The Long Way Home 12.9.2022

While researching an article on the impact of the shutdown at Northshore Mining operations I was reminded of one of those stories of encounters with the near great that we all like to recall. So here we go.

Reserve Mining is the company that built the country’s first taconite processing plant in 1955 right here on the North Shore in Silver Bay. 

For every ton of ore produced at the plant, two tons of waste, known as tailings, were created and dumped directly into Lake Superior. In the late 60s, sport and commercial fishing groups began complaining that the pollution caused by the tailings was killing fish. Various environmental groups took up the issue as well. By the early 70s, the Silver Bay plant was identified as the source of amphibole asbestos fibers that were showing up in the city water of Duluth. 

On February 17, 1972, the Environmental Protection Agency sued Reserve Mining in Federal Court to end the practice of dumping the tailings in the lake. The presiding judge for the case was Miles Lord, a controversial figure who considered himself an advocate for little guys, and he wasn’t bashful about it.

Asbestos was a big issue in the 70s as its role in causing cancer was just becoming known. National and international media coverage of the trial, and thus Judge Lord, was intense. 

By April of 1974, the pugnacious Judge Lord ordered the taconite plant closed, putting miners and plant workers out of work. Lord was not popular on the Iron Range and loud protests against him took place there and at the Federal Courthouse. By 1976 a six-judge panel of the Federal Appeals court removed Judge Lord from the case which was ongoing.

A few years later, the company I was running was being sued in Federal Court by a railroad over the interpretation of filed tariffs. I wanted to be right so bad that rather than settle it we were going to court. 

Because of the rather small sum of money involved, we would have our case heard by a Federal Magistrate on the appointed day. I planned to meet the attorney representing us, Pat Tierney, at the clerk's office that morning to see where our case was assigned.

Excited by the thought of my first day in a federal court I was awake and dressed early. I drove downtown, parked in the courthouse lot, and went to the basement cafeteria to kill time. I grabbed something to eat and sat in a booth to go over my file. In the booth next to me were three older guys in suits, one I recognized as Judge Lord. It appeared the other two were also judges.

The time came to meet Pat so I headed to the clerk’s office. While waiting for Pat to arrive, Judge Lord blew into the room and went behind the counter, a bundle of activity. While he was there, Pat came in and we stood together waiting for the clerk to be free of the judge.

Lord started to leave as quickly as he’d come when he stopped in front of me, glared up at me, and said “Who are you?” 

“Steve Fernlund,” I said.

“You a lawyer?” 


Then Pat stepped up, told the judge he was my lawyer and introduced himself.

Lord looked at him and said, “Oh.”

Then he looked at me again and said, “I saw you downstairs and thought you were a lawyer.” Then he stormed out the door, slamming it behind him.

A moment later he burst back into the office and said, “Are you related to Fats Fernlund?” 

“That’d be my dad,” I said.

“Well, why didn’t you say something.”

We went on to have quite a conversation. He and my dad grew up in Crosby/Ironton when there was iron ore there. 

Then he said to me, “Did you know your Aunt June saved me from drowning one day in Serpent Lake?”

My reply was, “I bet there’s a number of people who wish she hadn’t.”

Fortunately, that got a laugh.