As the cage elevator doors opened, we emerged from our compact time capsule stepping into the hazy, humid August daylight. In three short minutes, our group of curious adventurers were safely transported a half-mile from the depths of one of Minnesota’s most well-known iron ore mines back to the earth’s surface. Have you toured the historic Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park? If so, you completely understand the mine’s global economic significance, the legacy that remains in the hearts and hands of thousands who built the state’s mining industry, and how these dedicated miners put Minnesota on the map…
If you’ve not visited the Soudan mine along the shores of Lake Vermilion, it’s time to grab a hard hat (provided upon arrival!), camera and a sweatshirt and experience a rich slice of Minnesota history. Expert guides, many with personal connections to the mine and professional expertise in mining and geology, offer a trip through time unlike anything I’ve seen in our dear state.
Some of these wise tour guides grew up in the hard-working Iron Range, while others had grandfathers or fathers who played a key role in Minnesota mining’s success. The park employees who escorted us back in time were super knowledgeable about the process, the fascinating history, the treacherous conditions, the ongoing challenges and the lasting community spirit fostered by miners and their families in the neighboring towns of Soudan and Tower.
There was no mention of women working in the Soudan mine; I’m curious to learn if women did, so that will be a follow-up. Meanwhile, I did find this interesting piece on Minnesota women stepping up to temporarily assume mining duties in the Iron Range during the 1940s as men were dispatched to serve in World War II.
After Eric, Evan and I visited the Soudan Underground Mine State Park, we wanted to share some of the highlights from the 1.5 hour tour with hopes more people will visit this Minnesota gem! From Lusten, the mine is about a 2-hour drive to the west through lovely winding forests.
There’s soooo much information to put into a blog post, so please click here and here to learn more about the history and economic impact; and click here to better understand the global mix of immigrants that helped make the Soudan Mine a shining early success. Please scroll to see a few photos and read a bit about this amazing landmark.
Driving into the park, it’s as if time stands still. The grounds are sprinkled with a variety of structures, most built more than a century ago, that played an important role in processing, extracting and transporting the iron ore brought up to the surface.
In doing a bit of research for the post, long before the structures were erected, archaeological remains trace back to 7000 B.C. when Native American tribes occupied this land along Lake Vermilion shores mining the earth and using the ore for tools.
Like most tours, this one began with a ticket and a few important tips. Evan purchased our tickets online, while we were on the way to Soudan. You can search tour pricing and availability here. Or, call 866-857-2757. And, yep, bats have taken up residence in the mine, although we didn’t see any. And, the temps are around 50ºF, so a lightweight jacket or sweatshirt is a smart idea.
Soudan Mine, Minnesota’s first official iron ore mine, opened in 1882 as an open-pit mine. Now roped off, the open pits are a deep cavernous expanse of exposed earth displaying a variety of lovely colors.
Open pit mining proved to be too dangerous putting miners in harm’s way of falling rock and debris, which created high-risk for serious injury. So, workers went underground, tunneling into layers and vast spaces where precious iron ore reserves were abundant.
Once we handed off our tickets, we watched a short 5-minute film in the main park building that offered a historic overview. From there, outfitted with hard hats, we entered the elevator going down, down, down…
After a three-minute dash to the depths, we ventured into the 27th layer of the mine.
Our main tour guide James was knowledgeable and passionate. He shared intriguing stories about working in the mine, the boys and men who braved the elements, how Soudan mine was tunneled and the techniques that were used while answering a variety of curious questions.
Then, we boarded a railway car, just like this, and zipped through the underground tunnels on a 3/4 mile journey to the last and deepest area. Here James helped us envision the miners’ day-to-day working conditions and how they were able to extract the iron ore from the earth, with equipment, tools, explosives and limited light.
James described the special high-grade ore extracted from Minnesota and shipped around the world to make quality equipment. Particularly during wartime, it was used to build important machines and materials such as tanks, airplanes and weapons. According to the State Park website, there was great demand globally for the super hard ore. But after World War II, operating the mine was cost prohibitive, technology was changing and operating costs remained high. The mine closed in 1962.
We emerged with a whole new appreciation for the miners, the hard-working immigrants who settled in Minnesota to establish Soudan Mine as the “Cadillac of mines,” a benchmark set worldwide. We thanked our expert guides, handed over our hard hats and explored some of the park buildings. Standing the test of time, these structures were used during the processing of the iron ore to ready the precious goods for transport….
So, how did Soudan mine become a state park….good question! Our guide James gives credit to several of the miners who, after the facility closed, worked tirelessly to establish and maintain the mine as a park. And, here’s an interesting bit of history from the Minnesota State Park’s website:
United States Steel Corporation donated the mine, and 1,200 acres around it, to Minnesota for a state park in 1963. In 2010 the remaining 2,848 acres was purchased from U.S. Steel for protection of Lake Vermilion shoreline and to bring in a new era for state parks. In May 2014, the boundary between the parks was legally erased and Lake Vermilion State Park and Soudan Underground Mine State Park were merged to become one park.
Another interesting fact: Soudan Mine was named a National Historic Landmark in 1966 for its lasting significance in creating a legacy impact during the industrial development of the United States.
The structures and infrastructure throughout the mining facility are so well-built. You can sense the pride and workmanship that went in to engineering this “Cadillac” mine.
A single railroad car left along the tracks captured my heart. Here it stands, perhaps a symbol of the emptiness that must have echoed for miles the day the mine ceased operations in 1962.
Still curious? Here’s another resourceful article. If you visit the mine, let us know what you think. Happy trails, friends 🙂
This story first appeared on From Lutsen with Love in September 2018. All reflections and images are my own.