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It snowed all day and night on Sunday. By dawn, three feet of snow covered the Mesabi Iron Range. Lois Jenson warmed her delicate hands on her coffee mug as she looked out the window of her small house in Virginia, Minnesota. She glanced at the clock on the kitchen wall: 6:15. She drank the last of her coffee and set the mug in the sink. It was Monday, March 25, 1975, Lois's first day of work at Eveleth Mines. If she didn't want to be late, she had better give herself some extra time. The day shift started at 7:00 a.m. In this weather, it would not be a twenty-minute trip.
Luckily, her turquoise Ford Maverick rode high over the road, and though she had to inch along on Highway 37, she could clear most of the snow on the two-lane road, which cut a straight line through the austere landscape of aspen, birch, and jack pine. In the distance she could make out the three twenty-story stacks of the mine's Forbes Fairlane Plant, each mounting a tall white column of smoke in the bitter northern Minnesota sky.
At the town of Forbes she turned onto the long drive leading to the plant. Up ahead, a man flagged her down. She saw his pickup buried in a snow drift and when she discovered that he, too, was on his way to the plant, she gave him a ride. His name was Clarence Mattson. He told Lois he was an electrician and that he'd worked at Eveleth for ten years. He seemed like a decent guy, and he mentioned that the men were bellyaching about how, starting today, they had to behave themselves and clean up their language. He showed her where to park in the employee lot and where she should enter the enormous plant. The truth was, she felt relieved to be arriving at this place accompanied. The closer she got, the more it looked to her like a steel monster with tentacles jutting out from all sides. But, she thought, as she stepped out of the Maverick and into her new life as an iron miner, "If everyone's this friendly, I'm going to like this job."
As Lois and Mattson walked the fifty yards uphill to the main building, they were quickly joined by dozens of men. Most of them were streaming out of the building, dirty and tired after working the midnight shift; the rest were arriving to punch in for the day. Lois noticed that these guys were staring at her. She was twenty-seven years old, with shoulder-length wavy blond hair, blue eyes, and pale, clear skina Scandinavian beauty with a slender waist and an elegant long neck. She was used to feeling men's eyes upon her, but this time it was different. It felt as if the men had never seen a woman before.
Lois hurried into the trailer Mattson said was serving as the women's changing room while the mine built its four new female miners a permanent "dry"a term left over from the days when miners worked deep underground, often in several feet of water. The "dry house" was where they changed into their clean clothes at the end of a shift. Because of the snow, Lois's three female colleagues hadn't made it to their first day of work, so she found herself alone in the small, barely heated room. The starkness of the quarters startled her: twelve steel lockers, a table, four chairs, and a shower, sink, and toilet stall, none of which worked on account of the cold. Waiting for her in the locker room was a white hard hat with a blue stripe and the name jenson printed on the brim in block letters, a pair of men's size six Red Wing work boots, and clunky plastic protective glasses. In the unheated room, she changed into thermal underwear, a sweatshirt, a down vest, gray-and-blue striped coveralls she had bought the day before, the boots, plastic protective glasses, and hard hat. She stood in front of the mirror over the sink and burst out laughingthe person in the mirror looked like an auto mechanic, not a mother. Lois held her breath for a few seconds and walked out into the plant, where her first task was to go on a tour.
The Forbes Fairlane Plant evoked fear in a newcomer. Dominated by four cavernous buildings, the fine crusher, the surge, the concentrator, and the pellet plant, the facility sprawled over 2.3 million square feetas if all 102 floors of New York's Empire State Building (2.1 million square feet) were spread end to end across the snowy Iron Range. That didn't even include the Thunderbird Mine, two open pits devouring 8,600 acres, from which spewed the iron ore-rich taconite rock that was mined. The plant operated 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and consumed 70 megawatts of electricity per hourabout as much as the neighboring cities of Virginia, Eveleth, and Hibbing combined. The year the women started, the management of Eveleth Mines had ordered Forbes Fairlane's production capacity be expanded from 2.4 million tons of taconite pellets a year to 6 million tons. Everywhere she looked, Lois could see construction crews at work upgrading and enlarging the facilities.
Taconite rocks contain between 20 and 30 percent iron ore, a foreman explained to her. The taconite was blasted out of "the pit," as everyone called Thunderbird, which was located nine miles away, on the outskirts of the town of Eveleth. There, the boulders were loaded into trucks and brought to the pit's "primary crusher," where they were broken down to the size of footballs. A long line of railroad freight cars transported the rocks from the pit to the plant. The taconite was then carried by conveyor belt to the fine crusherthe first stop in a long, pulverizing processwhere the rocks were ground into taconite gravel.
The crusher was outfitted with eighty-foot-high rock-crushing machines and a dizzying maze of conveyor belts. Before she could even take in the scene, Lois was gagging from the black dust that filled the air, like thick smoke in a crowded bar. She could barely distinguish one thunderous machine from another as she struggled to adjust her eyes to the haze. Sticky dust coated her exposed skin and hair, suffocating her. Even more disorienting was the noise. The crusher spoke in a giant, booming voice and the constant smashing of the rocks in the teeth of the machines made earplugs mandatory. Because the dust contained cancer-causing silica, the men also wore white paper masks over their mouths. The earplugs and the mask plunged Lois into a kind of isolation she had never experienced in a workplace before.
She was grateful for the relative peace of the concentrator, her next stop on the tour, until its foreman, John Maki, led her up to the building's catwalks. Unaccustomed to the weight of her work boots, Lois could barely lift her legs as she and Maki climbed higher. The clunky metatarsal guards on top of the boots kept catching as she stepped from one platform to another. Until now she had not known that she was afraid of heights. Skyscrapers in Minneapolis had never bothered her. But now she couldn't bring herself to walk to the edge of the grated catwalk and look straight down ten stories.
The first purpose of the concentrator was to grind the gravel to a sandlike consistency, using rod mills, which were large rolling tubes containing steel rods. Another set of revolving drums filled with magnets then separated the iron-bearing grains of ore, or "concentrate," from the waste rock, or "tailings." After passing through the crusher and the concentrator by way of a labyrinth of conveyor belts, the wet concentrate arrived at its final destination, the pellet plant.
The dirt here was overwhelming. The air, walls, and floors in the pellet plant were filled and coated with black soot the consistency of flour. Her every step left a footprint as she walked out of the service elevator on the top floor of the building and gazed down 100 feet at a panorama of revolving steel machines all lined up in rows like dryers in a monstrous Laundromat. These were the huge round rotating balling drums, churning and thundering so powerfully that they made her heart race. The balling drums rolled clockwise all day, shaping wet black concentrate into round, marble-sized pellets. Thousands of black pellets rolled inside the drums on the first floor of the pellet plant. They were then hardened in a 120-foot-long rotating kiln fired at 2,400 degrees. The end product was millions of smooth, heavy black pellets containing 65 percent iron ore, ready to be loaded onto train cars for the 60-mile trip to the Lake Superior ports of Duluth and Two Harbors. From there, the pellets were loaded onto huge freighters and shipped to steel mills in Chicago, Gary, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh.
The plant challenged Lois's basic assumptions about a workplace. With no sun and no air, it felt primitive, menacing. The workday would be regulated not by people but by huge, ferocious machines and literally tons of dirt. The size and might and violence of the place made Lois realize that she would have to toughen up. The job would demand more than physical strength, however. For although her coveralls, boots, hard hat, and protective glasses had effectively desexed her, everywhere the foremen took her, the miners stopped what they were doing, gathered together in small groups, and stared. She didn't know a man there, yet everyone seemed to know her.
In 1975, mining put food on the table for 12,300 families on the Mesabi Iron Range, and provided the foundation for the economy of all of northern Minnesota. Minnesotans call the thin, ore-rich seam that stretches 110 miles long and 1 to 4 miles wide from Grand Rapids in the west to Babbitt in the east "The Range." The region amounts to less than 2 percent of the landmass of Minnesota, yet it is the largest iron-ore deposit in the world. For the past century it has produced 30 percent of the world's and two thirds of America's iron ore. Blasted in furnaces into steel, the ore and taconite from the Mesabi's tiny strip of land has provided the raw material that built postindustrial Americaits buildings and bridges; its railroads, cars, and military arsenal. Rangers, as they call themselves, pride themselves on working hard, drinking hard, and surviving hard times at the hands of the mine owners. They were used to fighting for themselvesstrikes were their way to better wages and work safety. In 1975, the heavily unionized mines provided some of the highest-paying blue-collar jobs in America. Wages at Eveleth started at $5 an hour (the minimum wage was then $1.80 an hour), and included good health care and retirement benefits. But because this good life was threatened by layoffs or, worse, by permanent cut-backs, the miners lived with an engrained sense of job insecurity, hostile to any force that might displace them.
Up until the mid-seventies, the women on the Range who needed or wanted to work were store clerks, teachers, bank tellers, secretaries, and waitresses. Few of these jobs came with health care coverage or above-minimum-wage salaries. But in April of 1974, nine of the country's largest steel companies signed a "consent decree" with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the U.S. Department of Justice, and the Labor Department. The settlement forced the steel companies to hand over a historic $30 million in back pay to minority and women employees who had been discriminated against in the past. It also required the industry's mills and mines to provide 20 percent of its new jobs to women and racial minorities. Just like that, affirmative action had come to the Iron Range, and it set the stage for Lois Jenson and a handful of women desperate for a decent wage to walk into a place that had been forced by the federal government to hire them.
There is a saying about the Range: "Where the men are men and half the women are, too." But from the start, Lois was not like the other women at Eveleth Mines, or, for that matter, like most women on the Range. Feminine and ladylike, standing only five-foot-two and weighing a mere 105 pounds, Lois took pride in her appearance. She manicured her nails, wore perfume, and was known for her trademark scarves, artfully tied and color-coordinated with her outfits. The fact that she wore outfits set her apart. "In some ways I'm different from people around here," she said. "I always like to dress up. Even if I went out to Mugga's, our local place to dance, I would wear blue jeans with a dressy sweater and high heels."
She was different in other ways, too. She wrote poetry in notebooks that she carried with her. She exuded a sense of propriety that men, particularly those she turned down when they asked her to dance at Mugga's, took for conceit. She was a unique combination: stubborn but prissy, moral but flirtatious. She had a sense of herself that even her high school classmates at Babbitt High School had perceived. The quote they picked for her yearbook picture in 1966 read, "Don't dare me, I might surprise you."
Most people on the Range rarely drove the sixty miles south to Duluth, yet Lois had moved even farther downstate to Minneapolis/St. Paul after she graduated from high school, where she found work as a file clerk at an insurance company. She loved living in Minneapolis, loved how the people in the Cities were open-minded and well educated. But the Cities also brought her trouble. In 1967, a man she met at a party forced her to have sex with him in the backseat of a car. When she went to the police department to report the date rape, she watched as police interrogated another woman so cruelly that Lois walked out the door and never reported the crime. She became pregnant from the rape and bore a son, Gregory, in January 1968. With nowhere else to go, Lois took the baby home and lived with her parents in Babbitt. When Greg was six months old, Lois left him in the care of her parents while she went to secretarial school in Minneapolis, making the 230-mile drive to Babbitt each weekend. After receiving a legal and medical secretarial degree, she took a secretarial job at an insurance company in Minneapolis and brought Greg to the Cities to live with her.
In 1969, Lois discovered that her high school sweetheart was back from Vietnam and living in Minneapolis. They fell in love. After a hard labor with Greg, Lois had been told by her doctor that she had a tilted uterus and could never get pregnant again, but in the winter of 1969, she discovered the doctor was wrong. She and James Larson had made plans to get married, but when Larson learned of her pregnancy, he broke off the relationship. At the hospital Lois decided to name the baby girl Tamara, then she put the child up for adoption. A week after giving the baby up, she visited her at a foster parent's home. The baby was covered in urine and had terrible diaper rash. Overcome with emotion, Lois changed her mind and demanded to keep her daughter. At age twenty-three, she found herself alone with two-year-old Greg and a new baby.