All aboard at Taconite Harbor

Rhonda Silence
starnews@boreal.org unorganizedterritory.me

Last week I wrote about the looming closure of the Taconite Harbor Energy Center in Schroeder. I’m still sadly waiting to hear how the impending idling of the plant will affect the many people I know at the plant.

I am trying to be hopeful that Minnesota Power will find a way to “re-purpose” the plant. Minnesota Power Vice President of Strategy and Planning Al Rudeck told News-Herald reporter Brian Larsen that the company has a “Community Investment Committee” that will work to re-purpose the plant.

Rudeck talked about possibilities such as converting the plant to a wood products center. Minnesota Power is investing in wind, solar and natural gas—perhaps there is a way to make something like that work in Schroeder. I’m skeptical, but again, hopeful.

It is good to hear the Minnesota Power executives talking about the other “valuable assets” in Schroeder, including the port and the rail line. In fact, the rail line gives me a little glimmer of hope. Not through the transport of taconite pellets however. That is unlikely. But how about converting the long-idle rail line to a scenic railway?

It wouldn’t offer 40-plus jobs as the Energy Center does, but if it only added a few jobs to our struggling economy, it could help. And, as our economy becomes more and more tourism-based, this could be a draw, an incentive as the tourism groups keep saying, “to stay another day.”

People love trains. Our family has taken several scenic railway trips in our travels, such as the Cripple Creek Narrow Gauge train in Colorado. It was only four miles long and it was exceedingly slow, but the tour guide was entertaining and it brought the history of the old west to life.

We have a model we could emulate in Duluth’s North Shore Scenic Railroad. I don’t know if the North Shore Scenic Railroad is a break-even or moneymaking operation, but it sure is a tourism draw. Duluth and The Depot have done an admirable job marketing the railway, with pizza trains, a Murder Mystery Train and for the kids, a Day with Thomas tour and the Polar Express.

A train ride from Taconite Harbor to Hoyt Lakes would not need as much hype because the scenery alone would sell the trip. There are a few folks still in our community who have taken that ride who could bear witness to the great views.

I know that at some point along the route there is a really cool tunnel. It’s one of my earliest hiking memories. For some reason a large group of us, my parents, sister, cousins, aunts and uncles drove to the railroad tracks and went for a hike atop the grade. We came to the tunnel and there was debate as to whether or not we should hike through it.

My uncle Clayton, who worked at the plant—then North Shore Mining—said we should go for it, but cautioned us children that if a train came, we should lie down and press up against the wall as tightly as we could so we wouldn’t get sucked under the churning iron wheels.

Now, looking back from my adult vantage point, I am sure that Clayton knew the train schedule and knew there was not the slightest danger that a train would be passing through as we hiked. I’m sure he chuckled at our sheer terror as we got further and further into the tunnel and the thought of a train coming made us go faster and faster. I will never forget how scared my cousins and I were. We wanted to climb over the mountain to get back to the car!

But I will also never forget how lovely the scenery was at both the entrance and exit of the tunnel. The view of Lake Superior was exquisite.

In addition to offering magnificent scenery, the scenic railroad could provide a history of the trains that stopped operation in 2001, the mining industry, and the power plant and of the towns and hardworking people that built it all. I’d take a ride—how about you?

The United States, as we know it today is largely the result of mechanical inventions, and in particular of agricultural machinery and the railroad.

John Moody

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