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Boreal Community Media

An interview with North Shore trailblazer Donna Moe, the first woman hired by Reserve Mining Company in Silver Bay, MN

Mar 28, 2024 07:29AM ● By Content Editor
Photo: Donna Moe, 2024. All photos provided.

By Deborah Winchell - Boreal Community Media - March 27, 2024

Sometimes we take for granted how hard women have fought for their rights throughout history. In 1963, the Equal Pay Act was passed which prohibited wage-based discrimination. In 1974, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) was passed which allowed women to get a credit card in their name. Kudos to the trailblazing women who thought they were just average Janes, but who were paving the way for those today. Silver Bay’s Donna Moe is one of them.

Born in 1941 on a farm in Storm Lake, Iowa, Donna didn’t grow up planning to be the first of anything. However, during the 1940s with media attention given to WWII’s iconic Rosie the Riveter, societal norms began to shift for women. Traditionally, their jobs had been to keep house, take care of husbands, and raise children. Men were sanctioned as the providers and decision-makers of the family. Donna would end up successfully taking on all those roles as the first woman employee at Silver Bay’s Reserve Mining Company (RMC), a single mom, and a licensed caregiver to miners and Veterans. 

Photo: 1958. Donna is the one in the second-row center, with short dark hair.

In 1956, her family moved to Barrett, Minnesota, where she met her husband. He was a former miner who worked as a mechanical maintenance worker at RMC in Silver Bay. They married in 1957, moved into a company-owned trailer court, and eventually purchased a small ranch home from RMC. Donna stayed home and raised their four boys. Her husband wanted her to get a job outside the home. However, in the 1960s in Silver Bay, if you weren’t a teacher or a secretary, options were extremely limited. 

But America was about to change. With the passage of both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX in June 1972, women were experiencing opportunities in education, sports, and eventually in their work and career choices. The road forward for women was long, and it still is.

Photo: 1958. Donna is the one in the second-row center, with short dark hair.

For Donna, it started in 1974, when news came out that RMC would have to hire women. Her husband mentioned that RMC was installing separate bathroom facilities for women. Over coffee, she and a friend sent in their applications that fall. She never expected to hear back, but a year later, she was called in for an interview, asked to complete a physical, and told to report to work two days later. Her first concern was childcare. She stopped at her parents’ house in Silver Bay, flopped into a chair, and told them, “I can’t believe this is happening. I’m going to be the first woman there!”  Her parents agreed to help. 

Donna’s first few days were spent as a laborer pushing a broom, but she was quickly moved to an Operations position in the “crusher.” Being a mother made shift work difficult, although her pay was equal to whatever the men earned for the same position. Fortunately, a job was posted for the Quality Control Lab, and she decided to bid on it because it had more reasonable hours and better pay. Her male colleagues told her she didn’t have enough seniority and discouraged her from bidding, to that, she retorted, “It’s just a piece of paper. I’m going to do it.”  She transferred to the Quality Control Lab in 1978. 

 Lake County News Chronicle, March 31, 1976 (see PDF version via the link below). 

The manufacturing process at RMC started with iron ore arriving by train from the company’s plant in Babbitt, MN, as large chunks of rock. After it was “dumped” at the plant, it was taken by conveyor belt to a crusher, then to a concentrator that reduced it to a powder. The powder was formed into taconite pellets, rolled around in a drum, and dropped into a scorching furnace. The finished product would go through the yard, to the docks, and into the ships to take it out east.

Unfortunately, that process created a huge amount of waste called ‘tailings’ that needed to be disposed of. RMC had been dumping massive amounts of taconite tailings daily into Lake Superior since 1956 (a process initially approved by the State of Minnesota, as the tailings were thought to be no more harmful than sand). In the late 1960s, people who lived on the lake or used it for recreation noticed that the water had changed. Concerned citizens and environmental groups made the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency aware of what they were seeing. The Environmental Protection Agency got involved and took RMC to Federal Court in 1973. The trial, which drew repeated national media attention, lasted over a year. However, the controversy continued much longer while RMC filed appeals and continued dumping the slurry into the lake. Finally, in 1980, the dumping ceased when RMC finished a holding pond for the waste, called Milepost 7 (located inland behind Silver Bay, MN). Those seven years, however, fractured the small community. 

Donna remembers her time at RMC during the 1970s-80s telling Boreal Community Media, “We had big issues with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about those tailings.”  Environmental activists and citizen protestors concerned about Lake Superior’s waters were pitted against people like Donna who were frightened about losing their jobs and not being able to feed their children and pay their mortgages. 

In 1980, RMC hooked up the pipeline from the lakeshore plant to Milepost 7, and the plant shut down for three weeks to complete the project. Many of Donna’s coworkers left for mining jobs out in Wyoming, but some stayed and supported the company. Although she had faith that the company would reopen, she said, “I was divorced by then, and it was easy for the men to just pick up and find work elsewhere. But women like me, we had the children. We didn’t want to uproot our kids. I knew what that felt like as a teenager when my parents moved from Iowa to Minnesota. I refused to do that to my boys. So, I stayed and waited.”

RMC would end up going through repeated layoffs. During a 1982 layoff, she went back to school to become a Nursing Assistant (NA). She took a side job as an NA in Two Harbors, MN, which ended up being a good decision. RMC filed for bankruptcy in 1986. Finally, in 1991, she landed a job at the Silver Bay Veteran’s Home where she worked for 20 years until her retirement. 

Unlike the fact-based character portrayed in the 2005 North Country movie about a female miner on the Iron Range, Donna said, “I was treated well 99% of the time, and there was the other 1% who might say I was taking jobs from the men. Yes, there was that. But I said, ‘My kids are just as hungry as yours’.”  

She laughed when asked if any of her kids went into mining, “No! Thank goodness.”  She’s got nine grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, some of whom are females educated and enjoying careers that once were only reserved for men. Her trailblazing spirit has paid off for her progeny. 

Donna Moe has blazed three career paths. First and foremost, she has succeeded in the lifetime career of single motherhood, second as a groundbreaking female in the mining industry, and third as a licensed caregiver to former miners and veterans who have served our country. 

 She is an inspiration to women young and old, and yet to be. 

About the author


Deborah Winchell is a Duluth-area freelance writer. She runs women’s retreats, is the author of a children’s book, and has spent years visiting the North Shore and Cook County. She’s written several articles for Boreal Community Media and thrives on interviewing the fascinating people of Cook County and the North Shore of Lake Superior.
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