Michigan's Upper Peninsula has been a powerfully mining-oriented place ever since early explorers were astonished to discover enormous chunks of pure copper in the Keweenaw Peninsula.
Iron ore deposits uncovered west of Marquette in the 19th century were so rich that unprocessed ore was shipped directly to blast furnaces to be made into iron. Once those deposits were worked out, vast quantities remained of less pure — but plenty rich — iron ore. Ever since, this has been one of the U.P.'s biggest industries, creating jobs extracting, processing and shipping iron ore to steel mills from Cleveland to Gary, Ind.
I've just returned from a family vacation at our cabin up north, where we toured the Tilden iron mine near Negaunee, owned and operated by Cliffs Natural Resources Co., which readers may remember was named Cleveland-Cliffs until a few years ago.
The scope and scale of the mine flabbergasted us.
As we approached, we saw a vast three-story, rust-colored building looming that seemed to run on for a mile or so. Hills of waste tailings as high as the biggest ski hill rose to the south.
The ore was dug from an enormous deep open pit, the black-dark red rock with multiple terraces descending deeper and deeper into the ground. You could put several University of Michigan "Big House" football stadiums into the pit and still have plenty of room to spare. You may not be surprised to learn that after many years of mining, the pit bottom today is the lowest point in the entire U.P.
Rock is blasted loose by setting off deep explosive charges in the pit. Vast shovels — the newest capable of hoisting hundreds of tons of rock and costing up to $30 million — unload ore into transporter trucks, themselves three stories high and capable of hauling 360 tons at one go. The tires for those monsters are 10 feet high and covered with chains to protect them from the sharp rock.
Impressive indeed. Until now, I had assumed that was all there was to it. Blast the ore out of the ground, smash it into pieces and ship it off to the mills.
Not so. Most of the effort, cost and skill of the operation goes into the need to convert the raw ore into hard, one-inch balls with iron content high enough to produce metallic iron in blast furnaces.
That involves grinding the ore into a texture as fine as face powder, a noisy and dust-filled process undertaken in enormous rotating grinders. Afterward, it's mixed with water to form a gooey dark red slurry. Tiny bits of metallic iron, heavier than the surrounding silica, drop to the bottom in vast settling ponds.
This sludge is moved by conveyor belt to enormous rotating cylindrical furnaces running at 2,300 degrees. The remaining water evaporates, and the resulting dry powder is fused into tiny, hard balls, or "pellets," ready to be loaded into freight cars and dumped into Great Lakes freighters moored in Marquette's upper harbor.
The Tilden mine started pellet production in 1963. Through 2011, it produced more than 257 million tons of pellets.
Penny ante, it isn't. The interior of the enormous plant is filled with noise — you are issued ear plugs for your tour. It's a place of dark red dust, huge gears, links of chain bigger than your arm, massive rotating cylinders, belts snaking soundlessly here and there.
It provokes images of the greatest — and most terrifying — industrial sites of the 19th century, but all this is now controlled and managed by complex computer networks.
Cliffs is the largest employer in the U.P., with a total of more than 1,700 employees. Thanks to 21st century technology, there were no more than 15 production workers on the floor, big, dusty tough men with swinging strides and gigantic lunch buckets. They're well paid — more than $80,000 wages and benefits, the highest in the U.P.
I like to think of them as today's representatives of generations of tough, strong, determined "Yoopers" who wrenched the metals from the ground, wrestled down giant trees from the forests, sailed and fished — all at the mythic top of our wondrous state.
It's a place of historic legends (Paul Bunyan and Babe, the blue ox would have been at home here) but also of contemporary pride and purpose. In these days when too many of us scorn hard-working folks with calluses on their hands, the work they do in the U.P. — and the way they go about it — makes me nod with pride and admiration.
Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of The Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think-and-do tank, designed to cure Michigan's dysfunctional political culture. He is also on the board of the Center's Business Leaders for Early Education. The opinions expressed here are Power's own and do not represent the official views of The Center. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.