Home on the Range
Updated: Jul 26
Every Minnesotan has some connection to The Range. Within its informal landmarks—beginning northwest of Duluth, east of Itasca, and reaching into the northern coast of Wisconsin, the upper peninsula of Michigan, and lower Ontario—the Iron Range is actually made up of distinct individual ranges. The region has a proprietary vernacular—Mesabi, manganese, pits—that may or may not sound familiar depending on your ancestry and geography, but the iron born on The Range runs in the blood of all Midwesterners, and arguably Americans.
The Cuyuna Range is the closest such example to the Twin Cities. It's approximately 68 miles by 10 miles. Iron ore was first discovered there in 1903 by Cuyler Adams and his dog, Una. The region's name is a nod to both man and dog. By 1911, iron shipments were being loaded and leaving the area from a single mine, but growth was rapid. Rapid enough that the town of Crosby sprung up (as did its neighbor, Ironton) and flourished within just a few years. In its heyday, the interwar period, Cuyuna consisted of 32 enormous mines.
I arrived in Crosby, Minnesota, which lies on the southern edge of the range, on a Friday around lunchtime with no plans. For a summer weekend in Cabin Country, I found the main drag through town to be unexpectedly quiet. After checking in to an old boarding house-turned-Airbnb (but what updates were made, I couldn't tell you), it was off to follow some leads offered to me by my true Iron Range friends.
The downtown area of Crosby is about six blocks long, lined on both sides by the typical small-town mix of businesses, restaurants, and a tiny park. My only previous stop in Crosby was exactly two years prior, when I made an intentional stop at Cuyuna Brewing Company for a flight before venturing back towards the Twin Cities. I arrived with nearly no knowledge of the area and its history. In a town whose population has consistently declined from its peak 3,500 at every census except one, a few things in town stood out quite starkly: a serious cocktail lounge, an urban-looking coffee shop with organic smoothies, and a formidable cheese and kitchen supply store. In a setting such as this, I'd overlook one of these, but not all three. Something was unusual about this small town.
Though mining was a major part of the economy throughout the entire northern Great Lakes region in the early 20th Century, Minnesota played a central role. Google iron mining and the first result is taconite.org, Minnesota's Iron Mining Associaton. Minnesota's mines supported military efforts in both world wars, and created hefty demand for railways and ships, the latter of which would navigate through the Great Lakes and eventually to the St. Lawrence seaway which was expanded for cargo loads in the 1950's. In addition to iron, Manganese (coincidentally given the chemical symbol "Mn") was also found in the Cuyuna range and was a unique feature of central Minnesota's mining products.
I stepped into a few antique stores on my westward stroll through town. My first purchase was a voluminous cookbook anthologizing historic American bed and breakfast recipes (the best recipes were already flagged—so thoughtful) followed by some timeless glass doorknobs. By my third visit, the heat of the day had peaked, and it was time to cool off. In order to maximize my time, I was already in my swimsuit, so I drove from Crosby to neighboring Ironton (there is no division at all, just a sign with "population 527") in search of what I was told was Minnesota's deepest lake, Portsmouth Mine Pit Lake.
Many of the 32 historic mines of Cuyuna had gradually been converted into open pits. Underground mining at the depths that the Cuyuna range required was dangerous. In fact, the area played host to the state's biggest mining disaster in 1924, when a tunnel was created too proximal to a neighboring lake. The pit flooded in the blink of an eye, killing 41 men. No one was found to be criminally responsible and mining in the area continued, and even saw another surge during WWII. Manganese was found to play an important role in the development of batteries, which contributed to the continued success of the Cuyuna mines. Once mining activity ceased over time, with the final mine near Crosby closing in 1967, all Minnesota mining was consolidated to the Mesabi Range near the shores of Lake Superior where it continues today. By the 1980's, all above-ground mining shipments at Cuyuna had ceased, and the natural springs lurking within the defunct pits were allowed to flow naturally, filling them and creating 11 mine pit lakes.
Portsmouth is not the largest by area, but it is 450 feet deep, and there is no deeper body of water that is entirely contained within the state. I navigated a few minutes to the nearby DNR camping site after several wrong turns and found it nearly full. Not just of humans, but of bicycles, enormous dogs, kayaks, paddleboards, and SUVs. The place looked like an ad for Midwest Mountaineering. After parking and paying my $7 fee, I walked to the edge of what could have been any other lake from the surface and stripped down to my suit. Based on some murals and signage in town, I knew that people scuba-dived in Portsmouth. That means that there must be something to see in the former mine pit. That means that every step I took deeper into the cool water, I thought about things I didn't want to step on.
Sinking lower with no one else in sight was unnerving. Would there be a sudden drop-off? The surface didn't look big, so surely it must get very deep very fast. I was relieved when, a few minutes after wading in, a dad with three young children arrived, wagon in tow. One of the kids quickly ran in and then got spooked by minnows jumping out of the water, appearing like raindrops on the surface and moving in a small cloud, and he started screaming. Dad reassured him that he was much larger than a minnow, but it was no use. I guess we all have our irrational fears. Suddenly, then, two large groups appeared, one of which was covered in the rich red clay-sand of the nearby trails, and the diminutive beach became quite crowded. It was time to head back and dry off.
Portsmouth Mine Pit Lake has an entirely different claim to fame, too. Another mural on the facade of my boarding house had brought this to my attention (as well as the extremely brief Wikipedia entry for the town of Crosby.) I'm talking about Project Manhigh, an unfathomable precursor to what would become the United States space program.
I had never heard of any of it. Project Manhigh consisted of three missions, each of which sent a human being in a telephone-booth-sized compartment made of spare military parts into the stratosphere using a massive balloon. The first acted as a test run of sorts. The second was considered so groundbreaking that it made the cover of LIFE magazine and that was the trip that Major David Simons made in August 1957, launching from the bed of Portsmouth pit (before it became a lake). Major Simons ventured an unprecedented 19 miles above Earth, where he performed 25 unspecified experiments, landed safely after 32 hours (in South Dakota!), all using a balloon that was about 200 feet wide. To imagine this while sitting at the site brings to mind imagery of the film Up, an Iron Lung, and the Hindenberg.
While there was massive press coverage at the time, there was little funding for further exploration. The project is largely unknown today, despite the fact that it quite literally launched the modern space program.
Upon returning to my room, I was lost in thoughts about my surroundings, the stratosphere, and snacks. I was finally able to make a reasonable calculation that a mountain bike race was in town and also found myself craving ice cream that I had walked past earlier in the day . Somewhere in the past few hours, I had seen a flyer about the "Cuynua Crusher" mountain bike race taking place on Sunday, and judged from all the dirty bikes on car racks that the Cuyuna Recreation Area was preparing to see its fair amount of out-of-towners. As I ate my pale yellow scoop, I thought about what the area's born-again popularity must mean to a slowly dwindling Iron town.
Bikes were the reason that Crosby, population 2,295, could sustain a specialty shop that filled charcuterie boards and scooped house-made Church Basement Lemon Bar ice cream for clueless wanderers like me. Crosby could only be afloat—healthy, even during Covid times— because of recreational tourism. The Hardwater Cocktail Lounge existed to satiate the camping, biking, and paddleboarding weekenders (and the occasional skeptical local, from what I would overhear during my stay).
As the day grew dark and the skies threatened rain, I knew it was time for the brewery. Cuyuna Brewing Company lies on the far end of downtown and consistently draws a crowd. The beer is well-made, though some recipes may hit the palate as dated (the pale ale is a good example). I like the bar at Cuyuna because it is a bit voyeuristic. I enjoy listening in on the perfect cross-section of people who know a thing or two about microbrews and want to prove it, plus their Coors Light loyalist friends who are along for the ride. Most importantly, the staff navigates this well and the entire vibe is what I can only describe as wholesome.
The bar was empty when I sat down, but the rest of the place was packed. A few minutes into my Silver Dollar Lager, I heard the two men to my left placing their orders. "You gotta be careful with that lager," the older, awkward gentleman said. I looked up at the chalkboard and, sure enough, the beer was 7% ABV. He was a regular.
After a dinner that was unfortunate, I decided to end my night at the Hardwater. Their feature is a smoked Old Fashioned, which is crafted in a tiny beverage sauna of sorts, into which a smoking gun pushes vapors of applewood that can be viewed through the device's clear windows. I was kindly instructed to wait at least two minutes so that the drink could take on its smoky surroundings. After the proper amount of time, I removed the beverage. The smoke in the condensation on the glass saturated my hands, adding to the effect with each sip. The garnishes—a cherry and orange peel—seemed to have absorbed more of the aroma than the liquid itself, but the desired effect was achieved. At $12, it was one of the most expensive drinks on the menu (and, I have to imagine, within a 20-mile radius)
Sleep doesn't come easy in a sparse boarding room above capital B Bar, but nevertheless, Saturday brought new adventures and I was sufficiently rested for a day with little objective. It was time to see what the Big Red Sandbox, as the recreation area is known, could hold for someone without a bike. I had been informed by someone in the know that hiking is allowed on all of the bike trails. While technically true, I was a bit nervous to be on the blind side of a hairpin turn at the wrong time and end up skewered by the business end of a mountain bike.
I figured that if I was going to give it a go, I had to commit. I picked a trail called the Galloping Goose loop, and decided that I was the "away" team -- I would cede my ground to any approaching cyclists as this was their turf, but I would do my best to have fun. Luckily, I was wearing bright clothing and the "easy" rated trail I chose was quiet. I kept my ears open. Each time a bike was barrelling down on me, in groups from 1 to 5 cyclists, I stepped off to the side. With common courtesy, no earbuds, and dedication to the mission at hand, I was more than fine.
In 1993, city and state officials converted a large portion of the Cuyuna Range into a recreational area. The area is now extremely popular among mountain bikers, due to the development of over 30 miles of single track mountain biking plus about 6 miles of paved trail. Several of the pit lakes have boat launches and the area is known for friendly kayaking and paddleboarding conditions. Many of the lakes are stocked with fish. But the bike trails are the crown jewels.
Galloping Goose took me all the way around Pennington Mine Pit Lake, with gorgeous views and varied terrain. It was hard to imagine these pits ever being dry, though I tried. I tried to picture Major Simons in his Manhigh contraption, rising above what is now shoreline. The trail is banked and switch-backed for bikes, thus it is often not flat, making for a challenging few hours. Cuyuna's 5000+ acres are mostly undeveloped, but the area that is sees consistent use. The parking lot near the mountain biking practice area was nearly full when my loop safely delivered me back to where I began.
Hunger set in and it was off to Trailside Tavern for some broasted chicken. I thought about breaking my pull-tab virginity but the timing didn't feel right and it was too light outside for gambling. Overhearing the three friends to my left, I was surprised that the bike race wasn't well-known to them as locals. The bartender filled them in, saying he had one competed in the Crusher. Their friendly conversation painted the race with ambilvalence, but I sensed a tension between them.
I took a little half-hour sidequest to Nisswa that afternoon, hitting one of the area's best breweries, Big Axe, plus a brewery with fundamentally flawed beer but enticing live music, Roundhouse. A woman across the picnic table started a conversation with me, and we had a co-worker in common. That struck a bit too close to home for my vacation in anonymous bliss, though, so I fled back to Crosby.
My last stop was a nightcap at the townie bar beneath my room, The Spalding. It was perfectly On-Off sale in that Northwoods sort of way. If the music was going to keep me tossing and turning past bar close, I might as well take advantage of the proximity.
Halfway into a stiff gin and tonic (rail -- I know how to read the room), one of the patrons from lunch spotted me reading at the bar, which was either noticeably unusual or noticeably uncouth. I later would learn his name was Bob. Bob sat next to me and said, "do you just get drunk at bars and read?" I offered an equivocal answer and a shrug. But our talk quickly turned political when I answered where I was from, South Minneapolis. My home in the city had become now a political statement to Bob.
"There is no fucking way they are injecting me with that shit," said Bob, who had turned his target towards Covid-19. Bob had lived in Crosby for 30 years. He said, looking at me, then at the bartender, that anyone who voted for Biden was a fucking idiot. I decided it was a safe space for a reasonable dialogue (at the very least I would have witnesses), and I learned a bit more about Bob, who was not a perfect listener, but I believe he meant as well as someone who doesn't believe in Covid can mean.
Bob stirred his drink and struggled to name positive things Trump had done besides lowering the price of gas, but was an enthusiastic supporter of the former President. I threw him for a loop by pointing out that, as a Christian and a nurse (and a human but that was a moot point), I wasn't okay with locking up children at the US-Mexico border. Bob didn't like when I equated his fear for our soldiers in Afganistan with my fear for refugees. Bob wanted them to come to his country legally.
Then, as he kept jabbing me in the arm with his elbow, more like a friend egging someone on to do something than anyone meaning harm, the truth came out. Bob may not have known what universal truth he had just spoken into life. "The bikers here, it's not the same. They come from the Cities and there is so much traffic that I had to move out of town." I expressed empathy. Living by George Floyd square, the face of my neighborhood had changed, too.
"I just want it to be quiet again. I miss that." Bob was afraid of change. A fear that is hard to identify and even harder to confess. I didn't pity Bob, but I understood the fundamental problem at hand.
Change is a constant. This paradox occupied my mind long after I left Bob at the bar, a parting which went like this: "Hey Bob, I don't care if you vote for Trump in 2024. But please reconsider the vaccine." After which he said, "No fucking way." I smiled, hoping I had planted some seed, even if it would just appear in his dreams or some dejà vu months from now.
Up in my boarding room, I thought about change in the town of Crosby. The iron pits were now Instagram moments and a Crossfitter's dreamland, while mining equipment rested like sunken ships below. A craft ice cream bar and a mountain bike trail were in the lead on TripAdvisor. A prototype of an astronaut had made scientific tidal waves and then had been virtually forgotten. All while the Cuyuna sand was still laden with manganese and the town diner had the longest waiting list in all of downtown. Yet change for Crosby was a form of salvation.
The servers at that diner chuckled to each other while I enjoyed my last meal in town, a classic corned beef hash. They were joking about how yesterday some out-of-towner like me had asked if they served any vegan food. Read the room, I thought. As I packed up the car for the drive home, I sensed that I had experienced a moment in Crosby. A representation of just one specific time in a town that was guaranteed to change.