Small towns around the Great Lakes work hard to attract
businesses that will diversify their economies and thrive in a changing
world. This effort is especially important in northern Minnesota, where
iron mining has created a boom-and-bust economy with high
unemployment and low wage jobs. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Stephanie Hemphill reports on how one small town is re-inventing itself
with the ultimate recycling project:
At the northern edge of the iron range, Tower, Minnesota is home to six hundred people.
(sound of cafe)
At the cafe, regulars stop by for coffee. Outside, in the four-block stretch of main street, no stoplights get in the way on the drive to work. People here workin the woods, cutting trees for the paper mill. Or they have summer jobs in nearby resorts, or they drive south, to the mines that are still working.
Just outside of town, the Soudan mine was teh first iron mine in Minnesota. The Soudan mine closed in 1962, and the town has been scraping by since then. Herb Lamppa helped dig the last shaft. Today, Lamppa is the Mayor of Tower.
“We had over three hundred people working there, in three shifts. Can you imagine what it was like when they had to go elsewhere to look for work? It was veyr devastating. And a lot of jobs we’ve got around here are low-income jobs.”
(sound of hoist)
This hoist was built at the turn of the century to drag high-grade iron ore from deep in the earth. Steel from here helped industrialize America and build the weapons that won two World Wars. The mine provided jobs – and a chance to become Americans – for two generations of immigrants.
Down a side corridor, the lights are brighter and the walls are lined with concrete. Here, the old mine is transforming itself, bringing new jobs to Tower and helping scientists learn about the nature of the universe. It’s a room the size of a football field, four stories high, packed with computers and other high-tech gear. The rock walls offer protection from the cosmic rays that bombard the surface of the earth. That makes it theoretically possible to detect proton decay – a very rare event in which a particle inside an atom releases most of its energy by breaking down into other particles.
Jim Beatty is a technician who’s keeping an eye on the equipment.
“There’s a theory that a proton will decay every ten to the thirty-second years or something to that effect, so we’ve got close to one thousand tons of protons stacked up here, and they’re watching it electronically to see if a proton does decay.”
So far in fifteen years they haven’t observed a proton decaying, but they’ve learned other interesting things about cosmic rays. A new experiment will team up two hundred researchers from around the world. They will beam streams of neutrinos from the Fermi National Accelerator near Chicago, through four hundred miles of rock to detectors in the mine. They’ll try to determine the mass of the neutrino, which can help them understand how the universe expands.
The projects are expected to pump nearly twenty million dollars into the local economy. Hardware stores, hotels, and restaurants have felt the impact. A new building is also being built. It will house the assembly plant for the neutrino detectors, and once they’re assembled, the building can be used to incubate other industries. Eighty people will be hired for the assembly work. Mayor Herb Lamppa says those jobs will help, but he’s looking even further into the future.
“I suspect it’s not just neutrinos they’re going to look at, there must be all kinds of other things the physicists will be looking at. I dont know what it’ll be, but there’s any number of subatomic particles that we don’t even know about.”
The researchers come for just a week or two, but Jim Beatty works here full time. He traded a seasonal construction job for a year-round employment with benefits, and he enjoys the contact with other cultures.
“We have members from Russia, China, Greece, the UK, Australia, New Zealand. My friends talk about seeing these strange guys speaking a strange language walking down the street. I tell them it’s not a strange language, it’s physics.”
That’s just the kind of talk that really excites Herb Lamppa. he’s hoping the researchers will contribute a new thread to the culture here.
“If we could get some of these people living here, their families here, it would be a real big advantage to the school system because they’d be children whose parents are interested in math and science. I think it would have a tremendous impact as far as the kids’ desire to learn.”
Lamppa and his friends used their brawn to put food on the table and build a nation. He’s hoping their grandchildren will be able to use their brains to make a living and help decode some of the mysteries of the universe.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Stephanie Hemphill in Tower, Minnesota.