The Cuyuna Range is an iron range to the southwest of the Mesabi Range, largely within Crow Wing County, Minnesota. It lies along a line between Brainerd and Aitkin, although those communities are not mining towns. The range was discovered by Cuyler Adams, a surveyor who discovered traces of magnetic ore in 1895 while doing land surveys. The word "Cuyuna" was coined by Adams' wife, who combined the first three letters of Cuyler's name with "Una", the name of their dog. In 1903 Adams formed the Orelands Mining Co.
Mining started on the range in 1911. The ore was located deep underground, as in the Vermilion Range, so most of the mines were developed underground. The ore was also rich in manganese, which was useful during World War I when other sources were not available. At the height of the mining, the Cuyuna Range was the location of the worst mining disaster in Minnesota, the Milford Mine disaster. On February 5, 1924, a new tunnel was blasted too close to nearby Foley Lake, and water rushed in, killing 41 miners.
Mining on the range continued until 1984. Also like the Vermilion Range, mining slowed as it became more economical to extract taconite deposits from the Mesabi Range, which were closer to the surface. Additionally, the surface mines were safer than the mines deep underground.
Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area now occupies portions of the range where mining pits and rock deposit stockpiles were left behind by the miners. The Cuyuna Lakes Trail is also located near the former mines.
The smallest of Minnesota's three northern iron ranges, the Cuyuna was also the last to be opened. By the time ore was shipped from the first Cuyuna mine to Duluth in 1911, Minnesota had already become the leading iron ore producer in the country. In many ways, this range differs from Minnesota's other two great ranges. Here the ore quality varies, some is soft like that scooped from the Mesabi's open-pit mines, some is hard like the ore drilled in the Vermillion's underground mines. The Cuyuna Range is also rich in manganese, an ore at first avoided by miners and later valued for steel production. When World War I cut off U.S. imports of manganese, demand for Cuyuna ore soared. In 1918, one of the Cuyuna's peak years, 27 mines produced nearly 2.5 million tons of ore.
Another difference in the Cuyuna's story can be found in its settlement. Many towns, like Brainerd and Aitkins, were well established before the ore was discovered nearby. Other towns like Crosby and Ironton sprang up when mining began. This meant that vast tracts of contiguous land were difficult for mine developers to obtain. So the Cuyuna Range remained in the hands of smaller, independent mining companies, unlike the large, consolidated mining operations that dominated the other ranges.
Armour Mine No.2, Crosby
Pickands Mather Shaft, near Brainerd
Because much of the Cuyuna's ore lay under lakes and bogs, early attempts to mine it had met with failures as shafts filled with water. Indeed, the 1924 Milford mine disaster was the worst in Minnesota mining history. But far-sighted businessmen like Cuyler Adams and George Crosby persisted, turning the Cuyuna Range into an important supplier of iron ore for the steel industry that fueled the nation's growth.
Cuyuna Mine, Oak Lawn Township, Crow Wing County 1950
Cuyuna Mine, Oak Lawn Township, Crow Wing County 1951