When I first started out in journalism I worked for a website that paid per click and gave readers my email address. This is usually not a good combination for anybody, but especially not for a young, female journalist working on the Internet. Most of the emails I got were terrible in a whole variety of ways, and yet I read them all because I was young and thought perhaps they could teach me something. Then I got an email from a man we’ll call Jake.
The subject line read “I'm from Eveleth,” and even before I opened it, I could imagine what it might be. I expected some self-satisfied commenter inventing an entire planet named Eveleth—based on my last name—where the rules of gravity and facts don’t apply, because clearly I had lost my grip on reality. But that wasn’t what it was at all.
Instead, Jake turned out to be a nice man in his early sixties who had encountered my work in a strange way. You see, he actually was from Eveleth—the town of Eveleth, Minnesota. He’d moved away decades ago, to Minneapolis, and on a whim decided to set up a Google Alert for “Eveleth” to keep up with the local news of his old town. But all he ever got were my articles (which he liked, thankfully).
This is how my obsession with Eveleth, Minnesota, began.
I don’t know a lot about my family’s history. Like most people, I had an intrepid, if eccentric, aunt who got really into genealogy in the 1990s, and, like most people, I never really paid attention to her. But one thing she said always stuck with me: All people with the last name Eveleth are related. According to family legend, the surname was made up at Ellis Island when our original moniker—Eveleigh—proved too hard for the immigration officer to spell. So when Jake asked me if I was related to Edwin Eveleth, the lumberjack after whom his hometown is named, I felt pretty confident saying yes.
Then it was my turn to ask Jake questions. Tell me about Eveleth, I said. What’s it like?
Eveleth was once a boomtown. Seated at the foot of Minnesota’s Iron Range, the town was one of eight outposts that supplied 90 percent of America’s iron ore in the 1930s and 1940s. The city’s first indoor hockey rink went up in 1918. The schools were built in the 1920s. In 1973, the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame opened, and downtown Eveleth still boasts the world’s largest hockey stick—110 feet long and weighing in at 10,000 pounds.
But Jake also told me that things in Eveleth aren’t as rosy as they used to be. In what was once a lively town, the mining industry collapsed, the population thinned, and businesses went away. Between 1900 and 1910, Eveleth’s population grew 155 percent, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. At its peak, the town held about 7,500 people. Today there are just 3,000. The main street, Jake told me, is almost all empty buildings now.
So I went to look at them.
Okay, I didn’t go to Eveleth. It was winter and I couldn’t justify the cost of flying from New York City to Range Regional Airport in Hibbing, Minnesota, and then renting a car to drive east to Eveleth. But, then again, I didn’t have to. Google had already driven the streets of Eveleth for me.
I spent the better part of a day walking around Eveleth in Google Street View—mostly oblivious to the irony of navigating a collapsing mining town with my mouse, a symbol of the era that destroyed Eveleth’s main industry.
It probably would have taken me less time to actually walk through town—the whole city is less than seven square miles, and the downtown area is only a handful of streets. I saw the church, city hall, and the giant hockey stick.
I saw cute little houses with weather-worn siding, yards full of dirt and broken down trucks, cars decorated with American flags, and Marge’s Drive In Liquor Store lined with planter boxes full of flowers.
I saw people walking dogs, and a woman giving a Google car the middle finger outside Lenny’s After 4-Eva Tat-2’s, the town’s sole tattoo shop.
(She is, right?)
I also saw the empty buildings Jack described—some windows blocked by broken curtains, others uncovered, letting you peer into abandoned, dusty spaces. There’s the empty short brown building sitting empty next to Penalty Box, a hockey themed bar. (When I called Penalty Box to ask if anything had moved in next door, no one answered. I’m always going to be years behind on Eveleth because Street View offers just a snapshot from a moment in the past.)
There’s the boarded-up brick storefront next to Grant Avenue Station, a restaurant that boasts a “full menu” on its awning. The neon signs from Tuna’s hangs half broken over the closed door, and across the street is a shuttered gas station. Eveleth has been left behind, no longer pumping out iron ore, and without a place in the increasingly digital economy.