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The Rise and Fall of Iron Ore Empires: Dr. Jeffrey Manuel Charts Industrial Decline

The Rise and Fall of Iron Ore Empires: Dr. Jeffrey Manuel Charts Industrial Decline

What happens to industrial regions after industry leaves? In our current age of globalization, many parts of the United States, including Illinois, have had to deal with this difficult question. This question also motivates the research of Dr. Jeffrey Manuel, assistant professor in the Department of Historical Studies at SIUE, who is interested in deindustrialization, the processes caused by the decline of industry. Some examples of this process in the U.S. include the automotive industry in Detroit and St. Louis, as well as manufacturing in Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Buffalo.

Dr. Manuel’s current research focuses on efforts to prevent a decline in the iron ore mining districts around Lake Superior, including Minnesota’s Iron Range region. “The Lake Superior mining districts were a crucial source of iron ore for the steel industry throughout the twentieth century,” Manuel notes. “Yet as early as the 1910s and 1920s, it appeared that they were declining in output and in employment. What makes the region stand out historically is that they did everything possible to prevent industrial decline."

The way that technology and culture have served to fend off industrial decline in the Iron Range region is also of particular interest to Manuel. According to him, “Technology was used in the form of low-grade iron ore pellets, a new way of processing iron ore that reinvigorated the region in the 1960s and 1970s, yet this seemingly miraculous technological fix led to some unanticipated problems, such as the shutdown of older mines that were unsuitable to the new technology and large-scale environmental problems with the waste from the new mining process.” This, Manuel said, illustrates one of the lessons of his research: technological fixes for declining industries rarely, if ever, come free of negative consequences, although they can be difficult to predict. “The costs of these new technologies,” he said, “are often found in unexpected places.”

Manuel's research is also involved in examining how the Iron Range region used culture, especially industrial heritage tourism, to diversify its economy in the late twentieth century. A large museum and research center was built in the region to celebrate its mining heritage, but quickly found itself the subject of controversy due to its mission and finances. “As with technology,” Manuel said, “there is no ‘silver bullet’ solution for the challenges facing deindustrializing regions.”

A recent recipient of an SIUE seed grant, Manuel has been conducting a new project examining the history of corn ethanol in the United States during the twentieth century with a focus on the substance’s political support. This research was recently featured in the journal Technology and Culture and will appear in several forthcoming edited collections. He is also working on a book with the working title, North Country Blues: The Struggle to Sustain Industrial Mining on Minnesota's Iron Range, 1915-2000, currently under contract with the University of Minnesota Press.

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