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image of mine headframe at Soudan Underground Mine State Park.

Drop Into History

On a quick trip toward the center of the earth, tourists glimpse a part of Minnesota's steely past.

By Tim Brady

Most of the 40,000 annual visitors to Soudan Underground Mine State Park no doubt steer toward the mine headframe, which rises over the town of Soudan like a steel-girdered water tower, minus its tank. It is the most visible landmark around, and it holds an elevator that lowers park visitors 2,341 feet beneath the surface of northern Minnesota to examine the remnants of the state's first iron mine.

In days gone by, the "cage" carried miners into the darkness below, where they chipped and blasted iron ore from beneath a ridge on the south shore of Lake Vermilion. Now its passengers are tourists and the scientists who work below in the Soudan Underground Laboratory managed by the University of Minnesota.

The Soudan mine became a state park in 1963, after U.S. Steel donated its property to the state. The 1,100-acre park has picnic spots and hiking trails, but the big draw is the mine -- the first iron ore mine in the state, which was also the first mine that operated underground rather than in an open pit. The bottom of the mine shaft is the closest a tourist can get to the center of the earth in the whole state of Minnesota.

Online Extras:

Tales of an Old Soudan Miner

Retired Soudan mine employee Herb Noreen, interviewed by Tom Rukavina for an oral history project on September 8, 1983, talks about:

His father, who started in the mine in 1894

His own experiences in the mine

On this hot August day, I'll be a first-timer touring the iron mine. But before we go underground, park manager Jim Essig and I climb into his pickup truck for a short drive. Essig wants me to understand the lay of the land.

We head for the lake, just over the hill from the headframe and mine shaft. Down a winding road to the shore, we come upon dozens of tin sheds built by miners, mostly in the 1920s, to house their fishing boats. Linked shoulder to shoulder, these boathouses are weather-worn but still in use by local families. They have been added to the National Register of Historic Places, and the surrounding Soudan Underground Mine State Park has been deemed a National Historic Landmark -- two salutes to miners and the work that was done here.

Ancient Rock

From the lakeshore, we hop back in Essig's truck and he steers up the hill, driving less than a half-mile before he pulls to the side of the road and takes me to a rock outcrop protruding from grasses and sandy soil. Thin layers of banded jasper in shades of gray and red spill out from the earth in waves frozen in time for 2.7 billion years.

The patterns at our feet are the meshed work of ancient volcanoes, ancient seas, and the earth's shifting plates. Millions of years before humans began to clock the ages, volcanoes laid down layers of molten lava, which oozed over deposits of iron-rich sediment at the bottom of the sea. While the rock was still pliable, the earth shifted and shifted again, until it had turned the layers of iron-rich sediment into solidified waves.

The fact that this particular outcrop is so ancient and stunning makes it a star in the world of geology. A gang of scientists from Mississippi State University has been visiting recently to inspect it. And a film crew from the Discovery Channel just finished shooting here for a documentary on banded jasper (a stone prized for its beauty).

Of course, not everyone in the region's history has been wowed by Soudan's banded iron. In fact, the first miners to come to Lake Vermilion in the 1860s ignored it. They headed for the lake looking for gold. For a short time, a relatively intense gold fever ensued. But by 1870, all the stakes had been pulled as prospectors discovered that the gold existed in quantities too minute to mine with any semblance of profit.

The real mining boom came a few years later, ignited by a Pennsylvania attorney and land speculator named Charlemagne Tower, who sent a geology professor in his employ to the wilds of Minnesota to confirm claims that an abundance of iron ore was to be had in the Lake Vermilion area. Tower subsequently invested in property here and financed the railroad needed to haul iron to Lake Superior bound for steel mills in the East. Then he brought in a crew of mostly Cornish miners from the iron districts of the Upper Peninsula in Michigan. By 1882 these workers had begun the hard, dangerous work of mining the iron ore.

Soudan -- the mine, and eventually the town -- got the name from the first superintendent of mining in the 1880s. With tongue in cheek, he compared winters in the region to those of Sudan in north-central Africa.

Underground Innovation

The hills along the main park road are pockmarked with more than a dozen pits -- evidence of the first efforts to work the ore here in the 1880s. Today the pits form small, rocky canyons, partially hidden by woods.

Miners dug the pits with picks, shovels, hand drills, and blasting powder. Teams of three miners would head into the holes. The one with the least experience would hold a star bit -- basically a rod with a sharpened end -- and trust that his two more experienced partners, taking turns with hammers, would not miss in their labors.

This was how work was done here at Soudan in the first iron ore mine in Minnesota, which would become the biggest iron ore producing state in the nation. The Vermilion Iron Range would turn out to be a mite compared to the giant Mesabi. But the ore pulled from Soudan had the distinction of being the highest grade ore in the state and some of the highest grade in the world.

Unlike the expansive, terraced, open-pit mines of the Mesabi range, the quarries at Soudan show no evidence of heavy machinery at work. They are small at the surface and angled toward the veins of iron. The deeper the miners dug, the more dangerous the work. As they steered toward the ore, they would blast and dig under overhanging rock, which always threatened to come tumbling down. Deaths from these collapsing overhangs likely prompted the decision to make the Soudan an underground mine.

As the underground mine went deeper and the operation grew, the number of miners expanded. The original Cornish workers were joined by a potpourri of ethnic groups, which poured into the Iron Range at the turn of the 20th century.

Cadillac of Mining

The buildings that currently stand alongside the mine headframe were constructed around 1900. The visitor center was once the changing area for the miners. Today it holds a gift shop, a theater that plays a film on the historic mine operations, and a counter -- where I pick up my hard hat for a trip into the mine.

Railroad tracks run beneath a rock crusher nearby. The crusher turned large chunks of iron ore into smaller pieces for the steel mills. The sound of ore being pulverized was so loud and constant in the community that when the mine shut down in 1962, townspeople described the silence as like the stopping of a beating heart.

To the west of the headframe, a brick engine house holds the electric hoist used to raise and lower the cage elevator. Allen Kosir, a 29-year veteran of the park and the nephew of an underground miner (many of the park employees have mining backgrounds), operates the cage from a raised chair that faces a giant drum that unwinds and winds cable to raise and lower the cages. When the machinery needs repair, the maintenance staff usually makes the replacement parts. As Essig explains, "If you have a broken piece from a 1924 Allis Chalmers hoist, you can't just go down to the hardware store and replace it."

As we begin our descent, the cage gives a little rock and shimmy. It runs on tracks angled toward the ore deposit. All seven or eight of us take a deep breath as the cage picks up speed. When it was a working mine, the Soudan had the reputation of being the "Cadillac of mining operations" because of its safety. The rock here is so hard and so sturdy that the mine didn't require any wooden beams to prop up the walls and ceiling.

Two and a half minutes later, we get off on the 27th level, the deepest mining location at Soudan. Off in each direction are long tunnels called drifts. To the left of the elevator is the University of Minnesota lab, a large space filled with modern gadgetry that looks a bit incongruous in this historic place.

A set of tracks and mining carts are here as well. We climb into cars constructed for the tour and head three-quarters of a mile down the drift. We stop beside winding stairs that lead to the stope, the working area of the mine. Here the miners hammered away at the ceiling -- called the back of the mine -- letting gravity help as much as possible in getting the heavy ore to the mining carts, which carried the chunks of ore back to the shaft.

Our tour guide gives a brief history of underground mining technique, highlighting the ingenuity, the courage, and the physical toughness of the men who plied their trade here. The first miners here worked under the light of candles mounted on their helmets. They pounded away at the toughest ore in the state and were paid pennies on the ton for their labor.

To give a better sense of their surroundings, the guide dims the lights for a moment, and the darkness is absolute.

As we reverse our steps and head back to the cage, I'm surprised to realize how quickly I've adapted to the mine setting. I can appreciate what the miners did to build this mine, and what the state park is doing to preserve the memory of their work. Still, miner or tourist, it feels good to rise some 2,000 feet into the sunlight on a summer day.

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