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From an obsolete rail station to a long-forgotten iron mining hub, these four ghost towns in Minnesota can give you a taste of the North Star State’s fascinating past.
Iron ore mines popped up all over Minnesota throughout the nineteenth century. To keep up with the demands, many companies established new towns near the mines so that their employees would have somewhere to settle.
These boomtowns tended to develop and flourish quite quickly—but the subsequent downfall could be just as swift. As a result, you can find stories about abandoned ghost towns all over the state.
Whether you’re a devoted history buff or just working through your abandonment issues, check out this list of abandoned towns and forgotten communities in the North Star State, put together by the car insurance comparison app Jerry. These four Minnesota ghost towns are just waiting to be explored!
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What is the story behind Forestville?
In the 1850s, settlers began to claim land in southern Minnesota. Two families, in particular, the Fosters and the Meighens, created the very beginnings of Forestville.
After Felix Meighen built a general store, more families began to arrive from the East Coast, the Midwest, Canada, and Europe. They established farms and small businesses in town, including a gristmill, a blacksmith, and a couple of hotels.
The Meighen served as lenders to many farmers in the region, but whenever a farmer couldn’t pay, the Meighens would charge a high-interest rate and ask for any landholdings to be put up as collateral. Over time, several farmers defaulted on their loans, and the Meighen family slowly accumulated more and more land. By 1889, they owned the whole town.
When a major railroad was built in southern Minnesota in 1868, Forestville was not along the route, which was the start of a slow exodus. In subsequent decades, several other railroad routes were planned, none of which stopped in Forestville.
The population declined until the general store finally closed in 1910, and Forestville effectively became a ghost town.
What makes Forestville special?
The Minnesota Historical Society has kept Forestville’s surviving buildings well-maintained over the years. As a result, you can get a pretty realistic sense of life in 19th-century Minnesota. If you visit Forestville State Park, here are some highlights:
- Start at the visitor center to learn more about Forestville’s history, pick up a brochure, and peruse the bonnet selection at the gift shop.
- Buy tickets at the visitor center for a guided tour of this historic town, including the Meighen house and the general store.
- Cross the Root River by walking over the historic bridge. After the two previous Forestville bridges washed away, this third one, built in 1899, proved to stand the test of time.
- You can’t drive across the bridge, so you’ll need to park your car in the small lot on the south side of the river.
- Forestville State Park is also the site of the Forestville Mystery Cave, the longest cave in Minnesota. When you sign up for a tour, you will get to explore more than 13 miles of passageways, filled with stalactites, stalagmites, fossils, and hidden pools.
How to visit Forestville
From Minneapolis or Rochester, take US-52 south, then switch over to US-63 south just after Rochester. Turn left on US-63 and continue on MN-16 when it splits off at Spring Valley. Turn right on Fillmore County 5, then follow the signs to Forestville State Park.
Historic Forestville is open to visitors from May to October. Tickets for tours cost $10 for adults and $8 for kids.
To park inside the state park, you will need a vehicle permit.
MORE: Road trip essentials
What is the story behind Mitchell?
Mitchell was originally established as a railway station by the Duluth, Missabe & Northern Railroad Company (DM&N). In order to transport iron ore from the mines in Minnesota’s Iron Range to the ports in Duluth, the company needed workers to service the train’s engine in Mitchell.
Because of this, DM&N built out Mitchell as a company town. Employees lived there with their families, and the town expanded to include a post office and a hotel.
In the 1950s, steam locomotives were phased out in favor of diesel trains, which could travel directly to Duluth from the mines without stopping for fuel. As a result, Mitchell’s rail yard and repair shop were no longer necessary.
The population fizzled out, and the land was eventually annexed by the neighboring city of Hibbing.
What makes Mitchell special?
During its prime, Mitchell was a major contributor to American steel production, especially during World War I and World War II. At that time, Minnesota became the country’s biggest supplier of iron ore, and the miners and rail workers in Mitchell played a crucial role in transporting the raw materials used to make steel-based equipment.
Although most of Mitchell has disappeared, you should visit:
- The Mitchell Engine House, built in 1906, where DM&N workers would repair trains. This is the only remaining building in the former town of Mitchell.
- The Hull-Rust-Mahoning Open Pit Iron Mine in Hibbing, which is the biggest open-pit iron mine that’s still running in Minnesota. This mine has been nicknamed the “Grand Canyon the North” because of its large size and unbelievable landscape.
Pro Tip While you’re in the area, stop by the Greyhound Bus Museum in Hibbing.
How to visit Mitchell
From Duluth, take US-53 north, then take MN-37 west past Cherry. Turn right onto Highway 5, then left onto Shaw Adam Road until you get to Highway 169. You can find the Mitchell Engine House by crossing the highway and going up Burton Road.
Continue on Highway 169 to get to Hibbing.
What is the story behind Mesaba?
European immigrants began settling in Mesaba in the nineteenth century, lured by the prospect of discovering iron ore. At the time, prospectors were looking for mining opportunities across northern Minnesota, and they would advertise the new Midwestern settlements in order to attract a larger labor force.
Three mines were discovered nearby, and the number of people moving to Mesaba increased dramatically. The town had a school, saloons, churches, and more, and it boasted more than 1,000 residents at its peak.
During World War I, the mining operation slowed down quite a bit as many of the miners left town. Even after the war ended, any attempts to rejuvenate the mining business just didn’t work out that well. Plus, newer and more accessible mines had opened in other parts of the region, which drew many families away.
The population continued to leave until Mesaba was dissolved in the late 1940s.
What makes Mesaba special?
A few interesting facts about Mesaba:
- At a certain point, people began calling Mesaba “Old Mesaba” in order to distinguish it from the Mesabi Range, where so many of the iron ore mines were located.
- In order to attract settlers, prospectors would send out advertisements about life in new towns like Mesaba.
- Mesaba residents worked at the Spring Lake Mine, Vivian Mine, or Graham Mine.
How to visit Mesaba
The town of Mesaba no longer exists, but the nearby towns of Embarrass and Hoyt Lakes are located about a 90-minute drive north of Duluth. Head north on Rice Lake Road and keep going straight as it becomes Vermilion Trail and Rudy Perpichmemorial Drive.
At Biwabik, turn right on MN-135 and take it north to Embarrass or take CSAH-100 into Aurora and CSAH-110 to Hoyt Lakes.
What is the story behind Franconia?
In 1852, a man named Ansell Smith claimed a plot of land along the St. Croix River and began to farm. He named the area Franconia, and it soon became a bustling town, as a wave of European immigrants and East Coast transplants arrived and settled there.
Smith was quite involved in the town’s early years—he opened the first store in town, helped build the first sawmill, and even served as Franconia’s first postmaster. Other Franconia buildings included a school and a gristmill. Additionally, shipbuilding became popular in this community.
The population peaked at almost 1,000 people in 1880, but it began to decline afterward due to more prosperous economic conditions in other nearby cities.
There was a bit of a revival in the 1940s and ’50s when many people left the hustle and bustle of Minneapolis and St Paul behind for the slower pace and historical character of Franconia. New residents purchased some of the homes that had remained empty for decades, stopping these buildings from being torn down.
What makes Franconia special?
Although Franconia is nowhere near its mid-nineteenth century heyday, some of the original residences and other buildings still stand.
- You can still see the original one-room schoolhouse in Franconia, which is now used as the town hall building.
- The Paul Munch House is a restored home from the 1850s that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s still a single-family home.
- The Nelson Fuller House (1885) was one of the last residences constructed before the population dwindled.
How to visit Franconia
From Minneapolis, take I-35 north to exit 132, then take US-8 east. Turn right on St. Croix Trail, then turn left on Franconia Trail.
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