Iron and Water: My Life Protecting Minnesota’s Environment
By Grant J. Merritt. (University of Minnesota Press, 198 pages, $24.95.)

 

In March 1970, a Twin Cities magazine cover featured a photo of raging effluent pouring out of a mining company’s chute into Lake Superior. That discharge — 67,000 tons of taconite tailings a day — eventually was halted after a landmark court case in which environmental considerations prevailed over profits.

One of the figures at the center of the Reserve Mining case was Grant Merritt, a Twin Cities lawyer and environmental activist who arranged for that damning photo to be taken, and who went on to serve as Minnesota Pollution Control Agency chief.

In his memoir, “Iron and Water: My Life Protecting Minnesota’s Environment,” Merritt presents an insider’s account of the battle to stop Reserve, and other major pollution enforcement actions. At just under 200 pages, it’s a quick (and sometimes disjointed) read, sprinkled with anecdotes involving Minnesota luminaries like Hubert Humphrey and Miles Lord, and many of the unheralded state employees and activists who protected Minnesota’s natural resources.

Merritt has a unique perspective, especially on the Reserve case, because it was the Merritt family that in 1887 discovered a large chunk of iron ore near present-day Mountain Iron and a few years later opened the first iron ore mine on the Mesabi Iron Range, only to be swindled out of their vast holdings by John D. Rockefeller.

Dennis J. McGrath

 

Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad & Criminal in 19th-Century New York
By Stacy Horn. (Algonquin Books, 304 pages, $27.95.)

“Ice cold water — into my eyes, my ears, my nose and my mouth. I think I experienced some of the symptoms of a drowning person as they dragged me, gasping, from the tub.” First-person description of waterboarding? No, it’s bath time on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island), located right next to Manhattan in the East River. That description comes from famed reporter Nellie Bly, who went undercover there in 1887 but whose vivid tale did little to bring an end to inhumanity on the island, where it was common for one-quarter of the population to die each year.

The issue, as author Stacy Horn sees it, was that the poorly funded public institutions relegated to Blackwell’s Island in the 19th century — a prison, but also a “lunatic asylum,” a poorhouse, a quasi-hospital and a home for children — treated residents of those places pretty much the same.

The jacket of her book, “Damnation Island,” boasts a haunting, black-and-white photograph that hints it will be a true-crime thriller along the lines of “The Devil in the White City.” Horn does have quite a story to tell, complete with horrifying abuse of the poor and shocking mistreatment of women (routinely jailed as insane for “offenses” that ranged from not speaking English to demanding their own rights), all of which reveals problems that haven’t gone away.

Horn is not the engaging writer that Erik Larson is, and her non-chronological structure gets repetitive, but she’s a dogged researcher.

In fact, perhaps the biggest stunner in “Damnation Island” is not that this behavior occurred but that the abusers felt so justified that the meticulous records they kept made it possible for Horn to write this book.

CHRIS HEWITT