41 die in flooded Milford Mine

This newspaper page tells the tragic news of the Milford Mine flood.

CROSBY-IRONTON — Sue Meyer Osell grew up in the Minnesota city of Crosby, so named for George Crosby, who owned Crosby’s Milford Mine that produced manganese-rich iron ore.

The Crow Wing County city is on the Cuyuna Range, named for Cuyler Adams, who discovered iron ore there, and his St. Bernard, Una. And now there is a memorial in Crosby for the 41 miners who lost their lives when Foley Lake flooded the underground Milford Mine February 5, 1924, the worst mining disaster in Minnesota history.

Osell, of Mountain Iron, said, “When I was a kid growing up, I recall my parents and more so my grandparents and people of their era talking about the mine disaster now and then. So many of the folks had a connection to the miners who perished or to the widows and children left behind. When I was younger, I remember my dad sometimes taking me to Foley Lake to fish. It was times like this when he would tell me the history of Foley Lake and the horrible mine disaster.

“My maternal grandmother was 23 years old when the mining accident occurred. Her father owned a funeral parlor/hardware store in Cuyuna. She told me that some of the families waited for several months to have their deceased family member pulled out from the ruins of the tragedy. She knew about the special preparations that had to be made for these miners that had died weeks or months earlier. She talked about the sadness and it seemed like the funerals in the area went on and on and on.”

Osell in the 1990s met Range Funeral Home director, the late Charlie Snyder of Virginia.

“It didn’t take him long to discover that I had grown up on the Cuyuna Range. He told me that he had been born on the Cuyuna Range and that his father had perished in the Milford Mine tragedy when he was a toddler. He went on to tell me that after that he and his mother and siblings then moved to the Mesabi Range. I proceeded to tell him about a book that had recently been published about the Milford Mine Disaster. I told him that it had photos of many of the miners and personal stories. Charlie dropped by my house one day to look at this book. Together we glanced over the book, and it didn’t take long to find his father’s photo and information about a dad he hardly knew. Will never forget the tears in his eyes. As sad as it was, he was happy that the miners weren’t forgotten,” Osell said.

The book, “The Milford Mine Disaster / A Cuyuna Range Tragedy,” is by the late Berger Aulie, a high school English teacher of Osell.

Crow Wing County has opened the Milford site as an historic memorial.

The disaster occurred when a surface cave-in at the mine’s easternmost end tapped into mud that was a direct connection to Foley Lake. In less than twenty minutes the mineshaft flooded to within 15 to 20 feet of the surface. Seven men made it to ground level, while forty-one men were overcome by the water or trapped in mud. The last victim was recovered nine months after the disaster. Thirty-eight of the 41 miners who drowned were married, leaving behind more than 80 children.

Here are the names of the 41 miners:

Earl Bedard

Mike Bizal

Oliver Burns

George Butkovich

Emil Carlson

Valentine Cole

Evan Crellin

Roy Cunningham

Minor Graves

Clinton A. Harris

Fred Harte

John Hendrickson

John Hlacher

George Hochever

Herman Holm

Elmer Haug

Frank Hrvatin

William Johnson

Alex Jyhla

Victor Ketola

Leo J. LaBrash

Arvid Lehti

Peter Magdich

Henry Maki

John Maurich

Ronald McDonald

Arthur Myhres

John Minerich

Nick Radich

Clyde Revord

Gaspar H. Revord

Nels Ritari

Jerome Ryan

Tony Slack

Joseph Snyder

Marko Toljan

Mike Tomac

Martin Valencich

Arthur Wolford

John Yaklich

Fred Zeitz

Minnesota governor J. A. O. Preus appointed a five-man committee to investigate the disaster, which held hearings in May and June. Its final report said: “No blame can be attached to the mining company for this unfortunate accident. The real cause of the disaster was the fact that imminence and danger from such a rush of mud was not recognized by anyone.”

Here are excerpts from Aulie’s book:

“When a life was lost -- and there were more than 100 fatal accidents during the two generations of mining on the Cuyuna Ranger including the 41 at the Milford Mine — the whole neighborhood, the whole Cuyuna Range grieved. Everybody lost somebody.”

Fourteen-year-old Frank Hrvatin Jr. helped the seven miners who escaped with their lives. “For God’s sake, run faster! The whole lake has come in!” he yelled.

The book reads, “Fifty-two years later, Frank (Jr.) sounded frantic, nearly crying as he related ‘I took my partner out of the mud — he was in mud up to his hips — that’s how fast the water was coming in, but we made it!’ When we got to the top, we just laid down on the surface — everybody came running to see what the hell was the matter! That took about 15 minutes and the whole thing was over. I knew then I would never see my Dad no more. They were all dead.” Frank Hrvatin Sr. had perished.

A Duluth Herald story read, “A tragic figure at the location this morning in her one-room shack covered with tar paper is Mrs. Valentine Cole, whose husband was drowned. A small, frail woman, Mrs. Cole with her four month-old baby in her lap and 4-year-old son at her side, just sits there and mourns. ‘Oh, why, God, why,’ she asked in a plaintive wail and then burst into tears. No, it has been thus with her ever since the first report yesterday, her neighbors say. All night long she sat up and cried, refusing to be comforted and refused to sleep.

“This is typical of many, many homes on this Iron Range today. Frank Hrvatin, 40, of Crosby was drowned, leaving a widow and nine children.”

The book includes stories on each of the 41 men. Here is the account of Charlie Snyder’s father, Joseph Snyder. He had been born in 1884 in Austria and was 40 when he was killed. His father was Tony Guidlarich, his mother Rose Suarar and his wife Lucy Spolar, 38. They had four sons and one daughter, ages 14, 11, 9, 6 and 3 1/2. The oldest was Andrew Snyder, who lived in Gilbert with his wife Mary Klobuchar Snyder and son Andy and daughter Marlene. Charlie Snyder was the youngest. Joseph Snyder’s average weekly pay was $31.68. He was buried in Lakewood Cemetery in Crosby.

“The Bankers Life Insurance Company with headquarters at Des Moines, Iowa, through its local agent, E.H. Thiel, turned over to Mrs. Lucy Snyder a check for $1,010, insurance carried by her husband Joe Snyder, who fell a victim in the terrible mine disaster. Mrs. Snyder and five children live on a small truck farm in Irondale Township two miles south of Crosby.”

The last body found was that of Arvid Lehti, 31, found nine months after the flood. “The mine had to be drained, and Foley Lake, which emptied into the mine, was pumped dry. He was born in Finland and was united in marriage 18 months prior to his death, coming over from the old country with Mrs. Lehti on the same boat.”

The Farmer-Labor Record of Brainerd in March 1924 wrote an editorial, taking to task the mining company and other newspapers:

“Tuesday, February 5, 41 miners perished in the Milford Mine, a veritable death trap from the collar of the shaft to the innermost workings, according to miners’ statements which do not appear in other papers.

“Unless every one of the damnable conditions prove to be untrue, these men were murdered as ruthlessly as though they had been pitched head foremost one by one down the shaft by hardened criminals who in cold blood demand money or lives.

“All reports to the contrary, this horrible disaster COULD and should have been avoided and the State of Minnesota must fix the responsibility and mete out justice to those guilty of acts or omission leading to these men’s deaths or stand indicted with the crime of murdering, in effect, forty-one of her people in a most violent manner; of depriving thirty-nine of their helpful mates and nearly one hundred children of the protection and guidance of their fathers...

“After a long search, a miner, whose name will not be revealed, was found who knew the mine from top to bottom — who worked in it until a short time before the fatal day — who resigned in fear of his life — to live and tell the story to an aroused populace in order that his own and the lives of others may be safeguarded...

“As for the Record (newspaper), we will never rest until all means have been provided to prevent a recurrence of this tragedy through proper legislation and enforcement, and we point a finger of accusation at every paper in Minnesota who had knowledge of these conditions and failed to raise their voice to remedy them, for they are as guilty of this unpardonable crime as the interests they serve and should be decorated with an iron cross, which is the symbol of atrocity and the mark of the beast.

“They are Labor’s dead and to Labor they appeal for atonement. It is estimated that widows of the dead miners will receive from $12 to $20 per week compensation. The public was under the impression that they would receive $7,500. At the rate of $12 per week it will be over 12 years before they are ‘compensated’ for their great loss... The laws governing the operation of mines must be adjusted.”

And regarding the memorial to the 41 miners, Osell said, “I have been there, and it is a moving tribute to all those who died tragically 98 years ago.”

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