Underground Mining on the Mesabi Range

Miners at work in an underground drift

Photo Credit: Underwood & Underwood, acquired through the Minnesota Historical Society

Underground mining of natural iron ore deposits occurred on the Mesabi Range in northeastern Minnesota from 1892 to 1961. The Mesabi Range is the ledge rock exposure of the Biwabik Iron Formation, a geological feature that stretches in length for just over 100 miles, from west of Grand Rapids in Itasca County to east of Babbitt near the St. Louis / Lake County line. Mining activity, past and current, along the Mesabi Range averages 1.5 miles in width, while the Biwabik Iron Formation can reach thicknesses as great as 500 feet.

Sixty-nine years of underground mining activity have resulted in an extensive network of surface subsidence and potential subsurface voids along much of the Mesabi Range. Surface subsidence is the result of caving done intentionally at the time of mining or caving that occurred naturally as underground structures and overlying rock weakened with the passage of time. These structures range in age from 47 to 116 years old. Subsidence is manifested today as sinkhole depressions, pools, ponds, lakes and, most notably in recent years, road and structure damage. Voids remaining from uncollapsed or incompletely collapsed underground mine workings impact area hydrology and pose unknown risks to existing and potential surface developments, infrastructure, present-day open-pit mining operations, and public safety.

There were three methods of mining natural iron ore used on the Mesabi Range: open pit, underground, and milling. One to all three methods could be utilized at a given mine. Often a mine would start out as an underground operation and later become open pit. Open pit mines may host scramming operations via adits into pit walls, thus employing underground methods.

Mining Methods

Milling was a combination of open pit and underground mining. It was of particular use for a thick, narrow ore body lying at the surface that had restricted access for rail and truck haulage out of a deep pit. The overburden was removed by steam or electric shovel. A shaft was then sunk just off the ore body and drifts were cut below the ore body. From these drifts, raises were put up to the surface, typically every 50 to 100 feet. Ore was milled from the surface into chutes in the raises. The chutes were emptied into tramcars that transported the ore to the hoisting shaft, where it was brought to the surface.

Timbering after blasting in the Godfrey iron mine

Photo Credit: Gerald Young, acquired through the Minnesota Historical Society

Initially, underground mining on the Mesabi Range involved bottom-up ore removal on a given level. Rooms were opened (stoped) by means of square sets, a framework of timbers that could be stacked multiple sets high. This made for dangerous working conditions in the soft ores of the Mesabi Range. Square setting was soon replaced, for the most part, by top-slice drifting, a top-down mining method whereby the ore was removed in slices from the top of a given level.

Top-slicing the Mesabi ores involved extensive use of timber to frame the slice drifts and support the roof. Following removal of ore in three to four slices, smaller timber, rough-cut lumber, and / or chicken wire was used to line the floor and the unmined wall. Charges were set into the vertical support timbers and these were blasted down, caving the roof and surface above. As mining continued downward, the surface was successively caved with it, leading to subsidence features seen today as water-filled depressions.

For a complete description of these mining methods please consult the literature below, particularly van Barneveld, 1913. These selections will provide the reader with a real-time look at mining and mining methods from the early years on the Mesabi Range.

Selective Bibliography

Milling system of mining Mesabi iron: Engineering and Mining Journal 96:545-46. Sept. 20, 1913. (1)
Concklin, B. M.
Special method of mining on dangerous ground on the Mesabi Range: Wisconsin Engineer 16:326-27. Apr. 1912. Reprint: Engineering and Mining Journal 93:1219. June 22, 1912. (1)
Crane, W. R.
Ore mining methods. New York, 1910. Working by sub-drifting as employed at the Susquehanna Mine at Hibbing. Pp.139-141. (1)
Cronk, F. B.
Shaft sinking on the Mesabi Range: Wisconsin Engineer 19:297-98. Diagrs. Apr. 1915. Abstract: Engineering and Mining Journal 99:119. June 26, 1915. (1)
Crowell and Murray, 1911
The Iron Ores of Lake Superior, The Penton Publishing Company, Cleveland, OH, 195 p.
Davenport, L. D.
Caving system in Chisholm district: Engineering and Mining Journal 94:437-39, 511-13, 559-60. Illus. Sept. 7, 14, 21, 1912. (1)
Davenport, L. D.
Inclined shaft for timber on the Mesabi: Engineering and Mining Journal 99:776-77. Diagrs. May 1, 1915. (1)
Davenport, L. D.
Shaft timbering in Minnesota iron mines: Engineering and Mining Journal 94:830-31. Diagrs. Nov. 2, 1912. (1)
Davenport, L. D.
Top set slicing in the Chisholm district: Engineering and Mining Journal 95:276-277. Diagrs. Feb. 1, 1913. (1)
Denton, F.W., Prof., 1898
Methods of Iron Mining in Northern Minnesota in Transactions of the American Institute of Mining Engineers (Chicago Paper), Vol. 27, 48 p.
Gerry, A. L.
Iron mining on the Mesabi Range: Engineering and Mining Journal 94:693-96. Illus, diagrs. Oct. 12, 1912. (1)
Kellogg, L. O.
Notes on Mesabi Range mining practice: Engineering and Mining Journal 97:695-99,749-52. Apr. 4, 11, 1914. (1)
Kennedy, Todd.
Caving system in Chisholm district: Engineering and Mining Journal 94:775-76. Illus. Oct. 26, 1912. (1)
Martin, H. E., and Kaiser, W. J.
Application of mining machines to underground mining on the Mesabi Range: Lake Superior Mining Transactions 18:187-91. Illus. 1913. Reprint: Mining and Engineering World 39:602. Oct. 4, 1913. (1)
Merrill, P. C.
Top-set slicing, Mesabi Range: Engineering and Mining Journal 95:950. Illus. May 10, 1913. (1)
Sill, R. T.
Underground mining on the Mesabi Iron Range: Mining and Engineering World 25:663. Dec. 1, 1906. (1)
van Barneveld, Charles E., 1913
Iron Mining in Minnesota: University of Minnesota, Minnesota School of Mines Experiment Station, Bulletin No. 1, 215 p.
Wolff, J.F., 1917.
Recent Geologic Developments on the Mesabi Iron Range, Minnesota in Transactions of the American Institute of Mining Engineers (New York Paper), Vol. 56, 28 p.

(1) Listing was obtained from Gregory, Winifred, 1915, Bibliography of Minnesota Mining and Geology: University of Minnesota, Minnesota School of Mines Experiment Station, Bulletin No. 4

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