For access to the Mesabi Trail™ from Highway 169, exit onto Hwy 82/7th Street and continue north approximately .3 mile. Trail access is at 3rd Ave. and 7th Street.
Keewatin’s 2022 population was 1,007. It is home to one of Minnesota’s largest taconite steel pellet mining operations, Keetac (Keewatin Taconite).
Keewatin is an Ojibway name translated as “north” or the “north wind.” It is a derivative of the word “Keewaydin” which translates as “the Northwest wind” or “the Home Wind.” It was also the name of a former large Canadian district on the west side of Hudson Bay. If Keewaydin sounds familiar, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow used it in his epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha. The area rock formation that contains iron ore was also called Keewatin.
The late Vic Spadaccini, Sr. was an ‘All Range’ and ‘All State’ fullback in 1933. In 1934 he was the District 28 Basketball scoring champion. At the University of Minnesota, he lettered in football, hockey, and boxing. As a fullback and quarterback he played on two National Championship and three Big Ten Championship teams from 1935-1937 (freshmen could not play back then). In 1937 he was named a Chicago Tribune Collegiate All-American and played in the 1938 College All-Star Game beating the World Champion Washington Redskins. He was also the undefeated heavyweight boxer at the university in 1935 and 1936.
Spadaccini went on to play professionally for the Cleveland Rams (before they moved to Los Angeles) as a quarterback and placekicker. In 1940 he was voted a National Professional League All-Star. He was the league’s 2nd best pass receiver and as a two-way player, played every minute of every game and had more playing minutes than any other player in the league. In 1938 and 1940 he was also voted to the All-Coaches Team.
When WWII started, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force and was asked to play with other professional and collegiate players on service teams to raise money for the war. Those service teams played other professional and top collegiate teams. In 1942 he quarterbacked the Second Air Force Bombers football team to the all-service championship—the only undefeated major football team in the country. He was voted to the Army’s Eastern All-Star Team. In 1946 he played an additional season for the Green Bay Packers.
The late Gino Cappelletti was a celebrated quarterback and placekicker at the University of Minnesota (the Gophers did not kick field goals in those years). As a senior at Minnesota in 1954, he led the team to a 7-2 record, missing the final game with an elbow injury, a loss at Wisconsin. Cappelletti initially played professionally in Canada, was drafted into the U.S. Army and afterwards returned to Canada in 1958 to quarterback his team to the league championship.
He joined the Boston Patriots of the fledgling American Football League in 1960. Initially a kicker and defensive back, he switched to offense late in that season. He won AFL MVP honors in 1964, led the league in scoring five times, and was a five-time AFL All-Star. He was the AFL’s all-time leading scorer with 1,130 points (42 TDs, 176 FGs and 342 PATs) and among the AFL’s top ten all-time receivers in yards and in receptions. Cappelletti had two of the top five scoring seasons in pro football history, with 155 points in 1964 and 147 points in 1961 (14-game seasons).
Cappelletti also returned punts and kickoffs. He scored 18 points or more in a game ten times, 20 or more points eight times, and set the AFL single-game record scoring of 28 points. Cappelletti is the only player in professional football history to run for a two-point conversion, throw for a two-point conversion, catch a pass, intercept a pass, return a punt and return a kickoff in the same season. He once kicked six field goals in a game without a miss. Cappelletti kicked the longest field goal in the AFL in consecutive seasons and led the AFL in field-goal percentage in 1965.
After retiring, Cappelletti worked as a color commentator for the Patriots’ radio broadcasts for 28 years.
O’Brien Reservoir recreation area is two miles west of town along Hwy. 169 and offers a swimming beach, boat launch, picnic area, and children’s play area. The Mesabi Trail runs alongside the reservoir.
Keewatin also has a park on west 3rd Avenue that features a gazebo, log cabin, mining train engine, early underground iron mining rail car, and a veterans’ memorial.
Following the final retreat of glaciers from northeastern Minnesota approximately 10,000 years ago, native peoples migrated north and west. The Dakota people historically occupied the area. Lake Superior Chippewa (Ojibwe/Anishinaabe), the most populous tribe in North America, migrated westward and the Dakota moved west of the Mississippi in the seventeenth century. There were periods of peace and conflict between the two tribes, but the stream of European American settlers into their territories resulted in conflict. The U.S. Government ultimately removed both tribes from their native territories and put them on reservations.
Fur trading between native peoples and French explorers flourished from the 1660’s onward. The first major industry was the wholesale logging of the entire northeastern (‘arrowhead’) portion of the state. Mining followed logging.
The Pillsbury family, which formed the Sargent Land Company, the Longyear, and Bennett families built the village of Keewatin to serve the needs of the Saint Paul Mine, which opened in 1905. Even though it was the site of a huge cedar swamp, the town was platted south of the mine near the Great Northern Railroad spur that was built in 1902 to serve Nashwauk.
Originally an underground mine, the Saint Paul Mine converted to an open pit mine in 1911. A total of 5,670,939 tons of iron was shipped from the mine before it closed in 1964. During that time, other area mines opened and mining continues to this day by Keetac.
The first proposed name of the town was ‘Apollo,’ but ‘Keewatin’ prevailed. The town filed for incorporation on December 30, 1905, but it was not until July 31, 1906 that the incorporation was approved by an election.
School District #9 was formed in 1907. A two-story wooden school building was erected and by 1910 there were 194 students and five teachers. In 1910 a four- classroom school was approved for the Saint Paul Location. The cost of this structure was $22,000 and it was made available for night school classes, one of which was teaching English to the immigrants. Throughout the Range, first rate schools were a priority to attract residents. The first brick school building, Keewatin Grade School, was dedicated 1914. In early 1922, an impressive brick high school complete with indoor swimming pool was dedicated. Keewatin and Nashwauk schools merged in the early 60’s.
Most of Keewatin’s first 24 ordinances dealt with the undesirable behavior that was common in a new mining town. It was even considered essential to license dogs as early as 1906. There was no community water available until 1910. Water was hauled daily from Welcome Lake. Eventually, the Saint Paul Mine installed water for the Captain and foremen in their houses and placed spigots on the streets for the miners’ families. Outhouses were the norm for everybody until a sewage system was installed with a water system in 1910. In 1906, gas lighting was installed on cedar poles along Main Street.
Most of the early settlers were of English and Irish descent, but also included many Scandinavians. As the demand grew for more workers, immigrants from Italy, Croatia, and Slovenia arrived. Boarding houses were common and it is no surprise that the Finnish people preferred the ones with saunas.
The first shacks are still present on Fourth Street, but have been stuccoed over. On First Street, there are still some of the original wooden paving blocks that were laid in 1910 so that horse hooves would be protected and the mud eliminated. There are still remnants of the guard posts at the entrances of the school, which together with fencing kept the cows out of the school grounds. Everyone had a cow, pig, and chickens because there was no refrigeration even after electricity became available. Because cows grazed wherever there was grass, homeowners fenced their property and even today there are many fenced yards.
Most of the Italian immigrants were particularly fond of wine and many early grocery operators had entire railroad cars of grapes brought in every fall along with tons of sugar so that wine could be made. Italians liked wine, but life was also hard and drinking helped cloud the hardships of life in a mining town. Miners often worked 14 hours a day, six or seven days a week, for minimal pay. They were unable to take vacations and had to go to work even if they were sick, or risk getting fired. There were few safety measures and miners had to pay for their own treatment if they got hurt.
Keewatin celebrates Independence Day with fireworks and a street dance on July 3rd. It hosts a parade, games, and other activities on July 4th. Also on the July 4th, the “Two Town Ten Trillion Nanomoter” foot race is held on the Mesabi Trail between the communities of Keewatin and nearby Nashwauk.
There is a gas and convenience store in town along with a dollar store.
The Mesabi Trail™ has been funded in part by the LCCMR and the Minnesota Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund.