail cars for shipment to Lake Superior. From there it was sent on to eastern steel mills.
The railroad repair garage
Once upon a time the tour bus drove through the rail equipment repair shop to give visitors a glimpse of this lost in time wonderland, even if only through the bus window.
Alas, no more. The building is now closed and boarded up.
And that makes me sad.
This industrial beauty was constructed in 1930 to maintain the mine’s steam locomotives and other railroad equipment.
It was designed to allow even the company’s largest engines to pull right inside the building for maintenance and repairs. Large windows assured workers would have lots of natural light. An unusual wood block floor, set end-grain up, softened the blow when a heavy tool or piece of machinery fell. That assured delicate gears and other equipment wouldn’t be damaged in a fall.
I had the opportunity to peek inside the railroad repair building before it was closed. It was an amazing trip back in time and I didn’t have nearly enough time to see all of it, let alone photograph it.
DNR has worked to preserve the building’s structural integrity. At one point, I assume while the bus tours drove through, someone even created cut-out figures to position at various jobs that would help visitors visualize the stories guides told during the tour. Photos from those tours show the building’s interior as relatively orderly and clean. But a run of break-ins resulted in broken windows and damage to artifacts in the building. With few options to secure the building, it was simply left as is and boarded up.
I spent part of my limited time inside talking to the men working there – men who had worked in the mine and had family that worked in the mine. They knew the people pictured in the historic photos on the wall and they are proud of that history and eager to talk about it.
If the park can save only one building, this gorgeous, tool-filled time capsule is the one. It’s an unusual and irreplaceable bit of history. And there’s still time to preserve it and share it with the public. It might even be far enough from the pit to be saved even if rising water destabilizes land right around the pit. Can we please, please make this happen?
Why Hill Annex Mine matters
In 1990 DNR presented its first report on the new park. It began thus:
Hill Annex is not just another abandoned pit mine. It is a resource rich with the state’s geologic, cultural and mining heritage. Of the more than 400 open pit iron mines that dotted the northern Minnesota landscape, only six are still in operation. Most or all of those that are abandoned will eventually fill with water. Hill Annex provides a rare opportunity for visitors to experience first-hand, Minnesota’s open pit mining history. For this and the following reasons, Hill Annex merits status as a state park.
- Settlements associated with the Hill Annex mine reflect a diverse mix of European cultures.
- The mine represents a 60 year evolution of mining technology.
- Hill Annex is the only abandoned open pit, natural ore mine with buildings intact.
- Hill Annex is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Not mentioned here it the fact that Minnesota’s iron turned the USA into an industrial and military powerhouse. It put cars on the nation’s roads in the 1920s, struggled through the Depression, and then went full-out to win World War II.
Iron mining, and particularly open pit mining, shaped the landscape and the people of northern Minnesota. And the culture and ideals that formed here still shape the region and the state. What happened here between the turn of the century and the 1960s still impacts our state today.
This is a place to celebrate, but also learn from, that complicated history and its aftermath.
Of course, the mine itself is no longer the complete complex that became a state park in 1988. With a few exceptions, the remaining historic assets that make Hill Annex worth saving are rapidly decaying. Without significant intervention, in another decade it will be little more than ruined landscape of rusted-out equipment and dilapidated structures falling into heaps. It will be just another barely-remembered failed mining site in northern Minnesota. At that point, it probably won’t really matter if rising water obliterates it.
That would be easy.
Hill Annex’s future is still uncertain
Decades of indecision have not been kind to Hill Annex Mine State Park.
Water continues to rise, historic assets continue to drown or deteriorate, limited staffing limits park hours and activities, and diverting all funds raised by the park to the state trust fund removes any ability for the park to be self-supporting. All of these problems could and should have been addressed decades ago. Dedicated volunteers are probably the only reason park tours are still available.
Yet, even today, there are options to preserve at least a few pieces of this historic treasure. But the door is closing.
Is a decision near?
Discussion of Hill Annex State Park remained stalled for years as the same stakeholders rehashed the same issues and the same (but shrinking) options.
Now it seems that the two players who hold the cards in this game – the Department of Natural Resources and state legislature – have decided to move on.
Now it’s all about outdoor recreation at DNR
DNR, which long fought for the resources park needed seems to have generally lost interest in the historic assets in its care. Facing ever-rising visitor numbers in popular parks and no help from the state legislature to address the growing gap between needs and funding, the agency is doubling down on what it has identified as its core mission:
Our vision is to create unforgettable park, trail, and water recreation experiences that inspire people to pass along the love for the outdoors to current and future generations.
While I worry how this will impact historic resources in parks spread across the state, Hill Annex seems particularly vulnerable because it is large, complex, deteriorating, and located where visitor numbers are unlikely to ever be really high.
The Minnesota Legislature wants out
And now the state legislature wants to pass this problem on to local residents.
The 2017 Minnesota Legislature directed the DNR, Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation, Calumet, Itasca County, and the Western Mesabi Mine Planning Board to develop an “alternate operating model for local management and operation of Hill Annex Mine State Park.”
What this means is clear early in the report, where it states that the group assessing options:
“. . . generally understands why Hill Annex Mine State Park is not sustainable as a unit of the Minnesota outdoor recreation system or consistent with the direction set out in the State Parks and Trails System Plan.”
Alternative Operating Model: Hill Annex Mine State Park Report to the 2018 Legislature
If the park is to continue to exist, the legislature says it has to be a local or regional park – a decision that is laughable. The legislature created the park and then refused to provide funding to preserve it. Now, after allowing it to deteriorate for decades, they are going to dump the mess that’s left on the same local and regional groups that hoped the park would provide a desperately-needed economic boost.
By law Hill Annex Mine State Park will remain in operation through June 30, 2021.
During that time, DNR is required to continue working with the same small group to find a way for those local stakeholders to ensure “sustainable and viable operation of the park site.”
Since the park is too complex and too expensive for almost anyone but a state agency to manage, the 2021 legislature really only has two choices:
- Close the park and be done with it, leaving the current museum for the community to operate.
- Do what it has always done, and kick the can down the road a little farther by giving Hill Annex Mine State Park two more years of life and requiring another report on its future.
This time around I’m really hoping for two more years and another report.
The most likely scenario
Unless there is a dramatic turn of events, the day will come when Hill Annex Mine is no longer a state park.
Assuming the Community Club is safe from rising water, the region should be able to find the resources to keep this functioning as a museum. They may even be able to move some smaller machinery (like the electric locomotive) to the museum yard for display.
If rising water threatens the ground below the building, some of the exhibits will likely move to another site or become part of a historical society or museum collection elsewhere on the range.
Based on similar issues in nearby Bovey, water in the pit will probably be redirected if it threatens the city of Calumet. Otherwise it seems unlikely any action will be taken to manage it.
While I think this is the most likely scenario, it represents an enormous loss to the state and the community.
But even today, so much more is still possible.
The site could easily be scaled down to limit the number of buildings preserved. It could then operate much like the Minnesota Historical Society’s Forest History Center in Grand Rapids. (Actually, the two facilities would complement each other beautifully and cover a very large portion of Iron Range history.)
Personally, I would love to see the railroad equipment and truck repair garages restored as an additional historic museum, complete with period tools, vehicles, and equipment. The surrounding grounds could become an outdoor gallery for rusted vehicles, equipment, and signs currently scattered around the larger site.
We could have saved Hill Annex Mine
Just in case you are thinking the whole idea of preserving an entire mine was never realistic, let me briefly introduce you to the city of Ostrava in the Czech Republic (Czechia).
Ostrava is a gritty industrial city long famous for its steel mills. Under the Soviets it became even grittier as coal mines, coke plants, and, of course, the steel mill, produced materials for Russia without any concern about community impacts or pollution. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, demand for most things produced here vanished. While the steel mill and a few of other factories continued to operate, much of the enormous mining and industrial facility was simply abandoned.
Faced with a polluted industrial wasteland, Ostrava began reimagining its abandoned industrial infrastructure.
With assistance in the form of many millions of dollars of European Union funding, the Lower Vitkovice (Dolní Vítkovice) industrial area, once a combination coal mining, coke production and iron facilities, now boasts a coal mining museum (complete with coal mine tour), an observation tower and restaurant on top of a blast furnace (you can tour the furnace too), a fabulous convention center and music hall in what was once a gas storage tank, a technology museum in a former power plant, outdoor art and concert venues, and more.
It shows what money, vision, and commitment can do.
Plan your visit to Hill Annex Mine State Park
As has been the case before, Hill Annex Mine State Park could close soon. However, barring something unexpected, the park will remain open at least through Labor Day 2019 and then again during summer 2020. But only on Fridays and Saturdays.
The park’s museum is well-designed and offers a lot of information in an engaging and comprehensible format. It’s worth a trip to Calumet just to visit the museum, but there is more to see right in the park.
- Mine tours via bus take visitors through the mine, as described above.
- Fossil tours take visitors out to hunt for fossils on a waste ore pile that includes rock from the Cretaceous period.
Unlike most state parks, I don’t think there is a fee to enter the park and visit the park museum.
There is a fee to take the park’s tours. (Currently $10 for adults and $6 for children over age 5.) Both tours are offered on a very limited schedule, with just one or two of each tour available each day. Advance reservations are not really available and tours are limited to 28, so check the schedule and arrive early to be sure you get a spot.
This is a summer destination that combines well with vacation time spent hiking, boating, fishing, or just relaxing and listening to the loons at one of the area’s beautiful lakes. The area is particularly beautiful in fall when the leaves turn, but the park isn’t open then.
Where is the park located?
Hill Annex Mine State Park is located in the tiny northeastern Minnesota town of Calumet.
It’s right off US Highway 169 between Grand Rapids and Hibbing. That’s just a bit more than a 1 ½ hour drive northwest of Duluth and 2 hours south of International Falls. It’s more than 3 hours north of the Minneapolis/Saint Paul metro area.
The park entrance is located just north of the highway right at the edge of the tiny town of Calumet.
Directional signage for the park isn’t very good, so you may have to drive around a bit in town to find it. But Calumet isn’t very big, so it shouldn’t be too hard to spot.
Access to the Mesabi bike trail is also located at the park entrance, so watch for those signs as well.
Once you find the park, you’ll also find plenty of free parking.
Drive or bike there
Northern Minnesota is one of those places where it’s hard to get around without a motor vehicle.
If you don’t drive, Jefferson Lines offers regular service to Grand Rapids via Duluth, Virginia, and Hibbing. It’s not a fast way to get to this area, but you can get there.
However, once you get to Grand Rapids or Hibbing, the Mesabi Trail provides bicycle access to Hill Annex Mine State Park. With 135 miles of trail, it’s a great way to tour the Mesabi Range. There is a small fee to use the trail.
Inside the park
The museum and mine overlook are located right inside the park entrance. Both are free to visit whenever Hill Annex Mine State Park is open.
All other sites on the park can only be visited as part of a guided tour.
Hill Annex Mine tours are only available once or twice a day and only at specific times. Check the park website before you go for tour times and fees.
As described above, guided bus tours take visitors through the mine site. Tour guides are former mine employees with lots of interesting personal stories to bring to life historical and technical information about the mine. (The guide for my tour was absolutely excellent.) All tours make a couple of stops, including a scenic overlook and a chance to see some big machinery up-close, but the site is largely viewed through the bus window. There is no opportunity to look inside any of the mine buildings during the tour.
The bus itself is an older vehicle, with an interior like an old school bus. It isn’t terribly comfortable.
Tours last a little over an hour.
Like the mine tours, fossil tours are only available once or twice a day and only at specific times. Check the park website before you go for tour times and fees.
Visitors are bused to a waste ore pile comprised of rock from the Cretaceous period between 66 and 145 million years ago. Lucky visitors will find snails, shark teeth, and the occasional clam, but most visitors will find a fossil of some kind. One of the three or four dinosaur bones found in Minnesota came from Hill Annex. Unless you find something really rare, you can keep everything you find.
Food and drink
With the exception of Nana Chelle’s in Bovey, options for eating and drinking are pretty limited near Hill Annex Mine State Park.
Nearby, Grand Rapids and Hibbing both offer a range of restaurants, cafes, and bars. But I haven’t spent any time in Hibbing, so I’ll focus on Grand Rapids.
Near the park
If you are traveling with an RV or camper, or are just a lot more organized than me, pack a picnic lunch and eat at tables just outside the park.
I’ve never had much luck finding a place to eat that was open when I’ve been in Calumet, but it’s worth looking to see what you can find. As a tiny town with few tourists, options and hours are pretty limited.
But, don’t worry, because 10 minutes down the road, Nana Chelle’s Café offers a variety of Range favorites, great pizzas, and amazing bakery goods. You can find all this goodness right along the main drag (2nd Street) in Bovey. The café also has a full range of coffee shop beverages.
- Check their Facebook page for hours and a menu. (Current hours are 8-5, but the bakery treats run out long before close.)
I’m usually headed to Nana Chelle’s, so haven’t checked the options in Nashwauk or Coleraine.
Grand Rapids has a full range of options for eating and drinking. My recommendations include:
Janicke Bakery is a great place to start your morning with a donut. Get here early, because the sell out quickly.
Country Kitchen Restaurant is a great option for a hearty breakfast or lunch. This is a locally-owned restaurant, that pre-dates the national chain of the same name by a lot of years. Nothing fancy, but they cover all the basics.
I’m not a huge fan of pasties, the meat-filled baked pastries that seem to make Rangers swoon, but the consensus is that Pasties Plus does them just right. It’s a little hard to find (my cousin drove all over looking for it), but apparently well worth seeking out.
If you’re in the mood for pizza, head out of Grand Rapids a few minutes to LMNO P-za in Cohasset. More of a take-out spot, the dining area is really basic. But the pizzas are great
Forest Lake is a Grand Rapids classic for great traditional American bar food or fine dining. It’s perfect for a casual night out or a big celebration, although service can be slow.
Currently the best fine dining restaurant in town, the 17th Street Grill at Timberlake Lodge serves beautifully prepared food in an upscale space. Everything we’ve tried has been delicious, but if you are there when the pasta bar is available, that might be the best option on the menu. You choose your pasta, sauces, and ingredients and they put it all together for you. Lovely and absolutely delicious.
Grand Rapids is the nearest large town and, with family there, that’s where I stay. It also offers a full range of options, with a variety of hotels, resorts, vacation homes, and a few bed and breakfasts to choose between.
Stay in Grand Rapids
Without a doubt, the best place to stay in Grand Rapids is the Green Heron Bed and Breakfast. I shouldn’t tell you that, because these days it’s almost always booked up – when I can, I choose my travel date based on when they have a room available! Really, it’s that good. With just two rooms, both of which have a view of lake Pokegama, lovely comfortable public areas, amazing homemade breakfasts, and the friendliest hosts you could ever ask for, it’s a north country B&B dream. It’s even wonderful during a blizzard, as I discovered last winter! Book directly through their website.
There are a variety of hotels in Grand Rapids. Most are chains, but there are a few independent options as well. Timberlake Lodge gets the best reviews. If the hotel is as good as the restaurant, it might be worth the price. The neighboring AmericInn offers a good stay for the price. The Super 8 is a pretty good value, although it’s maybe not as good a value as it used to be.
Stay on a lake outside Grand Rapids
The lakes around Grand Rapids are home to a small number of resorts and lodges.
Most of these are small, family-own places. The exception is Sugar Lake Lodge, a large resort, golf-course, and conference facility just outside Grand Rapids. It’s a little big for my taste, but the location (and beach) are lovely, the restaurant is good, and there are many lodging options. Check reviews and book through TripAdvisor or Expedia.
Although most resorts only rent cabins by the week, sometimes during the should season you can get a shorter rental. While you can find reviews of a few of these on TripAdvisor, most need to be booked directly through the property. I’ve stayed at Wildwood Resort, which has beautiful huge cabins right along the lake. It would be a great place to spend a week just relaxing as a couple or on a family vacation. Book through their website.
While there aren’t as many Airbnb rentals available as one might expect, there are a few. A few are even really nice, although most are pretty basic. If you are new to Airbnb, this link can save you $40 on your first booking.
I’m not a big Vrbo user, but this seems like the best option if you are looking for a lake house or cabin. I haven’t booked this way, but my sister-in-law rented a really wonderful place for all of us this way. Just don’t expect to find a bargain during summer.
Stay in Hibbing
I really haven’t spent any time in Hibbing, but it has some interesting cultural offerings and a full range of hotels. You can see what the options are, read reviews, compare prices, and book a room through TripAdvisor, Hotels.com, or Expedia.
While you’re in the area
Since you are probably going to make a special trip to visit Hill Annex Mine, plan to spend a couple days exploring this part of Minnesota. There’s plenty do and it’s absolutely gorgeous in throughout the year.
Here’s a few ideas to get you started:
- The Hull Rust Mine View in Hibbing provides views of a working mine in Hibbing. It was recently redone and seems to be getting rave reviews. The website indicates mine tours will also be available, but no sign of them as of summer 2019. (Less than an ½ drive east of Hill Annex Mine State Park.)
- I know nothing about the Minnesota Museum of Mining in Chisholm, but it sounds interesting. (About ½ hour east.)
- Leonidas Overlook in Eveleth offers views of up to 15 miles over mine county. (Less than an hour east.)
- Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park includes several above-ground buildings, a fabulous guided tour of the former underground mine, and camping and hiking along the scenic shores of Lake Vermilion. This is a wonderful mine tour and it’s located just off one of Minnesota’s most beautiful lakes. (About 1 ½ hour drive northeast.)
Museums focused on northern Minnesota history
- The Forest History Center in Grand Rapids has a nice museum on the timber industry and great tours of a recreated 1900 logging camp. This is a really interesting (and photogenic) spot with great special events – look for a post on this soon! (Less than ½ hour west of Hill Annex.)
- The Museum of the Iron Range at the Minnesota Discovery Center (formerly Ironworld) in Chisholm includes a museum and a large genealogical research center. (About ½ hour east.)
- Bike the Mesabi Trail from Hill Annex Mine State Park to toward either Hibbing or Grand Rapids. Over 135 miles of trail is complete, so there is plenty to see!
- Hike the Soumi Hills trail near Marcell. It’s best in fall when the colors blaze, but it’s pleasant in any season. (About a ½ northwest of Hill Annex.)
- Hike the Joyce Estate, another gorgeous fall hike that’s beautiful any time of year. (About ½ northwest.)
- Scenic State Park offers gorgeous Northwoods lake scenery and a virgin pine forest. (Less than an hour northwest.)
- McCarthy Beach State Park is a pretty spot with a fabulous long beach. (About an hour north.)
- Bear Head Lake State Park is right up by Lake Vermilion and equally gorgeous. (About 1 ½ hours northeast.)
Other things in the area
- Downtown Bovey is a historic mine town that is trying to reinvent itself with antiques and other fun shops. (Full disclosure, my cousin sells some of my things in her booth at Annabella’s.) Annabella’s and Nana Chelle’s Cafe are open most days. Most other stores only open for some weekends, and mostly in summer. (10 minutes west of Hill Annex.)
- Drive the Edge of the Wilderness National Scenic Byway from Grand Rapids to Effie. It’s a lovely drive any time of year.
- The United State Hockey Hall of Fame Museum in Eveleth is a must if you’re a sports fan, as hockey (and curling) rule up here. (Less and an hour east.)
- The International Wolf Center near Ely offers the opportunity to see wolves. I’ve never been here, but everyone I know who has raves about it. (About 1 ½ hour drive northeast.)
Minnesota’s mining history is a complex and convoluted story of an immigrant community that shaped northern Minnesota culture while feeding the nation’s steel mills. While there is little good information online about the Hill Annex Mine itself, there are a few resources that paint the broader picture of the mine and Iron Range history. There are also documents related to legislation, DNR recommendations, and park planning as they relate to Hill Annex Mine State Park.
A few of the more interesting resources I consulted are listed below.
Resources on Hill Annex in particular and state parks in general
DNR information specific to Hill Annex Mine State Park:
- For information on the challenges water and historic buildings pose, review the DNR’s 1990 Hill Annex Mine Operations Report (PDF)and the 1993 Hill Annex Mine (PDF)Legislative Report. They detail the magnitude of the threat and offer a range of solutions. Most surprising is how clearly staff’s passion for saving the park come through in these reports.
- For the latest thinking on where the future of Hill Annex lies, read the Alternative Operating Model: Hill Annex Mine State Park 2018 Report to the Legislature. (PDF)
- DNR maintains a page with information on the water level at Hill Annex Mine
Links to all DNR park and trail plans are found on this webpage, specific plans that may be of interest are listed below.
- Minnesota State Parks and Trails System Plan 2015 webpage and plan (PDF)
- Destination Minnesota: A New Direction for Minnesota State Parks and Trails (PDF) an undated (2013 or later) report of the State Parks and Trails Future Strategies Committee
- Division of Parks and Trails Strategic Plan: 2012-2022 webpage and plan (PDF)
- Minnesota State and Regional Parks and Trails Legacy Plan 2011 website and plan (PDF) – this was developed as part of a legislative requirement that came with legacy funding provisions.
Information on the Iron Range and iron mining in Minnesota
The Minnesota Alliance for Geographic Education has a webpage with on the Iron Range, with lots of information on mining.
Stories about World War II and Minnesota’s mines:
- Battleships are Born in Minnesota from the November 1942 Excavating Engineer Journal is available online through the Center for Research Libraries Digital Delivery System.
- Mesabi Range Mines, Minnesota 1939-1945 by Paul Baldwin on the Military History of the Upper Great Lakes website
For information on the IRRRB’s role in the region, see the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board: Celebrating 75 Years on the Iron Range. (PDF)
For more on James J. Hill’s role on the Iron Range:
- Hill’s Great Northern ore trust terminated in the Duluth News Tribune (originally published in the Pioneer Press)
- Ore Docks and Trains: The Great Northern Railway and the Mesabi Range by Don L. Hofsommer, available on JSTOR.