Visiting the Underground Mine of Soudan, Minnesota
Soudan underground mine is Minnesota’s deepest, oldest and richest iron ore mine. It is located by the town of Tower, in northern Minnesota, near Lake Vermilion, fifteen minutes west of Ely.
Opened in 1884, the iron ore mine provided a very high quality iron for almost a century. In 1962 the mine was closed and it is now a “museum”, where everybody can get a glimpse into the life of the men and women that waked the mine’s galleries and digged the ore. Now, the site belongs to the Minnesota State Park.
wellcome to Soudan mine
Mining is not for everyone. That’s what I thought, right from the surface, when I put a hard hat on and I got invited to squeeze into the small elevator along with other people.
The descent starts. It becomes dark and the tour guide tells us a joke then he says the elevator is going stop for a few minutes. “Don’t panic “he says. I think this is a joke too but he says “no, that’s for real”. Everybody is silent and I can hear my ears popping.
Soudan site, exterior
There are about thirty people in our group of tourists. All ages are represented.
The elevator is about 10 by 10 feet and now has a door, for safety. But when the mine was active, the elevator only had a chain and it held as many miners as could fit inside.
As I remain still and speechless, like everybody else, I remember that I am afraid of closed spaces. The guide once told us that, once in a while, a person suffering from claustrophobia, would asked to be brought to the surface immediately, interrupting everybody’s tour.
The Elevator Room, Still Working
The elevator shakes and squeaks, and after few minutes (only three minutes but seemed a lifetime), our bumpy ride comes to an end. It is the deepest level of the mine, the 27th, some 2341 feet below the surface.
We are let out of the elevator cage to walk on a rocky floor, with some water puddles from place to place. The guides, two young, strong men and a beautiful young girl, load us in a train that will take us to the place set up for tourists.
The ride to the stope is three-fourths mile long, through a tight tunnel that lets enough space for the wagon and a seated person. We are told to stay seated and keep the hands inside.
One tour guide tells us that the miners did not have the train, back in the day, and they walked all the way, carrying a candle on their hats that was dripping wax and was a fire hazard.
People try to take pictures with their phones but it is dark with an occasional light bulb hanging on the ceiling.
Inside the Mine
Soudan mine underground, Montana stope
We arrive to our destination. It is cold. We were told there are only 50 degrees F. inside. Most tourists wear a sweatshirt but there is this old lady in a pink top and a pair of white cropped pants.
Soon, our guides take us to a 38 steel staircase that goes up to the Montana stope. This is the place where the miners were digging the iron ore when the mine was closed. The place is huge, as large as a football field. Inside is dark and seems even colder then the tunnel. Some spots display a low light where I can see dummies in the position of working miners.
This huge space tells us everything about the miner’s work. How did they dug holes in the rocky walls to place dynamite, having to endure such loud noise that lots of them lost their hearing, and how did they carry the iron ore to the surface only to start over and over again.
The cave’s walls are made out of a rock mix, hematite and Ely stone (one of the oldest rock on Earth) plus other layers. The predominant Hematite is red or gray and the Ely stone is green. False gold, can be seen from place to place.
To offer us the full experience of a miner’s work environment, the guides turn off the lights and turn on the drill. The sound in the dark is unbearable and many of us pull out our mobile phones and I cannot stop thinking how lucky I am.
So far, we spent over forty minutes underground, in a rock, and I can feel the weight of the iron ore on my shoulders. The mine is self ventilating but I struggle with my breath. The cold air have sneaked under my fleece sweatshirt and I am almost shivering. I’m glad when we are invited back to the trains, to get up to the surface. Seeing the sunlight again feels like heaven. I could not have been a miner.
Iron Ore at the Surface
What to see at Soudan underground mine state park:
Underground mine tour
High Energy physics lab
Soudan mine short history
The person that found the iron ore at Soudan, Minnesota, was George R. Stuntz. He was a businessman and explore, actually looking for gold. Stuntz presented his discovery to a banker in Duluth, named George Stone. The two of them then attracted Charlemagne Tower who formed The Minnesota Iron Company.
A crew of miners was formed under command of Captain Elisha Morcom. The first shipment of the iron ore was sent out in July 31, 1884. At this time, it was a surface mine. By 1890, the mining went underground.
The Soudan mine proved to be a “gold mine”. The iron ore was a very high quality and abundant.
The electrification of the mine in 1924 increased productivity. The ore was in high demand and the steel obtained from it was appreciated around the world.
After the WWII, the cost of digging was surpassing the profits. New mining technology was implemented all over United States. But Soudan was too deep and too hard to rich. So, it was closed in 1962. But the iron ore is still there, in large quantities.
High Energy physics lab
One unique site to visit at Soudan underground mine is the High energy physics lab. Operated by the University of Minnesota and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory(Illinois), the place is located half mile underground in the depths of the mine.
The lab was created because the mine’s environment was excellent for researching and understanding neutrinos, very small particles of energy, and “dark matter”, another form of energy thought to played a big role in the creation of the universe.
The Soudan High energy lab is part of the dozen major active underground facilities around the world.
Soudan mine opens for public visiting every year from Memorial Weekend through the Labor Day. There are daily tours that start at 10am and end at 4pm, when the last group of tourists lives the surface. The tour takes about one hour and thirty minutes.
Visitors are encouraged to dress appropriately: a sweatshirt and sturdy shoes are the best.
Before leaving the ground, visitors are invited to watch a short video about the mine’s past and present and are offered hard hats. Any bags or backpacks are not to be carried along. Food and tobacco are prohibited.
More information about planning a tour can be found at www.dnr.state.mn.us