Giants Ridge is located northwest of Duluth, Minnesota in a town called Biwabik. The name “Biwabik” is an Ojibwa Indian word that means “valuable.” It is also derived from “Biwabiko-nabik-wan,” which means “iron”. That is no surprise. This area, known as the “Iron Ridge,” has long been valued for its rich ore deposits, the largest in the country.
The area is also known as The Mesabi Range and Biwabik was the first in the range to be incorporated as a village. It also has several other “firsts.” It was the first Mesabi Range town to be served by two railroads; it had the first large ore mine on the Mesabi; and its mine was the first to use a steam shovel.
Resting in the valley of the Embarrass River once traversed by Indians and fur traders, the Giants Ridge site was an Indian camping ground. Prospectors passed through on the Vermilion Trail during the 1865-1866 Lake Vermilion “gold rush.” In 1891, the Merritt party discovered a high-grade ore at what later became the Biwabik Mine. A town site was then platted overlooking Embarrass Lake and named Merritt for the pioneering family.
In 1893, when the railroad ran its line to Biwabik, and Merritt was almost destroyed by fire, Merritt’s inhabitants moved to Biwabik. A story is told that Biwabik’s first beer was floated down the Embarrass River on a raft from Merritt.
When the Biwabik Mine began operating in 1893, John T. Jones of the Biwabik Ore Company conceived the idea of using the steam shovel to strip the overburden from the ore. Although many experienced mining men laughed at this proposal, a steam shovel was hauled overland by horses through the forest from Mesaba Station.
After a short time, this method proved itself and other Mesabi mines began using steam shovels. The era of open-pit mining had begun. By the time the Biwabik Mine ceased operations in 1956, it had shipped over 25 million tons of iron ore.
Giants Ridge owes its recreation origins to a group of local skiing families who didn’t want to travel long distances to participate in the winter sport they loved. A group now referred to as “Giants Ridge Founders” were young families in the 1950’s on the Iron Range, where there wasn’t any place to ski other than rocky and rugged mine dumps. The nearest ski area was hours away, so the group began looking for something closer to home. They selected the spot, what is now Giants Ridge, and in 1958 went to work with axes, ropes, and borrowed equipment to blaze a ski run out of the woods.
The group spent its summers cutting down trees and the falls cutting brush. The first run, “Ram’s Run,” was skied that 1958 winter. Founder Duane Ramfjord recalls that there was no mechanical way to get up the hill, so skiers sidestepped up the hill and skied down. The next winter, a rope tow was installed, allowing skiers to grab onto the rough hemp line as a modified three-ton Mack truck engine pulled skiers up the hill. In addition, an overhauled 1949 Plymouth was used as the power source on the beginner runs.
The first ski chalet was a structure sold to the group by a local mining company, and it served its purpose as a warm-up building. The first amenities were an outhouse and a concession area that used a camp stove and water hauled in gallon buckets each day.
“The Hill had all the ingredients required – things like challenging and moderate terrain, and proper non-direct sun exposure – and we were young and tough enough to think we could make it into a really successful winter recreation area,” said Ed Karkoska, an original founder, in a 1978 Mesabi Daily News interview.
The Founders group changed from a non-profit to a for-profit corporation in 1960, sold stock and took out an $80,000 loan to continue operating the facility. The next 20 years presented many struggles and an abundance of hard work.
Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB), a locally-based Minnesota State agency with the mission of economic development, had the obligation to develop jobs and looked to recreation to get it done. The agency bought the facility in 1984 and paid off the mortgage and debt. IRRRB had four goals for the Giants Ridge Ski Area: Create economic development; provide recreational facilities to enhance the quality of life for people of the Iron Range; attract private sector development; and create a year-round recreation destination.
The first expansion phase at Giants Ridge included new snowmaking and grooming equipment, chairlifts, outdoor lights, a new chalet and a sports dormitory. In 1984, Giants Ridge was named as the United States Ski Association’s first regional Nordic training facility for Olympic hopefuls.
Giants Ridge had its second major ski expansion in 1991, with a chalet expansion, the addition of 15 kilometers of cross-country trails, and a privately developed condominium/villa on-site lodging complex.
As the ski area continued to expand in the early 1990s, golf was booming nationwide, and the majority of new courses were upscale and public. The IRRRB had one last goal to achieve for Giants Ridge: make it a year-round destination, and championship golf was the answer.
In 1994, construction began on the first golf course. At that time, ski area expansions also took place. The Northface of the Giants Ridge mountain opened with 10 new alpine ski runs and a new lift, bringing the total alpine runs to 34. And, an additional 10 kilometers of cross-country trails were added.
The Legend golf course opened for play in 1997. Writers from Golf Digest named it one of the 10 Best New Upscale Public Courses in the Nation. The course has also received a 4-1/2 star rating by Golf Digest’s “Best Places to Play” for eight consecutive years. In 1999, The Lodge at Giants Ridge (onsite hotel) opened at the base of the ski area and adjacent to the Legend. The Lodge featured 93 suites, banquet and catering facilities for up to 300, a full-service restaurant and lounge, and an indoor heated swimming pool.
2001 brought national accolades to Giants Ridge. For the first time, the ski area drew similar accolades to the nationally-recognized golf course. The addition of the Lodge at Giants Ridge and the Legend golf course put the ski area on the national radar and the customer base began to change, as ski guests were not only local, but also families from the Twin Cities, Chicago, Iowa, and Wisconsin.
Today, Giants Ridge is not only one of the Gopher State’s biggest golf and ski resorts, it is also one of the single largest employers in the eastern region of the Iron Range and continues to have a tremendous impact on the local economy. Giants Ridge has grown from a local ski hill attracting day visitors within a 50-mile radius to a four-season recreation destination attracting 100,000 guests each year from Minnesota, the United States, and Canada. Giants Ridge provides extraordinary connections to nature and recreation in the True Minnesota Northwoods, and thousands of guests that visit each year leave with new memories of wonderful experiences with friends and family.
The town of Biwabik has become a travel destination. The community, a trailhead of the historic Mesabi Trail, is the home of the “Honk the Moose” statue, a well-lit paved walking trail and a sledding hill. True to the ethnic diversity of Iron Range communities, Biwabik treats visitors to its unique Bavarian style. It has become the area’s year-round center of attraction, hosting thousands of Alpine & Nordic skiers and snowmobilers, golfers and anglers. Biwabik is host to several seasonal festivals including the Fourth of July, on which Biwabik presents the area’s largest Callithumpian Fourth of July Parade; and Weihnachtsfest (the first Saturday in December), a Christmas lighting celebration complete with fireworks, ethnic food, music, and entertainment.