Our Changing Gears project is on the road, bringing you stories of towns where one company still affects everybody's lives.
We've been to Wisconsin, and Illinois.
Now reporter Kate Davidson takes us to Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
That's where North America's biggest supplier of iron ore has been blasting the earth, and creating jobs, for more than 160 years.
The city of Ishpeming is small. It's a place where you can't throw a rock without hitting a miner. Like Steve Carlson. After high school he worked 37 years for the mines.
S CARLSON: When I started as a young man, all the old bucks set you straight on the do's and the do nots. And what you want to do is go home every day to your family.
K HIETIKKO: The first day there I thought, what am I getting myself into here?
Ken Hietikko operates an enormous shovel at the Tilden and Empire open pit mines outside of town. They're deep craters that have produced more than 450 million tons of iron ore. Hietikko runs the machinery of giants. The first time he saw it, he was struck with awe.
K HIETIKKO: And I still am. You know this is me running this great big piece of equipment. And, and supplying a living for a lot of people in our area. And supplying iron ore to the world actually.
Hietikko calls mining is a dinosaur industry … one of the last places where a blue-collar kid with little education can make good money for life. As for Ishpeming, it wouldn't exist if this company hadn't started mining the UP in 1848.
D Hemmila: What we tell people is that steel in North America really begins here in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
Dale Hemmila is with Cliffs Natural Resources, aka Cleveland Cliffs. We're standing at the edge of the company's Empire pit, which stretches nearly a mile long and a mile wide. Here, the miners extract low grade ore to be processed into higher grade pellets.
D Hemmila: Well, the pellet is about the size of a marble. And literally we create billions of them on an annual basis here.
Pellet prices are high right now - countries like China and India are using a lot of iron ore, to make a lot of steel. And that's good for Cliffs. Dale Hemmila says when you add up payroll, taxes, electricity and supplies … the company has a regional economic impact of more than 830 million dollars. That includes 600 employees in Ishpeming and lot of other people who rely on the economic oxygen of the mines.
S SUNDQUIST: This right here are the women's boots that we carry.
Like Sandra Sundquist. Where else besides Ishpeming could a gal sell 800 pairs of steel boots a year?
S SUNDQUIST: We do have an issue in the UP of wide feet, and we actually call them pasty feet. They need extra wide boots.
She has them in stock at Wilderness Sports downtown. And down the road is a big guy, Lee Woods, who provides giant tires for those giant haulers.
L WOODS: This tire weighs 10,500 pounds. It's twelve and half feet in diameter and these are just almost 50,000 apiece.
Which all begs the question: How long is this gonna last?
J OTTENWESS: Well, the iron's gonna run out sometime. The ore'll run out sometime. I don't know when.
Jered Ottenwess is Ishpeming's city manager. He says it's hard to do long range planning when the local economy is so dependent on one company.
J OTTENWESS: What's Ishpeming gonna look like in 25 years? Well that's entirely predicated on whether Cliffs is still gonna be here, operating those mines. If they're not, what's our economy actually going to look like?
All of Marquette County is trying to grow tourism, education and health care, which are already big employers. But the city manager worries Ishpeming won't diversify fast enough. Meanwhile, Dale Hemmila says Cliffs is trying to extend the life of the Empire pit to 2015. He says the Tilden Mine should operate another 30 or 35 years … depending on economic viability.
For Changing Gears, I'm Kate Davidson, in Ishpeming.