Mitchell, MN:

Its Ghost Town and Roundhouse

“To your left, the tour would go, “is the humble town of Redore—that’s one word—and on the right is Mitchell, Minnesota”

“…and straight ahead you will see the reason the towns are here—indeed, why we are here—Duluth and Iron Range Railroad’s Mitchell Yards and its famous Engine House, built in 1906 if you can believe it!”

…and you would believe it, by the texture of the bricks, smooth-edged from a century of rain and snow.

Of course, there is no tour; no Redore, no Mitchell, and no rail yard. Not anymore, not since the age of the steam locomotive.

One thing remains.

The Mitchell Engine House.

And it will outlive us all, it seems.

The bricks are decaying at different rates at this corner, making it especially colorful.
The bricks are decaying at different rates at this corner, making it especially colorful.

Twin Ghost Towns and Mitchell Yards

The Duluth, Missabe & Northern Railroad carved out the town of Mitchell, now gone, for its employees in the adjacent rail yard. The Mitchell Yard would serve as the primary staging area between Hibbing and the ore docks in Duluth. This was a time when the most important machine at a railroad’s disposal was its workers’ bare hands.

David Aho, the owner of Mitchell Engine House, poses beside the boiler.
David Aho, the owner of Mitchell Engine House, poses beside the boiler.

A rail yard needed men, and men need a place to sleep and eat.

Workers living in Mitchell were responsible for ensuring the smooth flow of iron ore from Hibbing area mines, including the famously massive Mahoning-Hull-Rust Mine, to the rail yards in Proctor, another staging site and the last stop for ore before it was hauled down the hill to the Duluth ore docks.

The Mitchell area was roughly divided into three sections: the yards, including a 12-stall roundhouse and repair shop; Mitchell itself, a company town consisting of 20 houses and a hotel; and a smaller community to the west of Mitchell, which called itself Redore for the Iron Range’s lifeblood: the dark red hematite the town’s resident miners pulled from the earth. Mitchell is likely named for Peter Mitchell, a prospector whose test pits near Hibbing did much to encourage industrial development in the area.

The town of Mitchell was an improvement over the boarding camp at Mitchell Yards it replaced. Its houses were designed to accommodate several men in close quarters, or a small family. The Mitchell Hotel stood two stories high and could accommodate about 100 men. The hotel advertised its services in the Hibbing newspaper, but always served the railroad’s interests before those of the traveling public. The majority of its patrons were laborers stranded temporarily between the Mahoning-Hull-Rust Mine rock crushers and the ore docks.

While there were few luxuries near the yards, residents could brag to neighboring towns that their main street, Mitchell Avenue, was paved. The only thing that the town of Mitchell seemed to lack was a road connecting it to Hibbing.

Until a road was built, everyone and everything came and went over rail.

A Map of Mitchell and Redore in 1925, as drawn by the DM&IR.
A Map of Mitchell and Redore in 1925, as drawn by the DM&IR.

As families grew, so did the town’s borders, although it was a slow process. In fact, most of the expansion took place across a set of tracks that ran North-South into the yard, at Redore. The satellite of Redore would expand to include 13 houses. Oddly, the local post office was established in Redore rather than its larger, older twin. Stranger still, the post office was on the Mitchell side of the tracks, because it had more reliable road access to Hibbing.

A typical train heading from Mitchell to Proctor, a two-hour trip, would be pulled by a Yellowstone engine, followed by 180 70-ton ore cars and a caboose. Steam machinery required constant servicing, so the railroad positioned major yards on each end of the ore line.

Inside The Mitchell Engine House

There are no more towns of Mitchell or Redore—not even foundations. Its residents moved either up the line to Hibbing or down the line to Two Harbors or Duluth.

There are no more trains—not even tracks. After diesel trains replaced steamers, there was no need to have an intermediate stop between the mines and docks to take on coal, water, and sand.

All that’s left is one building, the circa-1906 Engine House. If you were to spend a couple of days inside, as I did, this is what you would find.

Train Shed

Looking toward Mitchell from its last building.
Looking toward Mitchell from its last building.

The essential part of an Engine House is its shed—the space where the business of fixing and storing locomotives takes place.

Although the rails are gone, where they were bolted to the poured concrete floor is obvious. A maintenance trench that used to run between the rails so that work could be done below the engines is filled in with gravel, but it is interesting to see where they used to run. One wonders if there is anything buried in those trenches.

One of the few man-sized exterior doors, seemingly with an original frame. Classic arching and beautiful textures--every inch of wall had me drooling. If this engine house was in a metropolitan area, it would have been turned into a $10 million white collar office suite ten years ago.
One of the few man-sized exterior doors, seemingly with an original frame. Classic arching and beautiful textures–every inch of wall had me drooling. If this engine house was in a metropolitan area, it would have been turned into a $10 million white collar office suite ten years ago.

Circuit breakers for welders and air compressors are still bolted to the walls beside carvings in the bricks by bored workers. Initials, addresses, nicknames, and dates mark where the employees would smoke and mingle, all waiting for the next engine to roll in. Overhead, rusty metal vents mark where Yellowstones idled under the scrutiny of the Mitchell mechanics.

Perhaps the most impressive part of the shed itself is its doors. There are three pairs of heavy steel doors that swing open from their centers on each side of the shop. Some of the glass remains in them, but vandalism seems to have been a problem in the past. On the inside rear of each door is the original sign warning there was “No Clearance” between it and any locomotive moving into the shop.

Because everything about the shop is on a giant scale, the proportions change as one walks through the train shed. If you walked from one end to the other, you would look back where you started and wonder why it took so long.

Boiler Room

The Engine House's boiler, which would have been fired all day all day, virtually from the day the shop opened until the day it closed.
The Engine House’s boiler, which would have been fired all day all day, virtually from the day the shop opened until the day it closed.

It is my belief that every industrial heritage site has at least one ‘hidden’ gem. For the Mitchell Engine House, this is its boiler.

Across the top, molded into the steel are the words “DULUTH, MISSABE, & NORTHERN” for the company that commissioned it, what would become the Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range. The front is all steel and two large doors cover the reversing chamber, where pipes guided pressurized water above the firebox’s flames, instantly turning that water into steam.

Below are the access doors to the fire tubes, where coal would be manually shoveled year-round from a bucket-fed bunker directly in front of the boiler. The shop had a special set of RIP track where coal cars would empty into a large concrete bunker. The boiler would have to be fed year-round regardless of the temperature because the shop equipment needed the steam to run equipment. Would you like to be the person tending the boiler in mid-July?

Locker Room

A porcelain basin in the locker room is detached, but shows excellent patina. I hope when the machine shop is repurposed that this can be saved.
A porcelain basin in the locker room is detached, but shows excellent patina. I hope when the machine shop is repurposed that this can be saved.

Once accessible by a set of stairs from the former machine shop, now to get to the locker room one must climb a ladder and walk across a section of concrete roofing. Because this is on the Iron Range, some workers called this locker room a dry house, after the place where miners would change their clothing. Presumably, dry house contrasts wet house, where workers would shower.

The locker room is my second favorite space in the Engine House because it retains a 50s-era basin where workers would wash up before and after work. It is large enough to accommodate a half dozen or so men, coming off the job from the shops and train barn below.

Where the boiler represents the industriousness of the shops, the basin shows that it was flesh and blood that really powered the operation.

Details: Brick Graffiti at the Engine Shop

The End of Mitchell Yards

The coal hopper adjacent to the machine shop fed both the boiler house and steam locomotives. Note the children on the coal bunker.
The coal hopper adjacent to the machine shop fed both the boiler house and steam locomotives. Note the children on the coal bunker.

The route from Mitchell to Proctor was essential to the success of the Mesabi Range; steam power was not.

In the 1950s, the Duluth, Missabe, & Iron Range Railroad—created in 1937 with the merger of the DM&N and the DM&IR—began converting its fleet of locomotives from steam to diesel. This change, along with advancements in communications technology, rendered Mitchell obsolete. Long, expensive marshaling yards were no longer needed. Control was centralized and repairs could be done in larger, more distant, yards.

Sprouts of life in center of a smashed glass block.
Sprouts of life in center of a smashed glass block.

In May of 1960—almost a decade into DM& IR’s conversion to diesel—a DM&IR inspection train with a crew of 11 rolled though the Mitchell Yards. Soon after, the railroad announced that it would not upgrade the Mitchell shop for diesel service. Furthermore, the merger allowed eastbound traffic to be consolidated, bypassing Mitchell altogether. It was the end of the yards—and the beginning of the end of the town.

By the mid-1980s, only two of Mitchell’s almost 40 buildings remained, and Redore was already erased. All that was left was the 12-stall repair shop and an abandoned house; today, the latter is gone.

An aerial time lapse of Mitchell Yards and its ghost towns.
An aerial time lapse of Mitchell Yards and its ghost towns.

Help Save Mitchell

David Aho, the current owner, acquired the shops in 2006. His mission is to save the Engine House and convert it into a metalworking school for disadvantaged children and museum to racing.

Mitchell Engine House tells stories that are relevant today, and will continue to be relevant.

We live in a time of disposable buildings; this steam locomotive repair shop is just the opposite. It is crafted, distinctive, irreplaceable.

Camera: Pentax 67.
Camera: Pentax 67.

The Engine House tells the story of Hibbing’s rise and the fall of steam power. It speaks to the steel that built skyscrapers and won two World Wars. It could remind young people that Minnesota is more than a place with ten thousand lakes—we have a strong history, and Minnesota’s citizens have the right to be proud of it.

If you think Mitchell is worth saving, the easiest thing you can do is Like the Mitchell Yards Facebook page (link), where current owner David Aho is keeping the public up-to-date on his preservation efforts.

References »

  • Missabe Railroad Historical Society. (1987 & 2003). Ore Extra.
  • Lynch, Dan. Mitchell Area. http://mitchellenginehouse.org/Dan_Lynch.pdf
  • New Round House. March 05, 1906. Hibbing Daily Tribune.
  • Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, 1926, Sanborn Fire Insurance Map Company.