Once upon a time on the Iron Ranges of northern Minnesota many small iron companies flourished.
However, by the early 1970s, most of these were gone.
The editor of the Hibbing Daily Tribune in 1971 wrote that these small companies should be added to the list of endangered species.
What led to his comment was the closure in December 1971 of the Whiteside Mine, located between Buhl and Kinney. It was operated by the Snyder Mining Company, a small mining company with a long history on the Iron Range.
Some of the other small companies which had disappeared, no longer shipping iron ore from the Iron Range, included Haley-Young, Charlson Mining, Skubic Brothers, Pacific Isle, and North Range Mining, just to name a few.
These independent companies were at their prime from the late 1930s until the mid-1950s. These were the decades when iron ore was a seller’s market.
The small independent companies were unique in their role. They helped to conserve raw materials by scavenging properties which the big companies had found were no longer profitable to mine.
The small companies were active in the civic life of the communities where their employees and even their company owners lived. They provided academic scholarships and contributed to local projects.
Being “home-owned,” they often had a close identity with the local towns.
The small companies also developed some new mining techniques. For example, they were the first to make use of trucks in the mine pits, since the trucks could make their way into areas where only small pockets of ore still remained. Of course, these were not the massive trucks that are so much a part of the mines today, but the maneuverability of those early mine trucks used by the independent companies was the evidence needed to make the use of trucks a regular part of mining.
The large companies saw that, rather than laying down rail tracks into areas with little ore, or when the pits became too deep for the trains, the trucks proved successful.
But when taconite production became the mainstay of the Iron Range in the early 1960s,
it became obvious that the small companies would be on the way out.
The large capital necessary for the taconite plants was simply not possible for a small company. That’s why, with the higher grade ores depleted, in 1971 the Snyder Mining Company was closing the Whiteside Mine.
So let’s take a look back at the Snyder Mining Company history and how it became so much a part of the history of the Iron Range.
The story begins with William Penn Snyder. He was born in 1860 in a small town in Pennsylvania. Still in his teens, he became an office boy to a Pittsburgh iron merchant. His ambition and work ethic impressed his employers, leading to promotions and giving him the chance to gain more insight into the iron industry.
At age 19, he formed a partnership with John Leishman and they built a successful iron brokerage business. Within a few years, Leishman was hired away by the Carnegie Steel Company (where he would eventually become president).
In 1888, W.P. Snyder launched his own firm and soon established his own iron mining operation.
Snyder was a close friend and business associate of Henry W. Oliver.
These men were instrumental in developing the iron ore mining industry around Lake Superior, the greatest iron mining region in the world.
Snyder acquired holdings on the Mesabi Iron Range and his mines were among the early ones to begin shipping ore.
Oliver and Snyder are given credit for being the first to use 100% Mesabi ore in a blast furnace when others thought that was impossible, unsure about the quantity of ore to be found on the Mesabi and the difficulty to access that ore and get it to the blast furnaces.
Mesabi ore very soon proved to be remarkable in quantity and quality. The railroads and Great Lakes shipping developed to get this ore to the furnaces.
This ore was the lifeblood of the steel industry, an industry growing as America grew through the 19th and into the 20th Centuries.
Snyder devoted more and more of his time to developing his own small company, The Shenango Furnace Company.
Snyder had taken the first steps into the iron-producing field by purchasing two blast furnaces. These two furnaces each had a capacity of 150-200 tons a day.
For their day and purpose, they were highly efficient, although within 50 years they would be totally outdated.
Their method of operation included hand-filling the furnaces by wheelbarrow-loads and the pig iron was then hand cast into molds that were sold to consumers.
He named his new company after the Shenango Valley where the early industrial development of Pennsylvania began.
At one time, fourteen blast furnaces roared here. Eventually, the center of the iron and steel industries would move south to Pittsburgh and north to Lake Erie, leaving only the two Snyder furnaces and a few others in the valley.
From the hundreds of small producers originally owning blast furnaces, consolidation began and picked up speed.
Thus grew the giant corporations.
Rather than sell out or combine with others for fast profit, Snyder grew his own company, including purchasing more blast furnaces which took in the ore from his own mines and those of others.
He also invested in building ore boats for shipping the ore. In 1906, his first ship was built, the William P. Snyder. The next year the Wilpen was built, and in 1909 the Shenango.
But it was in 1911 that the industry really sat up and took notice of his next ship, the Colonel James M. Schoonmaker. The elegant ship was named for James Schoonmaker, a decorated member of the Union Army during the American Civil War who would go on to become vice-president of the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad.
This freighter was 617 feet long, with a beam of 64 feet and a depth of 33 feet. It was rated as the largest bulk freighter in the world for several years. After a long life of service on the Great Lakes, including years when her name was changed, and years when she was owned by Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Company, in 2011 she was re-christened back to her original name and is now a museum ship, permanently berthed at the National Museum of the Great Lakes in Toledo, Ohio.
This ship proved so successful that a year later Snyder built a sister ship to the Shoonmaker, the W.P. Snyder, Jr.
The success of this shipbuilding program gave the Shenango Company two of the largest ore-carrying vessels on the Great Lakes from 1912 to 1937.
These ships were eventually overhauled with upgraded, much more powerful engines, boilers, and turbines.
Snyder had taken a calculated risk when he bought up holdings on the Mesabi and Cuyuna Ranges in the late 19th Century. What really lay deep in the ground was not fully proven. The land had to be more carefully prospected and remains from the lumbering industry cleared. All that took time and money.
The first of his mines to ship ore was the Shenango Mine near Chisholm. It was about 80 acres and was very prolific for its size. Between 1904 and 1952, 17,354,778 tons of ore was shipped from the Shenango.
Although mostly an open-pit mine, some ore was removed by underground work, too.
Snyder also owned the Tioga and Godfrey mines near Chisholm, and the Virginia Mine near Eveleth. Near Hibbing, in the vicinity of the Hull-Rust open pit mine, was Snyder’s Webb Mine. This was one of his most sizable properties, covering an area of 120 acres.
Beginning in 1905, the Webb Mine produced amazing amounts of high grade ore. The Webb, originally an underground mine, is now a part of the sprawling Hull-Rust-Mahoning open pit, and so the Webb is now also part of the taconite industry.
When a person visits the Hull-Rust-Mahoning Mine View in North Hibbing today, guides will point out where the Webb Mine existed, and some of its underground wooden supports and drifts can still be seen.
By 1929, Snyder purchased for The Shenango Furnace Company a small interest in the Mahoning Ore and Steel Company, operator of the “Mighty Mahoning,” on the west side of the Hull-Rust mine pit. Soon after that, the Crucible Steel Company of America purchased an interest in Snyder’s company.
This arrangement continued well into the 20th Century, providing both Crucible and Shenango with a steady flow of iron ore for each company’s blast furnaces.
W.P. Snyder died in 1921 at age 61. His son, William Penn Snyder, Jr., became the president of the company, followed by two more generations of the family to lead the company.
In 1951, stripping operations began near Buhl in order to develop the Whiteside Mine from being an underground mine into being an open pit iron mine.
As an underground, the Whiteside, which began operations in 1911, shipped about 725,000 tons from its veins of iron ore before suspending operations in 1915. Once it began working as an open pit mine in the early 1950s, the Whiteside would ship an additional 3,200,000 tons of ore.
Adjacent to the Whiteside property was the Oliver Company’s Kosmerl reserve. The Snyder Company oversaw the mining of this entire area.
So, for more than 70 years, iron ore was mined continuously from the Snyder holdings. Over those years some mines were exhausted and new reserves were developed.
Constant improvements in mining techniques expedited the economic removal of iron ore.
The Snyder Mining Company moved with the times, utilizing each new improvement in mining and production of steel.
However, with the closing of the Whiteside Mine, the Snyder Mining Company’s years on the Iron Range came to a close. The company stated that the end of high grade iron ore had led to the closure.
At the end, 72 employees remained at the mine. The average length of service of those employees was 31 years. The company lauded them for their extremely loyal and effective service.
The cold January winds of 1952 blew through empty buildings and silent electric shovels that would eventually be sold and moved away. An era of small iron ore mining companies on the Mesabi had come to an end.