EVELETH - A bulldozer pushed dirt along the shoreline at the bottom of the Rouchleau iron ore mine pit in the drizzling rain late Thursday afternoon.
On the opposing side of the mine pit in Virginia, excavators sat on ridges of rock rising out the lake in the mine pit, ready for crews to return to work the next morning.
Construction began Monday to prepare an access space along the shoreline in the mine pit that enables the general contractor, Omaha-based Kiewit Corporation, to begin installing the foundation for a new U.S. Highway 53 bridge across the pit - which involves drilling a 30-inch-wide pipe 175 feet into solid rock, said Pat Houston, project director with the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
When it's done, the highway bridge will span the mine pit for 1,100 feet, standing 250 feet above the pit's lake.
Earlier in the afternoon Thursday, state and local officials gathered at the curling club in Eveleth to celebrate the ceremonial groundbreaking on the 3.1-mile reroute of Highway 53 that will include what Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, called the "highest bridge in all of Minnesota" when completed.
"One of the things they say about the Iron Range is that we do things in a big way. We've got great, big trucks. We've got big shovels. We've got big, big pits. Sometimes they accuse us of having great, big mouths. Now we've got a great, big bridge," he joked to laughter from the audience.
The state has through 2017 to move the highway sitting on land leased from Cliffs Natural Resources since 1960. Cliffs wants to expand its United Taconite Thunderbird mine into the highway's land - although United Taconite is closed indefinitely due to the glut of taconite iron ore pellet imports. Cliffs stated this week that the expansion is part of its long-term plans and elected officials pointed out that the highway will need to be moved because it sits on a iron ore deposit that could be mined.
The Highway 53 relocation project is expected to be completed in the fall of 2017. The construction is expected to cost $156 million, with the total cost of the relocation estimated at $236 million, and Houston said he's confident the project will come in on budget. Highway 53 will remain open during the construction, he said.
Lt. Gov. Tina Smith said the highway relocation project is a "project to be proud of."
"This project is not only a really important road and trail connector, it is such an important project for the economy in this part of the state," Smith said to applause. "Just think about it. Ten million pounds of U.S. steel is going to be put into this bridge. I'm told 27 local contractors and suppliers are going to be working on this project and paid on this project. Forty-one million (dollars) goes into the local economy because of this project and an average of 80 workers are going to be working on this."
State officials touted the benefit of a permanent location for Highway 53.
MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle pointed out that he walks by the picture of the former commissioner who signed the 1960 agreement.
"I look at his face and I think, you know what, this is not going to be 50 years. This is going to be a permanent, quality project and connection for generations and generations and we'll look back and think of how proud we should be of ourselves for starting off and making that happen," Zelle said.
Virginia Mayor Larry Cuffe Jr. said after the groundbreaking that he "thought this day would never come" because of the work needed to relocate the highway. When city and state officials began considering the reroute options, they had only $90 million available.
"I'm happy and relieved we can move this forward," he said.
Officials also noted Thursday the cooperation and collaboration that went into moving quickly on the highway relocation design and providing the funding for it in the state bonding bill.
Among the various reroute options considered, the route across the mine pit will offer only advantages for Virginia because it's economically sound and won't create a bypass for the city, Cuffe said.
During the groundbreaking ceremony, Cuffe noted that elected officials from the Quad Cities - Virginia, Eveleth, Mountain Iron and Gilbert - were in attendance because "it affects all of us."
Zelle echoed that sentiment, saying that the relocation of the highway isn't only about the Quad Cities, but is a highway that provides access to forests and lakes for all Minnesotans.
Rep. Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia, said he's proud of the work completed to move the relocation project forward because it allows the mining industry to continue operating and allows people to continue to travel through the Virginia community.
"We're one of the main thoroughfares to Canada. I really think that, had any other route been selected, we might have been bypassed and people could be going through Bemidji instead and God knows we need those dollars for fill-ups getting spent in our community as people are driving through," Metsa said.