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Take the Soudan Underground Mine Tour in Northern Minnesota

Updated on October 22, 2015

Want to Travel a Half-Mile Below the Earth's Surface into a Mine Shaft?

We did!

As my husband and I were driving along quiet Highway 169 on our way from the North Shore of Lake Superior to the town of Ely, Minnesota, we passed a sign that read "Underground Mine Tour."

Minutes later, we turned around at the town of Tower and went two miles back to Soudan Underground Mine State Park.

I recalled reading about the Soudan Mine in the Minnesota State Parks Guide and the fact that you go half a mile beneath the ground on the tour.

Hey, that sounded neat we figured and spontaneously made the stop. We were glad we did.

Here's some of what we learned, along with photos from the tour.

Soudan Mine Tour in Minnesota
Soudan Mine Tour in Minnesota

Welcome To The Soudan Mine -- Going Down?

Ride in a cage to the 27th level.

The Soudan Mine is known as Minnesota's oldest, deepest, and richest iron mine.

Opened in 1882, Soudan produced an iron ore that had a high oxygen content, used for making high-quality steel. But when the technology changed and open-hearth furnaces were no longer used, the ore from Soudan was no longer in demand, replaced by the low-cost ores of the Mesabi Range.

The Soudan Mine closed in 1962. Then owner United States Steel Corporation donated the mine and the 1,200 acres surrounding it to the State of Minnesota.

After watching a short film about the Soudan Mine and the tour below the surface, participants don hard hats and enter a "cage" for the descent into the mine. There were twelve of us in the cage, leaving little air space between strangers. I could hardly imagine what it must have been like when there were 18 miners in a cage!

The cage door closed and we started going down ... quickly.

Lit only by our tour guide's flashlight at the front of the car, I watched the wall of stone pass by the cage window as my ears popped. Once we arrived on Level 27 (and as a couple of young children on the tour whimpered, a bit scared), we were treated to a 3/4-mile train ride to the last and deepest area that had been mined.

Packed like sardines in the elevator. They used to put 18 miners in these things.

Packed like sardines in the elevator. They used to put 18 miners in these things.
Packed like sardines in the elevator. They used to put 18 miners in these things.

Would You Go Down There? - Squish into a small metal cage with a dozen or more of your suddenly closest friends...

...to pass through a half-mile of solid rock and tunnels to the lowest level of a mine, to spend about an hour below the surface.

Does that sound appealing?

See results

See What It's Like Going Dooooowwwwwn....

Chillin' on the 27th Level of the Soudan Mine

Where bats still fly

Things certainly have changed at least a little since the days the Soudan Mine operated for what it was intended. In order to accommodate tourists, additional lighting was installed, spiral stairways took the place of some ladders, and mannequins were added here and there, reminiscent of Disney World.

Overall, though, much is still the same. The Soudan Mine was simply left "as is" for the most part, frozen in time just as it was the day the mine ceased operations and the workers traveled back to the surface for the last time.

When that happened, the Soudan Mine was down to its 27th level beneath the surface -- 2,341 feet below ground and 689 feet below sea level -- where there are more than FIFTY miles of tunnel. Just on that one level!

2341 Feet Below the Surface, 689 Feet Below Sea Level

2341 feet below the surface, 689 feet below sea level
2341 feet below the surface, 689 feet below sea level

Ride The Tram Even Deeper - All Aboard!

Soudan Mine
Soudan Mine

I was glad I heeded the tour guide's advice to bring a jacket despite the warm day above; the mine stays at about 50 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, which is rather chilly, especially when you're moving along in an open rail car.

It's also a good idea to wear sturdy shoes -- sneakers or boots -- rather than sandals or anything with heels.

Our dynamic, knowledgeable tour guide, by the way, was once employed at the Soudan Mine herself and grew up in the area.

Our guide drives us three-quarters of a mile down the tunnel on the 27th (the lowest) level.

Our guide drives us three-quarters of a mile down the tunnel on the 27th (the lowest) level.
Our guide drives us three-quarters of a mile down the tunnel on the 27th (the lowest) level.
Soudan Mine
Soudan Mine

About The Mining Process At Soudan

Cut and fill

While Soudan began as an open pit mine with seven surface pits, it was eventually moved underground by the year 1900 for safety reasons; injuries and fatalities were occurring far too often due to falling rock.

The much safer underground method used was"cut and fill" -- mining the ceiling and then using the waste rock, including Ely Greenstone, to artificially raise the floor at the same rate as the ceiling was being mined out. (Ely Greenstone is made up of volcanic rocks and sediments formed in oceans over 2.7 billion years old.) This meant that the floor and ceiling were always no more than 20 feet apart. And the waste rock was recycled, not taken to the surface.

Our guide told us that the super hard and heavy rock was self-supporting and that Soudan is a "dry mine," with much less water being pumped out than other underground mines.

During its 80 years in operation, approximately 15.5 million tons of ore were taken from the Soudan Mine.

Added for tourists, this narrow, spiral stairway leads up to a large chamber. Miners used to climb ladders.

Added for tourists, this narrow, spiral stairway leads up to a large chamber. Miners used to climb ladders.
Added for tourists, this narrow, spiral stairway leads up to a large chamber. Miners used to climb ladders.

My husband touches hematite that is 2.7 billion years old, older than most of the rock in Grand Canyon.

My husband touches hematite that is 2.7 billion years old, older than most of the rock in Grand Canyon.
My husband touches hematite that is 2.7 billion years old, older than most of the rock in Grand Canyon.
Soudan Mine Tour
Soudan Mine Tour

More To See On The Surface

Above ground, visitors can explore the dry house, drill shop, crusher house and engine house. You also can stroll along the boardwalk past one of the deepest open mine pits made before the mine went underground, or hike the park trails through a northern hardwood conifer forest and past the famous Soudan Iron Formation.

In this photo to the right, we're inside the engine house, where a man operates the cage elevators just as when the mine was in operation. The operator is sitting on the platform on the left-hand side of the photo.

This gauge shows where the elevator is currently located underground. There's one for the east elevator and one for the west.

This gauge shows where the elevator is currently located underground. There's one for the east elevator and one for the west.
This gauge shows where the elevator is currently located underground. There's one for the east elevator and one for the west.

You can go inside the crusher house, built in 1904.

You can go inside the crusher house, built in 1904.
You can go inside the crusher house, built in 1904.

Rocks from the underground mine enter the crusher after being hauled to the surface.

Rocks from the underground mine enter the crusher after being hauled to the surface.
Rocks from the underground mine enter the crusher after being hauled to the surface.
Soudan Mine
Soudan Mine

More About Touring Soudan Mine

The 90-minute underground tour runs daily on the hour from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (And they were starting tours on the half-hour while we were there, too, since there were so many people.) The public tours run from Memorial Day weekend through the third week in October. The park offers group tours to schools, colleges, organizations and businesses.

There are two types of tours at the Soudan Mine. We took the Historic Underground Mine Tour. There's also the High Energy Physics Lab Tour, which "follows the path of physicists from around the world." (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources) The lab was started in the 1980s by scientists from the University of Minnesota, using the site for sensitive physics experiments because of the extremely low amount of cosmic rays deep underground. You can read more about the laboratory in Soudan Mine in their online brochure.

Tour Rates: Adults (ages 13+) are $10, youth (ages 5-12) are $6, and there is no charge for children under 5.

Another Good Soudan Mine Tour Video

© 2009 Deb Kingsbury

Questions or Comments About Soudan Mine?

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    • Lynn Klobuchar profile image

      Lynn Klobuchar 3 years ago from Minneapolis, Minnesota

      It is so cool -- rust red and so deep. I have Northern Minnesota mining ancestors -- it is amazing to think that some spent years in this mine or other like it. Now most iron mining is done in pits -- this was different. And just imagine, we have ancient blue-green algae to thank for all this iron.

    • OrlandoTipster profile image

      OrlandoTipster 5 years ago

      Too scary for me to do

    • BlueTrane profile image

      BlueTrane 5 years ago

      Carlsbad Caverns is the biggest hole in the ground I've traversed. This looks like fun!

    • Snakesmum profile image

      Jean DAndrea 6 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      Never been into an iron ore mine, but have visited a couple of gold mines! Very interesting.

    • BSieracki profile image

      Bernie 6 years ago from Corbin, KY

      i wish i woorked in a mine

    • Ramkitten2000 profile image
      Author

      Deb Kingsbury 6 years ago from Flagstaff, Arizona

      @anonymous: Oh, I'm sorry to hear they're not doing tours right now. I do hope they resume them in the future. It was so much fun (albeit a little freaky down there) and a great learning experience. Wonder why they've discontinued the tours for now. Safety? Financial reasons?

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Our family has done this tour many times with our four children starting at a very early age. It has been a wonderful history lesson to experience what their MN family did many years ago. My father was very proud to take us down and my 9 year old son did a school report on it. It is an adventure I would recommend to anyone who gets up that way. I understand the mine is not doing underground tours this summer and are not sure when they will again.

    • profile image

      Pete Schultz 6 years ago

      I've revisited this lens today, and believe I found new things added, but maybe my memory is failing me. At any rate, you have captured the fun of this mine tour very well, and I always enjoy your lenses....even if I've been ther before.

    • squid-pinkchic18 profile image

      squid-pinkchic18 6 years ago

      Looks awesome but incredibly scary!! Not sure if I'd have the guts to try it but the pictures are awesome! I featured your lens on mine titled The New Alpine Coaster in Duluth, MN.

    • LoKackl profile image

      LoKackl 7 years ago

      I'd very much like to take the Soudan Mine Tour. SquidooAngel Blessed.

    • Wednesday-Elf profile image

      Wednesday-Elf 7 years ago from Savannah, Georgia

      Really interesting. I'd once read a book about a gold mine in South Africa where mining is all below the surface and miners 'descend' in a 'packed' cage. I couldn't possibly do it. Once toured an ordinary cave in Branson, MO on a guided tour and was absolutely convinced the whole 'chilly' time that the walls were going to cave in on me! Never again! I was petrified! Much better to 'visit' places like The Soudan Underground Mine "vicariously" through your wonderful photos and delightful descriptions.

    • myraggededge profile image

      myraggededge 7 years ago

      Really interesting, especially because our village was built for miners working at similar deep mines (coal). Your photos bring it to life. I have dug down deep and come up with a blessing :-)

    • KarenHC profile image

      Karen 7 years ago from U.S.

      I have BEEN there! This was an exciting lens to find because of that :-) Brought back fun memories (it was a number of years ago). I remember that my youngest son looked really pale and nervous (you mentioned a couple of scared younger kids), and we saw bats too, hanging from metal bars as we went down the elevator.

    • KarenTBTEN profile image

      KarenTBTEN 7 years ago

      Those photos give a person a sense of being there.

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      I have been to Tower and Soudan many times but I have never gone on the mine tour. This is interesting and I will add it to my two caving lenses. Thanks for sharing your journey once again, and for taking me with you down-under. ~ I went on a mine tour in Chicago once and that was certain stimulating and a little scary when they turned out the lights. It was as dark as dark can be, with no light at all. The darkness felt heavy!

      Susie

    • profile image

      julieannbrady 7 years ago

      Er, can you hear me now? No mines for me thank you very much. Calling all cars ... SAR ... where in the world is ... ;)

    • triathlontraini1 profile image

      triathlontraini1 7 years ago

      The black theme is PERFECT for a cave tour! :)

    • squid-janices7 profile image

      squid-janices7 7 years ago

      Wow - the tour looks incredibly interesting, but with my claustrophobia, I'd never make it. They had to give me drugs to get me in a simple MRI machine. I did tour all the above ground mines in Northern Minnesota when I was a teenager, but even back then, I refused to go underground with the rest of my family. Love this lens and all the great photos!

    • profile image

      Pete Schultz 7 years ago

      This is a day trip I often advise people to take. I've been there several times, and it seems I learn something new with every visit. Your lens captures the tour very well....I would add one thing about the ride 1/2 miles below the surface.....for $10.00 it is a ride more terrifying than anything they have scome up with at Valleyfair. Pete Schultz

    • sharioleary profile image

      Shari O'Leary 8 years ago from Minnesota

      Wow! What a great tour. I think when we go visit the International Wolf Center next time, we'll have to check this out too. Thanks for sharing!

    • mysticmama lm profile image

      Bambi Watson 8 years ago

      Very cool, one of my hubby's cousins works there :-)

    • Rachel Field profile image

      Rachel Field 8 years ago

      Wow- looks impressive! I've only been in tin mines in Cornwall which are a lot smaller- you just walk down into them- they're full of pixies though ;) I don't think I could take more than an hour underground. For a moment I was worried this lens was going to be about you doing a spot of caving and felt a bit squeamish!

    • profile image

      anonymous 8 years ago

      Hey, those videos are cool. This was a great tour, and I'm so glad we decided to turn around and go back. Well worth the price.