Industrialization & Urbanization of Minnesota in the 1900s

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Minnesota is one of the most economically productive of the Midwestern states. In this lesson we'll look at industrialization and urbanization across the 20th century and see how Minnesota's growth complimented the rest of America.


Minnesota is home to some of the greatest accents in America, and for that we will always love it. But, it's also home to some pretty significant history. Although this friendly state is not always on the forefront of the American national consciousness, America's industrial development could not have existed without it. Throughout the 20th century, Minnesota saw periods of urbanization and industrialization, but these didn't just represent economic booms in the state. They represented trends occurring across the country, trends sustained by Minnesota-based industries. So in many ways, to know the history of Minnesota is to know the history of American industrialization, don't ya know?

The Iron Range

Asides from Viking-related paraphernalia, do you know what major product has been coming out of Minnesota for the last century? Iron. Northeastern Minnesota is an area with such abundant iron deposits that it is called the Iron Range. In fact, one section of this area, called the Mesabi Range, is consistently recognized for having some of the largest amounts of high-grade iron ore in the world. American industrialization really started in the 1870s and 1880s, but the resources of the Iron Range weren't discovered until right around the turn of the century. Minnesota had begun industrializing and urbanizing before this, but the Iron Range is really what facilitated Minnesota's entry into the 20th century.

Miners of the Iron Range

In 1900, Minnesota's largest urban centers were the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Supported largely by logging, flour milling, and the railroad, the three big industries before iron, this was a booming industrial center. Money from these industries supported cultural growth, symphonies, museums, and other attractions. Then, the products of the Iron Range hit the market. This high grade iron spurned an entirely new era of industrial development. The iron had to be mined, processed, and then transported by railway to Lake Superior, where Minnesota boat-makers used it to create iron ships or transported it to Pennsylvania and Ohio. The iron from Minnesota ended up being the backbone of industrial growth throughout America in the early 20th century. It was used for iron bridges, skyscrapers in New York, boats, trucks, factory machines, and everything thing else an industrial society needed. From coast to coast, Minnesota iron supported industrial and urban development. Even Andrew Carnegie, America's steel tycoon, was using Mesabi Range iron for his products.

In 1917, the Iron Range only became more important as the United States entered into World War I and needed to increase its industrial military production. WWI was a short war for the US, only two years, but it was enough to make Minnesota extremely wealthy. Going into the 1920s, the state seemed unstoppable and Minneapolis was one of the great industrial cities of the world.

By the 1920s, Minneapolis was a world-class city

Minnesota and the Great Depression

Unfortunately, in 1929 the stock market crashed violently and America entered into an extended economic decline called the Great Depression. Without the money to support new projects, businesses stopped building skyscrapers, states stopped building new roads and bridges, and as a result the iron industry of Minnesota was hit hard. To make matters worse, a major drought hit the Great Plains and devastated many of Minnesota's farms. With high unemployment and many bankruptcies, Minnesota's labor unions tried to take action by demanding protection for union jobs, higher wages, and better benefits. Some of these strikes helped encourage Congress to pass the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, which guaranteed certain rights of labor unions.

Minnesota and World War II

The public relief programs of the Great Depression did help Minnesota, but what really led to its recovery was America's involvement in World War II. In 1941, America was attacked by Japan at Pearl Harbor, and was drawn into the major global conflict. That meant a need for planes, tanks, boats, and all sorts of things made from processed iron. The Iron Range was back in business, as were the shipbuilding industries on Lake Superior. Throughout the war, Minnesota's cities regained much of their prosperity and prominence in American society.

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