Taconite Mining: Technology, Taxes, & Tailings

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Taconite Dreams: The Struggle to Sustain Mining on Minnesota's Iron Range, by Jeffrey T. Manuel.
Minneapolis, Minn: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.
MNHS call number: HD9517.M6 M26 2015

Minnesota Attorney General's Reserve Mining Company Case Files, 1895-1990
Correspondence, reports, transcripts, exhibits, background files, and other legal and court documents relating to permits and litigation over the Reserve Mining Company’s waste control procedures, particularly its disposal of taconite tailings. Includes lengthy files on federal court proceedings (1973-1977), milepost 7 tailings dumpsite permit proceedings (1975-1976), permit denial appeals (1976-1977), and proceedings and studies of the Lake Superior Enforcement Conference (1969-1973), proceedings for reimbursement of filtration system costs (1977-1982), Taconite production samples.  studies on health effects of asbestos, and print media coverage (1947-1990).
MNHS call number: Digital Finding Aid

Citizens' Committee for the Taconite Amendment #1 Records, 1963-1964
Correspondence, executive committee minutes, subject files, and ephemera documenting the administration of a citizens' group organized to secure the passage of an amendment to the Minnesota constitution.  The amendment sought to revitalize the taconite industry by changing its tax structure.   
MNHS call numberDigital Finding Aid

“Pioneering with Taconite: Birth of a Minnesota Industry," by Edward W. Davis.
In Minnesota History, vol. 34, no. 7 (1955): pp. 269-283.
MNHS call number: Digital copy

A Century of Red Earth and Iron Men, film
Duluth, Minn: WDSE-TV, 1956.  
Shows the past, present, and uncertain future of iron mining in northern Minnesota.
MNHS call number: Videotape no. 111 (1 59 minute videocassette)


Taconite is a flint-like type of rock containing low-grade iron ore.  Vast reserves of taconite, with iron concentrations of 30-50%, were discovered in 1870 near present-day Babbitt, on the Mesabi Iron Range.  However these deposits were passed over in favor of mining existing high grade iron ore formations, because extracting the pure iron from taconite was extremely difficult and costly.  In the 1940s, years of experimentation led by professor E.W. Davis at the University of Minnesota School of Mines had led to an effective process of extracting and upgrading taconite’s ore by “pelletizing” the iron into briquette-like pellets. 

Reserve Mining Company opened one of the first taconite processing plants in Minnesota at Silver Bay in 1956.  By the late 1950’s, this plant was producing 6 to 10 million tons of pellets a year, and disposing of the remains of powdered rock (known as tailings) in Lake Superior.  Academics, politicians, and industry leaders engaged in a massive public education campaign about the importance of increased investment in taconite mining to save the economy of the Iron Range via the Taconite Tax Amendment in 1964, which effectively decreased taxation on mining companies as an incentive for them to invest in the necessary technology to process taconite.

By the late 1960s, however, the environmental impact of the burgeoning taconite industry was felt.  Study groups and conferences were established to respond to fears that disposing of tailings into Lake Superior was polluting the lake, wildlife that lived in the environment, and subsequently the drinking water supply of nearby communities. In 1972, the United States government sued Reserve Mining Company, under the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899, citing the company for violations of the Act by disposing of harmful materials into Lake Superior. In 1974, presiding judge Miles Lord ultimately ruled against Reserve Mining in the case, insisting that the plant close immediately.  However, a series of appeals kept Reserve Mining operations running and continuing to dispose of tailings in Lake Superior until 1980 when an inland dumping ground for tailings was established.  

Taconite Mining Timeline

  • 1870: Taconite deposits discovered near Babbitt by geologist Peter Mitchell. 
  • 1913: Sample of taconite arrives at University of Minnesota Mines Experiment Station. 
  • 1922-1924: Mesabi Iron Company operates short-lived commercial taconite plant in Babbitt. 
  • 1939: Reserve Mining company organizes, leasing Mesabi Iron Company property. 
  • 1941: Law passed to exclude taconite from ad valorem tax.  
  • 1947: Reserve Mining Company receives environmental permits for taconite tailings discharge into Lake Superior.  
  • 1948: Erie Mining Company begins operation of a pilot taconite plant in Aurora.  
  • 1956: Reserve Mining Company begins operation of E.W. Davis Works taconite plant in Silver Bay. 
  • 1964: Taconite Tax Amendment passed by Minnesota voters. 
  • 1972: United States v. Reserve Mining trial begins. 
  • 1974: Judge Miles Lord rules against Reserve Mining and orders operations in Silver Bay ceased.
  • 1974-1980: Series of appeals keeps Reserve Mining Company in operation. 
  • 1979: Mining industry has completely changed over to taconite versus high grade ore mining, with 7 plants in operation on the Iron Range.  
  • 1980: Reserve Mining completes on land taconite tailings disposal and discharge into Lake Superior stops.  
  • 1986: Reserve Mining Company files for bankruptcy.  

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