Thursday, July 1, 2010

Seeing the mines and understanding the people who worked them

The mines of the iron range have shaped our world. Without the ore, America would have been unable to provide the steel necessary for building the skyscrapers or factories of early industrialization. The ore provided the steel needed for the military during both world wars. Great places to visit are the Hull Rust Mahoning Mine--the largest strip mine in the world and Mineview in the sky are great places to visit. The Hull Rust mine is still active and people can watch the trucks. It is fun to be able to stand by the trucks in the yard and to see a small pick up truck drive by an ore hauler. Wow! What a size difference. To understand the historic operations and the people who worked in the mine people can visit the Hill Annex State Park, Soudan Underground Mine State Park and the Minnesota Discovery Center.

Men working the mines came from all over the world. Mining companies, primarily controlled by other men back east, cared about profits--not safety. Companies intentionally plotted to keep men from organizing, made sure miners working together did not speak the same language. Ironically, this forced men to find ways to communicate; their lives depended on it. Companies cared little about their workers. Injuries and death were not uncommon and the mines tried to ensure that both were explained by falsifying documents and hiding incidents. Mules and horses fared little better with their working conditions in the mines. In the underground mines, the animals would work twelve hour days for six months. When the time came up for the animals to return to the surface, they would be blind. If an animal died beneath the surface, their bodies would be dropped in the waste holes that filled in previously mines areas. If a man who didn’t have family or relationships that would question where he was, often his body was disposed of in a similar manner. True numbers for injured and killed workers are almost impossible to ascertain.

Mining companies attempted to control every aspect of the lives of their employees; US Steel operated an immense industrial espionage program that was directed within. Employees learned to distrust many--trusting the wrong person could get them black listed and unable to find work at any of the mines. Blacklisted miners often eked out a living on marginal farms. It was heart wrenching to think the poverty that these blackballed miners lived in, but I absolutely loved and admired that so many refused to leave the iron range in hopes of finding better lives elsewhere and to continue the agitation of miners still employed. Without the people who were willing to take the beatings and keep standing back up--the workers on the range would never have been able to finally organize and demand better conditions and pay to bring themselves out of the abject poverty that was absolutely forced on them while the mining companies became immensely wealthy.

I read a book in college about working conditions in industrializing America. I would recommend Out of This Furnace to anyone interested. I find it interesting that so many people find unions and regulations evil, but don’t understand that without them, so many of the horrendous working conditions that lead to their formation would still exist. 16 hour days, 6 days a week, yet still not having money to properly feed, clothe or house your family; not only paying for your own equipment that you use to make them money--but being forced to buy the stuff at the company store at exorbitant prices and absolutely NO protection for workers who are hurt or killed and without any regulations, companies had NO motivation to spend the pennies to protect their workers.

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