Dateline July 1, 2018: Soudan Underground Mine Minnesota State Park

A Must Visit – Soudan Underground Mine

We drove up to the northern part of Minnesota to visit the Soudan Underground Mine, an important mine in the rich history of our country.

When we arrived we headed to the desk to sign in for the our reservation for the 10:00 A.M. tour We were directed to the little theater where every Soudan Underground Mine tour begins with a short movie.

Our tour guide is James Juip and he shows us a short introductory film that gives some of the history of the mine. We finish and it is time to head for the mine just outside the theater building.  Juip starts the tour with a bit of perspective: “80 years of mining history is set amid 2.7 billion years of geological history.” He keeps the human history in perspective. “Every time I put this outfit on, it reminds me of the people who worked here before and the stories they wanted to tell,”

James wears a hard hat with a headlamp and is dressed in bib overalls and flannel shirt, dressing the part as he directs us to the elevator he starts to tell the history of the mine and of the late-night home visits from former mine workers who want to tell him their stories.

As our guide James showed us how to adjust the blue and yellow helmets, everyone is required to wear, I saw his eyes sweeping the crowd to ensure that everyone had the proper footwear to descend into the mine.

The 90-foot steel tower, called the “headframe” towers over us at ground level where we are about to enter Shaft # 8 for our decent into the mine. All of a sudden we hear the cables above and a buzzer notifying us that the elevator was ready got be entered.

Soudan Elevator is not for sissies! Dark and loud all the way down.

James spends about half of his working hours underground, he tells us that the elevator “cage” that takes tours underground is a sort of time machine to him. He talks about how the mine started at the surface with open-pit mining in 1882 and ends up with the last changes in 1950. Nothing had changed from 1950 until the time the mine closed.

He reiterated the safety of the “cage,” Miners would have crammed 18 people into each 5-by-6 ½-foot space. For we tourists, we shared the space with 10 new “close” friends. We moved down and stopped to load the cage above us. Once we started again, we took the two to three minute ride, they said at ten miles per hour down to the 27th level. It is a three quarter mile ride that runs along the path of the ore formulation ending up 500 feet north of the top starting position.

Here we are with James 2,341 feet under the surface and actually 689 feet below sea level.

Once at the Level 27 destination, we were loaded into a train. Janes informed us that the train was built for hauling ore, not tour groups and therefore it was important they keep their hands inside the train. Heading uphill, the train traveled the three-quarters mile into the tunnel at 6 miles per hour. As the train moved along, spotlights showed miners at work. It was artwork!

History of the Soudan Underground Mine

In the late 19th century, prospectors searching for gold in northern Minnesota discovered extremely rich veins of hematite ore at this site. Hematite is the mineral form of iron(III) oxide (Fe2O3), one of several iron oxides. It is the oldest known iron oxide mineral that has ever formed on earth. The hematite often contains more than 65% iron. A major advantage of the Soudan Mine ore was an extra molecule of oxygen, essential for the manufacturing of steel.

The mine began with an open pit mine operation in 1882, and moved to underground mining by 1900 for safety reasons. From 1901 until the end of active mining in 1962, the Soudan Mine was owned by the United States Steel Corporation’s Oliver Iron Mining division. By 1912 the mine was at a depth of 1,250 feet . When the mine closed in 1962, level 27 was being developed at 2,341 feet below the surface and the entire underground workings consisted of more than fifty miles of tunnels.

The miners and the working conditions – “Cadillac of Mines”

“Many of the families, the miners who lived here, haven’t left. Some of them live in the same houses,” Juip said. “Everybody heard about U.S. Steel and how important U.S. Steel was, but the steel they made wouldn’t have been possible without the Soudan Mine”.

James emphasized, several times, the safety of the tunnels running through un-fractured rock, the fresh air circulating every 20 minutes, the dry conditions.

These miners didn’t have to worry about cave-ins, toxic air or flooding. Its safety record and pay which was three times the normal rate of the other mines, helped earn Soudan the “Cadillac of Mines” moniker.

How the Soudan Mine was structured and mined

The primary underground mining method used was known as cut and fill. This involved mining the ceiling and using Ely Greenstone and other waste rock to artificially raise the floor at the same rate as the ceiling was being mined out.

As a result, the floor and ceiling were always 10–20 feet apart, and waste rock never had to be hauled to the surface, since it was recycled. This technique was particularly suited to the Soudan Mine due to the strength of the hematite formations and the weakness of the encasing Greenstone. This method was not possible in the nearby mines because the iron formations there were fractured and thus were not as structurally stable as those at Soudan.

Impact of the oar from the Sudan Mine

It was the iron from the Iron Range which built and defended America. In World War II, it was the Iron Range’s mineral contribution which helped seal the fate of Germany and the Axis powers.

Chrysler Defense Arsenal (CDA) pumping out M4A4 tanks in 1942

The story that unfolds with the mine is the story of northeast Minnesota. It is the story of our history. We built 10 tanks to every one from Germany. I’m not saying our tanks were better — this just shows our industrial might. You can feel this pride today in the people of the Iron Range. The pride is the knowledge that their family built and protected the free world a tradition they continue today. Today the district I represent produces 80 percent of the taconite pellets that feed the steel furnaces in the United States. St. Louis County Commissioner Keith Nelson

Source: Leah Ryan | Mesabi Daily News Jun 27, 2018

Why did Mining stop at the Soudan Mine?

In the steel making process, Oxygen was essential to help burn off impurities to produce high grade steel. The high grade ore from Soudan had an extra molecule of oxygen. Soudan ore was added in small amounts into the other ores from across the country to burn off those impurities.

By the early 1960s technologies had been developed to inject oxygen into the the steel making process eliminating the need for the Soudan’s high oxygen ore. In 1962, the Soudan Underground Mine ceased operations, with the last stockpiled ore shipped the following year. The mine still has over 1.5 million tons of ore in the ground.

In 1963, U.S. Steel sold the mine and 1,000 acres, including 5 miles of shoreline, to the State of Minnesota for $1, creating the Soudan Underground Mine State Park. The park opened for tours in 1965.

The mining industry across the Iron Range that began at Soudan, continues to produce and grow in importance. According to the Iron Mining Association, the iron industry contributed more than $3 billion to the state economy, creating more than 11,000 jobs.

Our experience at the Soudan Mine

It was one of the most interesting times being in the tunnels and seeing how the ore was mined. Traveling down and back up in the elevator cages took our breathe away. These are the stories of what made America the country it is today, hard working men and woman providing the materials needed for our country to build some of the best products in the world.

Comments

  1. Carol Majka

    I am sure this is something that will be embedded in your mind for years to come. Thanks for sharing.

    1. John and Janice

      Thanks, it was an experience that will be remembered for sure.

      Best to you both.

      John and Janice

  2. Paula Jean Hunt

    What a fascinating tour this must have been! Thank you for sharing TT he pictures and narrative!!

    1. John and Janice

      Paula: Thank you so much for the comment. Trust is all well with you and the family. We are just doing a short trip over to Innisbrook for a few days playing in an FSGA outing. We plan to leave July 8th for the rest of the summer. Janice is going to try and qualify for the USGA Sr AM at a Chicago location (July 31) and then play in the Canadian Sr AM in British Columbia around August 20-24. If she qualifies for the USGA event we will have a 2-day dead-head to Cedar Rapids. So good to hear from you.

      John

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