Jasper: The secret of Mary Ellen Mine

One of the most unique aspects of the Mary Ellen Mine in Biwabik is the abundance of the 2.1 billion-year-old slabs of rock found there called Mary Ellen Jasper.

It’s one of the reasons Mark and Kandi Sutich purchased the former mine as a base for much of the activities for their taconite processing company The Biwabik Mary Ellen Mine Company, which they opened for business in 2019.

“Native Americans and many people today believe the stone has great healing powers. It also was the stone of choice for tool making by primitive people because of its hardness and content of chert and quartz,” Mark Sutich said.

According to Kelly Jo Gentilini, an employee of The Biwabik business, and resident “rockhound,” Mary Ellen Jasper is a subvariety of Jasper with “beautiful red, pink to green material containing swirls of Precambrian fossil algae also known as Stromatolites.”

The Iron Range, she said, was once a shallow sea where mats of algae grew towards the sun’s light, producing the wiggling columns of stromatolites in our material today.

The organic material is now gone and what’s left are the beautiful traces of their colonies in the columns of Mary Ellen Jasper.

Mary Ellen Jasper was first discovered in the Mary Ellen Iron Mine in St. Louis County in the early 1900's.

According to information on Sutich’s website, www.maryellenstone.com, the Stanley Iron Mining Company operated the Mary Ellen Mine between 1924 and 1928, with stockpile shipments occurring in 1929 and 1930. It actively mined the property again between 1948 and 1951. Beginning in 1952, the Pioneer Mining Company worked the mine, continuing to do so through 1961. The Pittsburgh Pacific Company operated it for one final year, in 1962. Its cumulative output of natural ore was 4,574,973 long tons.

Robert E. “Emmett” Butler, of Butler Brothers Construction Company and the youngest of its six brothers, named the mine after his daughter Mary Ellen Hume (1896-1972).

According to information on the web site, the Jasper comes from the layer of rocks known as the Biwabik iron formation and the wiggling of the columns within it is thought to represent the tracking of the sun’s position through the seasons, showing that the strategy adopted by sunflowers has a long evolutionary history. Similar formations elsewhere have been used to prove the inference that the number of days in the year has shrunk through time as the Earth’s rotation has slowed.

“Our specimens are composed of jasper, hematite, quartz and magnetite,” Gentilini said. “What makes our rock so interesting is the fossilized remnant of stromatolites, some of the earliest complex organisms in geological history. These rocks also testify to one of the major events in global history, when free oxygen gradually appeared and poisoned off the existing ecosystem, thus paving the way for the evolution of the complex oxygen breathing life that is the most familiar feature of today’s biosphere.”

The remains of fossilized algae is the main difference between Mary Ellen Jasper and taconite, she added.

“The materials are equally strong and durable and take us roughly two to three hours to cut a little over a foot when cutting a slab in either material,” she said.

While the company can make things like monuments out of the Jasper, they recently expanded into the collector’s market online – thanks mostly to the addition of Gentilini to the staff, Sutich said.

“When Kelly Jo came to us looking for employment, she claimed to be somewhat

of a rock-hound. Her rock hounding talents are amazing, she has brought the Mary Ellen

Jasper and other mineral rich stones to the collector’s market with stunning results,” Sutich said.

She has also worked closely with another new hire, Bill Hecomovich, who has an internet technology background, to connect the northern Minnesota company with the social media world with impressive results.

“She has collectors and geological interest groups calling from all corners of the earth. Some of the foremost experts in the field are familiar with (her). Authors on the subject have sent her signed copies of their books,” Sutich said, adding that that Mary Ellen mine has always been a hot spot for geologists, educational facilities and rock collectors because of the stromatolites.

“We have been honored to be visited by the geological departments of numerous universities including the Curtin University in Perth, Australia, The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the University of Kansas, University of Minnesota and numerous mid-western facilities with geological departments, Sutich said. “We have donated several tons of stone to educational facilities for display and study.”

That includes a stone offered up to a museum in Wisconsin after a Silver Beach Elk was found in a lake there that contained 10,000-year old spearhead that was made out of Mary Ellen Jasper.

“The stone was of such value it was believed to be used for trade and was handed down from generation to generation. We provided a stone to the museum to make a duplicate spearhead for display,” Sutich said. “That spearhead will be created by the talents of a stone knapper, a talent not readily found in this day and age.”

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