"The Grand Canyon of the North": (Photo: Tim Murphy).Hibbing, Minnesota—If you're ever thinking of recruiting a band of immigrant followers, buying up a big chunk of mineral-rich real estate, and founding your own eponymous city, there are a few critical guidelines you absolutely must adhere to. Fresh water is always good; so is an escape plan, lest things start to go all Roanoke. But most importantly—and this really can't be overstated—make sure you've thought of something really badass to say, so that it can someday be etched on the giant granite statue commissioned by a loving future generation.
Frank Hibbing understood these lessons well. Which is why, as he stood atop the future site of Hibbing, Minnesota in January of 1893, less than two decades before the world’s largest open-pit ore mine was blasted out of the ground on which he stood, he said this: "I believe there is iron under me. My bones feel rusty and chilly."
That is actually what he said. Hibbing wouldn't exist, at least in anything like its past or present state, if it weren't for the taconite that Frank felt so poetically in his femur. Or rather, Frank’s Hibbing doesn't exist today, precisely because of the iron. Less than three decades after our hero planted his flag in the Mesabi Range, mining companies, eschewing mining companies' long-held tradition of quietly buying out select residents at decimals on the dollar until the whole town has no choice but to leave, paid for the town to relocate a mile-and-a-half south so they could extract the ore beneath it.
Iron Range: An ore dock sit empty in downtown Marquette. In its heyday, trains would ride the rails to the top, then dump their iron ore into the barges waiting below. (Photo: Tim Murphy).Marquette, Michigan—My first impression upon driving into Michigan's Upper Peninsula was that this is what Alaska must feel like. Quite a statement, to be sure, coming from someone who's never set foot in Alaska. But there's something undeniably different about the place.
Part of it's visual: You can drive for 40 minutes without seeing a house let alone a town, and because the virgin White Pine forests of the UP (as it's known) were basically clear-cut over the last century-and-a-half, the younger trees look, at least from the road, as if someone has gone into Photoshop and scaled them down but left the sky as is. In other words, you feel higher up, not only in relation to the Mitten of lower Michigan, but relative to the ground itself.
But there's a cultural element, too. For most of its existence, the UP has been isolated from the rest of the state, bordered by three of the Great Lakes plus Wisconsin, and accessible to the rest of Michigan only by boat until the late 1950s when someone finally built a bridge (and Yoopers, as natives of the UP are known, immediately began talking about blowing it up). Its industries are iron, copper, timber, and paper—and that's pretty much it; as Mike Delke, a woodcarver, told me at the UP State Fair in Escanaba, "You hear a lot of talk about depressed economic areas now. This has been a depressed economic area from the beginning."
The Upper Peninsula has about as much in common with Detroit as Manhattan does to Manhattan, Kansas. And that's why, for the last 150 or so years, Yoopers have talked about blowing up the bridge, breaking away, and starting a state of their own called "Superior."
"That's always been something on the back of people's mind," says Skip DuFour, president of the Upper Peninsula Steam & Gas Engine Association and a resident of the UP for 40 years. "The practicality of that is probably not realistic. I think where that comes from is that the lower peninsula gets a lot more favorable treatment than the upper peninsula. One example would be if you jump on I-75 and drive over the Mackinaw Bridge to Toledo, and see how many rest areas you see. They're everywhere."
"And then take route 2 from Ironwood to Menominee—" He takes off his hat, emblazoned with the outline of the UP, and traces the route. "If you go from here to here on US-2, which is our equivalent to 75, you'll find one restroom.
"They probably feel that because we're Yoopers, we don't need modern restrooms. We can just use trees."
Chicago, Illinois—The most ridiculous thing about Sen. Roland Burris's tomb at Oak Woods Cemetery on the South Side isn't the fact that it already exists, even though he still does too. It's not the inscription, loaded with trail-blazing factoids like "First African-American in Illinois to become SIU exchange student to University of Hamburg, Germany." It's not even the scale—it's big enough to have its own bench inside, convenient for taking a break from the heat or, depending on how you feel about the Senator's legacy, leaving political offerings.
No, the most ridiculous thing about Roland Burris's tomb is that it's right next to this guy.
Rhinelander, Wisconsin—Well that was fast. In the planning stages of the trip, we set aside four weeks to see the South, and just one week to go pretty much the length of the Mississippi River. And now here we are in Wisconsin, after more or less teleporting around the Midwest (somehow we've still managed to cross the river 17 times). Anyways, stay tuned for a full report on the tomb of America's last great statesman (hint: It's not in Springfield), something called "Chicken Lips," and whether or not Mark Twain would be proud of his hometown if he saw it today.
Mount Olive, Illinois—Before there was Mother Jones, there was Mother Jones, a smart, fearless, rabble-rousing labor leader who dressed up like a nice old lady so that if she got beaten up, it'd make for a more sensational scene. (Actually, she kind of looked like Mrs. Doubtfire.)
Naturally, when MoJo thinking about where to spend her last days, she turned to Mount Olive, where seven martyred strikers from an 1898 shootout with mine guards in nearby Virden, are buried in a UMW cemtery. As Mother put it, "I hope it will be my consolation when I pass away to feel I sleep under the clay with those brave boys." And her cat, too.