Changing Gears
8:00 am
Wed July 27, 2011

Ishpeming: Where iron ore built a city (Part 3 - with photos)

Our Changing Gears project is on the road, bringing you stories of towns where one company still affects everybody’s lives. Today we head north, to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. That’s where North America’s biggest supplier of iron ore has been blasting the earth, and creating jobs, for more than 160 years. 

Our destination is the city of Ishpeming. It’s small.  Basically, you can’t throw a rock here without hitting a miner.

Take Steve Carlson. After high school, he worked 37 years for the mines.

“When I started as a young man, all the old bucks set you straight on the dos and the do nots,” he says.  “And what you want to do is go home every day to your family.”

Ken Hietikko is still mining after 36 years. He operates an enormous shovel at the Tilden and Empire open pit mines outside of town. They’re deep craters that have produced more than 450 million tons of iron ore. Hietikko runs the machinery of giants. The first time he saw it, he was struck with awe.

“I still am,” he says. “I like this. You know this is me running this great big piece of equipment. And supplying a living for a lot of people in our area. And supplying iron ore, to the world actually.”

Like other miners, Hietikko endured his share of layoffs in the 1980s. But he still calls mining a “dinosaur industry” — one of the last places where a blue-collar kid with little education can make good money for life.

As for Ishpeming, it wouldn’t exist if Cliffs Natural Resources hadn’t started mining the UP in 1848.  Around here, the company is still known as Cleveland Cliffs.

 “What we tell people is that steel in North America really begins here in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula,” says Dale Hemmila, the company’s director of public affairs in North America.

We’re standing at the edge of the Empire pit, which stretches nearly a mile long and a mile wide.  Here, the miners extract low-grade ore, which is processed into higher-grade pellets.

“The pellet is about the size of a marble,” Hemmila says. “And literally we create billions of them on an annual basis here.”

Pellet prices are high right now. Countries like China and India are using a lot of iron ore, to make a lot of steel. That’s good for Cliffs. Dale Hemmila says when you add up payroll, taxes, electricity and supplies, the company has a regional economic impact of more than $830 million. That includes 600 employees in Ishpeming and lot of other people who rely on the economic oxygen of the mines.

People like Sandra Sundquist. Where else besides Ishpeming could a gal sell 800 pairs of steel boots a year?

“We do have an issue in the UP of wide feet, and we actually call them pasty feet,” she says.  “They need extra wide boots.”

She has them in stock at Wilderness Sports downtown.

Down the road is a big guy, Lee Woods. He’s president of Northern Tire Inc., which provides giant tires for the mine’s giant haulers. The largest hauler can carry 320 tons of iron ore. The tires stacked up out back make Woods’s lot look like a sandbox for Titans.

“This tire weighs 10,500 pounds,” he says. “It’s twelve-and-a-half feet in diameter and these are just almost 50,000 apiece.”

Which all begs the question: How long is this going to last?

“Well, the iron’s gonna run out sometime. The ore’ll run out sometime. I don’t know when,” says Jered Ottenwess.

Ottenwess is Ishpeming’s city manager. He says it’s hard to do long-range planning when the local economy is so dependent on one company.

“What’s Ishpeming gonna look like in 25 years?” he asks. “Well that’s entirely predicated on whether Cliffs is still gonna be here, operating those mines. If they’re not, what’s our economy actually going to look like?”

All of Marquette County is trying to grow tourism, education and health care. The Marquette General Health System is already the biggest employer in the county; Cliffs ranks second overall. But the city manager worries Ishpeming itself won’t diversify fast enough. He says that shifting this old mining town’s economic base is an overwhelming challenge.

Meanwhile, a lot of people think mining will be here for a very long time.  Dale Hemmila says Cliffs is trying to extend the life of the Empire pit to 2015.  He says the Tilden Mine should operate another 30 or 35 years, depending on economic viability.

Tomorrow we travel to Norwalk, Ohio, where a town fought to save its furniture factory.