Unorganized Territory

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Life in unorganized territory
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All aboard at Taconite Harbor

Thu, 07/30/2015 - 3:32pm

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?

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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

 * To see a fantastic video of the last Cliffs Erie train leaving Taconite Harbor and going through that tunnel, click here.
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Taconite Harbor was on the right track

Wed, 07/22/2015 - 11:18am

In 2007, Taconite Harbor celebrated its 50th year of operation in Schroeder.

Just after we put last week’s issue “to bed” we received the disheartening news that Minnesota Power was going to idle the Taconite Harbor Energy Center in the fall of 2016.

I felt sick, thinking of all the friends who work at the plant, who rely on their job there to be able to live here on the North Shore.

I understand that Minnesota Power will try to help the 40-plus employees find work elsewhere. But that means families will have to either have long-distance lives or will have to leave their homes. It means taking kids out of schools and spouses away from well-established jobs in the community. I’m heartbroken for the Taconite Harbor folks who are facing this overwhelming change.

In addition to feeling sad for the families, I’m concerned about the impact this will have on our county’s economy. Minnesota Power is a major commercial taxpayer—will the value of their property be as high for a shuttered power plant as an operational one?

Will our schools, which are already struggling with declining funds because of decreased enrollment, be able to carry on with even fewer students? How will our clinic and hospital absorb the loss of that many families with decent medical insurance?

And, if the power plant ceases to exist, will it nullify our relationship— and therefore the credit we get on our property taxes— because we reside in what was a taconite district?

Will the idling have an impact statewide? According to Minnesota Power officials, when running at full capacity the Taconite Harbor Energy Center provides electricity for about 120,000 residential customers. Will taking that much electrical production out of the statewide power pool drive rates higher across the board?

Although hints of the idling have been coming for years, I didn’t really believe it would happen. I grew up with the power plant in Schroeder and went to school with kids who lived in the bustling town of Taconite Harbor. Crossing the county line and coming into Schroeder to see the billowing white steam clouds was part of coming home.

I know the cause of the closure is a mix of market forces and environmental issues. But as a kid I didn’t think much about the health effects of coal. As an adult, living away from the North Shore, I remember hearing environmental concerns about emissions from coal burning power plants. But truthfully, I still didn’t think much about it.

When our military family lived in Mannheim, Germany in the late 1970s, I was more bothered by the towers of the nuclear power plant we drove by on a regular basis.

The ugly side of coal was revealed to me on our second stint in Germany. When the Iron Curtain started to slip in 1989 and Czechoslovakia opened its borders to American tourists, we took advantage and visited Prague.

Our family was welcomed kindly by the Czech people. We enjoyed seeing the Prague Castle and the Charles Bridge, which is featured in the opening scene of the first Mission Impossible movie. I bought an exquisite crystal vase and a matryoshka doll and we enjoyed crepes made by street vendors. It is an amazing town and we could see why it is sometimes considered equal in beauty to Paris.

I did notice though, that the stunning old buildings were dingy. A haze hung over the historic city. We enjoyed the trip nonetheless, but when we returned to Germany the subject came up. I asked why the former communist country seemed so smoggy? I was informed that it is because of the prevalence of coal—and the lack of environmental oversight.

I was glad then, when I moved back to Cook County in 1995 and started working at the local newspaper to learn—and write about— Minnesota Power’s efforts to meet and exceed the standards of the Environmental Protection Agency and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. I was pleased to work on articles detailing the millions of dollars being invested in the plant to reduce its sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury emissions while producing power.

But recently I’ve been troubled by the push to eliminate coal from our country’s portfolio forever. For some groups no matter how low the emissions go, it is not low enough.

I’m not an engineer, but Minnesota Power’s plan to keep improving its coal burning techniques made sense to me. We need power to operate our computers and charge our cellphones and heat our houses. I don’t think enough power can be generated from wind farms and solar panels for all of us. I’m not an energy broker, but I think coal needs to be part of our country’s energy portfolio— especially coal that can be processed in compliance with U.S. standards for emissions.

I’m not a scientist, but I thought Minnesota Power was on the right track in Schroeder. I’m sorry it won’t get to continue down that path.

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In times like these it helps to recall that there have always been times like these.

Paul Harvey


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America’s Coolest County?

Thu, 07/16/2015 - 9:43pm

It is nice to see community members celebrating the designation bestowed on the city of Grand Marais last March by Budget Travel magazine, America’s Coolest Small Town. There’s a banner hanging over Wisconsin Street, coasters in cafes and bars and stickers in nearly every business window announcing that Grand Marais is “the coolest.”

It is something to celebrate that Grand Marais beat out much bigger towns like Fort Myers Beach, Florida; Old Orchard Beach, Maine; Pismo Beach, California; Snohomish, Washington; or Washington, North Carolina. But our little town on the bay didn’t do it alone. To get more votes than these larger towns, it took a concerted effort by all of Cook County—organized or unorganized!

It also took the participation of friends and families beyond our borders. People who lived in Cook County in the past, people who want to live in Cook County in the future, all went to the Budget Travel magazine website every day for more than a month to vote for Grand Marais.

It would be nice if the award was for America’s coolest county. Because not only did the entire county help Grand Marais win the honor of America’s Coolest Small Town, there are many other cool spots all over the county.

That is why this newspaper is the Cook County News-Herald, not the Grand Marais News- Herald. That just doesn’t sound right. Because for 124 years, the community newspaper has shared the activities of residents and visitors from the Cook/Lake county line to the Canadian border, from the Lake Superior shoreline to the end of the Cramer Road, the Sawbill Trail, the Caribou Trail, the Gunflint and the Arrowhead Trail.

Sometimes the news is about disasters— devastating wildfires, tragic accidents or extreme weather events; sometimes there is conflict amongst the citizenry. But overall there is some pretty cool stuff in the News-Herald every week.

My sister-in-law Nicole and I at the finish of the 4th of July Tofte 10K — one of the cool (albeit muddy) events in the cool County of Cook!

The 4th of July weekend is a perfect example—there were celebrations all over the county. As I strolled around the Hovland Arts Festival, hiked the Tofte Trek and watched the Tofte parade, and joined the Girl Scouts in the Grand Marais parade, I was reminded time and again of how nice it is to call Cook County home. Everywhere I went, there were fun activities, good music, and someone I knew cheerfully calling out, “Happy 4th of July!”

It felt a little surreal. No one in Cook County has a perfect life. Sometimes it’s hard to live here. A lot of us work multiple jobs to be able to pay our rent or mortgage. There are people with medical challenges who face a long and bumpy road to Duluth or beyond for treatment. It’s hard to find fresh fruit and vegetables because we’re at the end of the food delivery route. Winters are long and often bitter cold. Summer brings vicious mosquitos and black flies. And there are no 24-hour stores to visit for last-minute needs.

But on the 4th, it seemed that everyone forgot the struggles and came together to celebrate our nation’s birthday. Independence Day was a big countywide, party and we were all invited to take part. That’s pretty cool.

Maybe we should lobby Budget Travel to sponsor an America’s Coolest County contest. I know there are some special places that could be considered, such as El Paso County, Colorado with Pike’s Peak and the Air Force Academy; Norfolk County, Virginia with the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and stunning Virginia Beach; Marin County, California with the Golden Gate Bridge and giant redwoods, King County, Washington, home to the Space Needle and Pike Place Market; and of course nearby Door County, Wisconsin with its five lighthouses and trolley and ferry rides.

Maybe that’s not realistic. Those counties all have much higher populations and landmarks more renowned than Cook County. So we likely would never win the title of America’s Coolest County. Maybe that is why we all are so happy about the Grand Marais title.

We may not all live within the Grand Marais city limits—or even in the unorganized territory of Grand Marais—but it is our town just the same. And that is pretty cool.

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What we seek when we wander usually leads us back home.

Gina Greenlee


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