I know that there are people in big cities who believe that there’s nothing very interesting about small communities. But nothing could be further from the truth! There are many interesting things and people in small places. The beautiful play “Our Town” by American playwright Thornton Wilder leads us to reflect on, among other things, this very topic.
The Iron Ranges of northern Minnesota have, through the years, seen many small towns come and go. The Indigenous people, who lived here long before any European people, often built their communities along the creeks, rivers, and lakes in this region. Then came white fur traders, who built their outposts along the water routes. When the timber cruisers arrived, they worked their way into the forests from the water routes, and eventually sawmills were built along the water. Then came the tote roads and railroads. And small communities were soon springing up wherever people gathered for work opportunities.
Some of those small towns in northern Minnesota were Mining Locations. Built close by a mine to house miners and their families, some Locations only lasted as long as the mine was producing. Once the mine closed, the houses were torn down or moved on to the next active mine. Since these Locations often did not have stores, a school, or churches, a nearby town would supply those services. Those towns might not be very big, but they could be more permanent. Once bus transportation became a reality, and eventually privately-owned cars, people could move into the towns and were able to get to work in other places.
Little towns sometimes hold bad memories for some individuals, but very happy memories for others. Some of those little towns might experience the loss of citizens, often followed by the loss of businesses and other services, but still the town is there, adjusting and maybe finding new possibilities.
As long as small towns exist, I think that there will be people who would rather live there than anywhere else.
Near the western end of the Mesabi Range are two little towns with very interesting stories.
Bovey and Coleraine are neighboring communities with rather diverse beginnings. Today, these towns still have proud residents and fine businesses. So over the next two weeks, let’s take a look at their origins.
The main source for these articles comes from the book “Iron Range Country,” which was published in 1979 by the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board. Pamela M. Thompson was the principal author, along with additional authors Delores Lakso, Donald Boese, Dr. Timothy Roufs, and Kathleen Salminen. Production director was Fred Thompson. This book is now out of print, but libraries in the area may still have copies or keep an eye out for a copy at estate sales.
The Western Mesabi, extending almost to Grand Rapids in the west and almost to Pengilly in the east, stands quite apart from the development and history of the rest of the Mesabi Range. The ore found here was of poor quality – low in iron concentration, soft, and laden with sand. While mining operations were in full swing elsewhere on the Mesabi by 1900, the westernmost section of the Range remained largely deserted and ignored. With an abundance elsewhere in the region of rich, hard ores, the type preferred by the smelters, there seemed to be no need to bother with the low-grade, sandy ore that clogged the blast furnaces.
Thomas Cole was an ambitious and hard-working young man from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. In 1902, at the age of 40, he became president of the Oliver Iron Mining Company. He moved the company headquarters to Duluth in order to be more centrally located between the U.P. and the growing production of the Mesabi.
In Duluth, he learned about the Canisteo Mine which was just opening on the western Mesabi.
The name “Canisteo,” derived from the Seneca Indian word Tecarnaseteo, meaning “head of navigation.” This was an appropriate choice of name since the mine was located not many miles from Grand Rapids, the northernmost point of navigation on the Mississippi River. (The Seneca people lived in the area now known as the State of New York and one of the mine’s owners was from New York.)
Thomas Cole became intrigued with the challenges and possibilities of the sandy ore in the Western Mesabi. He convinced the rather conservative directors of United States Steel Corporation, which the Oliver Mining Company had recently become a part of, to invest ten million dollars in the Western Mesabi’s new Oliver Company’s Canisteo District.
Cole chose John Campbell Greenway for the position of general superintendent. Greenway, at the age of 33, was the youngest person to be appointed to such a position. Greenway knew that, for the venture to succeed, it would be necessary to find a way to concentrate the iron content. He immediately wrote to a friend in Alabama requesting information on ore washing techniques used there. He researched and studied ore concentration methodology. His investigations would eventually pay off.
Greenway arrived in Minnesota in 1905. Over the next year he dealt with many transportation problems in order to bring men, equipment and supplies in to the mining district from Grand Rapids. At last, in the summer of 1906, a railroad line was completed and the Duluth Herald newspaper announced that “Gigantic Operations” were about to begin on the Western Mesabi.
Now, aside from the loggers in their temporary camps, before the early 1900s there were few white people living in the area between Keewatin-Nashwauk and Grand Rapids. Only after rumors spread that the Oliver intended to initiate large-scale mining in the area did white men begin drifting in, hoping to find employment. Many others, intending either to serve or prey upon the prospective workers, were also quick to arrive.
Seeing an opportunity to sell real estate, several entrepreneurs, including lumber magnate Charles A. Bovey and famous Mesabi drillman E.J. Longyear, chose a site near Trout Lake and platted a town they named Bovey.
The place was isolated because of the difficulties with getting to the area, but it still grew rapidly and in the late summer of 1904, less than four months after the first lots were sold, the town was incorporated. A reporter for the Duluth News Tribune newspaper arrived to inspect the village and even as he was crossing Trout Lake and nearing the Bovey landing he could hear the constant ring of hammers coming from the townsite. He wrote, “A long succession of hurriedly erected structures greets the eye….As the population is increased with the dawn of each succeeding day it is difficult to obtain anything like correct figures on its population. Last Tuesday the population was about 400.”
From the beginning, Bovey acquired a reputation as one of the wildest of the Iron Range boom towns, catering to the needs and desires of the uprooted men arriving on the Western Mesabi. There were no Bovey establishments that were more frequented than the saloons, crowded with drillers, miners, drifters, and an occasional lumberjack. Men often lined up several rows deep before the long bars while the barkeepers deftly dispensed great quantities of beer and liquor. A “booster” was hired to keep an eye on the room, and should the buying ever lag, his voice rang out, “Don’t forget the gentlemen behind the bar!” That was usually enough to generate renewed buying activity. The free lunch – highly salted – was always available, and peddlers stopped by with sausages or taffy.
As would be expected, the Bovey saloons were noisy with crude language and disorderly behavior. No one worried much about the state law which called for an 11:00 p.m. closing time, and the saloons were often swinging far into the night.
During those first years, Bovey was one of the few towns left in the State of Minnesota to permit open gambling. Roulette wheels were found in many of the saloons. Poker, faro, and klondike were popular games. Slot machines were a common sight. Professional gamblers arrived in considerable numbers. There were many ways for a drillman or miner to lose a week’s pay.
Prostitution was also a thriving business. The first village council ordered the “house of ill-fame” on the main street to be moved elsewhere, but no effort was made to limit or prevent such establishments from operating in other places in town. A woman who had grown up in Bovey remembered that, when she was a little girl, she would deliver bakery goods to some of the houses and how impressed she had been by the “scarlet ladies” with their bright dresses and artificial roses behind their ears. She recalled “landlady” Maggie Page, who in her full skirts with numerous petticoats, was one of the few women to be seen on the streets of Bovey during the early years.
Boarding houses and hotels of varying quality were usually filled to capacity and beyond, and many people simply slept on the floors of the saloons if no other place was available. The editor of the Itasca Iron News, which began publication in Bovey in the fall of 1905, described many of the town’s inhabitants who lived in those hotels and boarding houses as “looking just plain crummy.”
If personal cleanliness was not one of the more prominent aspects of life in early Bovey, the town itself was a close parallel. Much of it was filthy and unkempt. Sanitary conditions were so bad that the Itasca Iron News stated that “Reeking filth was to be found everywhere and in the business section many of the lots are a disgrace with nauseating aromas arising from overrunning privy vaults, garbage, alimentary expulsions, carrion, swill, and excrement.” The businessmen were advised that “beer slops, decayed vegetables, cuspidors cleaning, and restaurant swills should be carried out of town.”
And this environment wasn’t just unpleasant to the eye or nose, it was dangerous. Typhoid fever was a constant menace and kept the small hospital filled.
During the years between 1906 and 1910, under the direction of a particularly hard-working mayor, many of the rough edges of Bovey were smoothed out. Prostitution and gambling were abolished and a clean-up campaign began to have a positive effect. More families moved in and the place began to reflect a permanent, decent town. Nonetheless, in 1910, with a population of 1,377, there were still 23 saloons.
Next Sunday, the continuing story of Bovey and the establishment of the town of Coleraine.