SOUDAN — “If you haven’t been [to the Soudan Underground Mine] it is one of the three or four drop-to-your-knees outstanding experiences you can have at a state park,” said Erika Rivers, director of State Parks and Trails at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
June 7 was the ribbon cutting of the new campground at Vermilion State Park, in the same area as Soudan Underground Mine State Park.
“The camping opportunity here with the mine will create a historical learning experience,” said Minnesota Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook. “It is a history worth telling.”
“The Soudan Underground Mine is one of the most awesome places in the state of Minnesota,” said Parl Manager Jim Essig. “It showcases the heritage of the people of the Iron Range. Plus, it is a lot of fun,”
Essig couldn’t help but adding with a genuine smile.
He is a father of three and uses his adult children as an example of the impact the mine has on visitors. “All three of my children have science degrees. If that is the influence it has had on my family, and knowing the thousands of school groups that come through the tour every year, I know it has had a formative effect on others.”
Not only focusing on the scientific aspects of the mine, Essig also points to the historical importance of the site. “It is about heritage. The Soudan Underground Mine is what we have and we want to showcase it.”
The Soudan Underground Mine was in operation from 1882-1962. Although the iron ore mined at this site is of very high quality, the low-cost ores from the Mesabi Range made this Vermilion Range mine unprofitable.
In 1963, U.S. Steel sold the mine and 1,000 acres, including 5 miles of shoreline, to Minnesota for $1, creating the Soudan Underground Mine State Park. The park opened for tours in 1965.
Tours of the mine are given by park employees. Underground space was also used, for 35 years, for physics research. The park is currently looking for a private and public partnership to restart research in the area.
“The story that unfolds with the mine is the story of northeast Minnesota,” said St. Louis County Commissioner Keith Nelson. “It is the story of our history.”
In 1881, it all started with a pick and shovel. In 1882, the Soudan Mine, Minnesota’s first iron ore mine opened. The open pit mining at the site grew to an ever-expanding underground mine.
Soon after mining started in Soudan, and across the Vermilion Range, the Mesabi and Cuyuna Ranges also began to boom across northern Minnesota. With increased technology came increased production, and demand for the mined iron ore expanded.
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.
“We built 10 tanks to every one from Germany,” stated Nelson. “I’m not saying our tanks were better — this just shows our industrial might.”
Nelson said 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.
“The feeling of that pride in the people, it is not something you realize until you are in it,” described Nelson. “They still have that pride today. The district I represent produces 80 percent of the taconite pellets that feed the steel furnaces in the United States.”
The mining industry across the Iron Range, one that began in 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.
On the warm June 7 afternoon, a young family sat in the back of the theater where every Soudan Underground Mine tour begins with a movie.
Deegan, 8, and Rogan, 5, sat with their parents Trina and Daniel Hanson. The family was from Badger in Roseau County and had stopped for the tour on their way to Duluth for a family vacation. The blonde-haired boys anxiously awaited the tour and their chance to wear hard hats.
A few rows up sat another family. Grandmother Debbie Bachus and mother Mary Corcilius were with brothers Logan, 12, and Andrew Corcilius, 15, and cousin Bryce Bachus, 12. The family, which calls various parts of Colorado home, was on their annual school-is-out road trip. They visit Idaho every year but their path changes each year. This year, the group is spending two weeks exploring the north.
These teenage boys, although less visibly excited than Deegan and Rogan, were just as eager to explore the mine.
As the introductory, historical film was about to begin, a school group filled the remaining seats and Reed Petersen entered the room.
Petersen is an interpreter at the Soudan Underground Mine. Dressed in overalls and red and black checked flannel the Ely native welcomed the group and said that they were about to travel 1/2 mile underground into the “Cadillac of Mines” as the Soudan Mine was called.
The mine is a series of ever-deepening levels with 54 miles in tunnels. The tour is given on the deepest level, level 27 down shaft No. 8. The tour brings visitors a half-mile underground and three-quarters of a mile in by train.
On Dec. 15, 1962, mining activity stopped at the Soudan Mine. The path of the tour follows the final path of the miners.
A single drilled hole shows where the miners continued to work until their shift ended — ever harvesting the iron ore. A chunk of wood hanging over a door in a side storage area says “S. Korpi 12/14/62 LAST DAY UNDERGROUND“ A second generation Soudan miner left his final imprint on the mine.
The tour group put on their helmets and headed for the shaft where an elevator that once hauled iron ore and miners, brought them down to the mine.
“I can’t hear!” Rogan Hanson exclaimed. “My ears are hearing funny.”
The elevator whizzed down at 10 miles per hour. Every now and then other levels were visible where lights were on.
The group found themselves cool in the constant 52-degree mine.
Once at their destination, the group loaded into a train. Petersen informed the group that the train was built for hauling ore, not tour groups and therefore it was important they keep their hands inside the train.
“Iron ore never sticks its hands outside the car,” quipped Petersen and the Hanson boys squeezed their arms tighter into their bodies.
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.
“Where those people real?” asked a concerned Hanson. He was assured that no, they were mannequins.
Close to their destination the group climbs a spiral staircase which exists into a man-made cavern. Petersen begins his lecture and the rumble of the train taking the returning group is heard.
Peterson shines a light on the ceiling, or back as the miners called it, of the cavern. The rust-colored rock famous across the Iron Range shown down.
“Our rock here at Soudan is so pure that when it is exposed to air for 50 years it rusts,” said Petersen. “It is 70 percent pure iron.”
He held up an example of a 1x1-foot cube and said that a chunk this size would weigh 320 pounds.
There is a faint rumble as the elevator brings the other group to ground level.
“They blasted twice a day — at lunchtime and at the end of their shift,” Petersen continued. “The youngest guy on the crew lit the fuses.”
Not long ago a fuse box was found in the mine from 1920. On the box it said that it was a two-minute fuse, plus or minus 30 seconds.
Petersen turned the lights off and the cavern turned to total darkness as he began to talk about lighting used by the miners. First candles and finally lights on their helmets, conditions were hard underground.
Along with strain on the miner’s sight, their hearing often didn’t last long in the mine. Petersen turned on a drill for a few seconds to give an example of the sound as it reverberated off the walls. This was just one drill and it wasn’t touching rock — just an example.
Back down toward the train the group asked questions. How many deaths were there in the 80 years of the mine’s operation? The company reported 140 deaths, an assumed underestimated number.
“This was a safe mine,” the group was told.
When did unions form? “This was the last mine to be unionized on the Iron Range,” Petersen said of the 1943 date.
Once again ascending the elevator, the group left the underground tunnels. With a warning all squinted as they approached the surface and the June sun.
Oscar Korpi was an immigrant miner. He lived in the company town of Soudan where his son Stafford was born.
Stafford Korpi was a miner. He lived in the company town of Soudan where his son Mike was born.
Mike Korpi is retired from law enforcement and currently a trailer, or tour helper. The third generation Korpi in the Soudan Mine he had just found the inscription his father left the day the mine closed.
“My dad worked underground for 14 years,” said Korpi as he helped visitors return their hard hats after the tour. “I grew up in Soudan. When I think about my dad — it gives me chills.”
Stafford Korpi had recently told his son to look in a room that was used for storage on the left — he had left something above the door. Earlier that June day, Mike Korpi took a photo of what his dad had left- the inscription.
The smart phone Korpi shows the picture on gives off more light than his father’s helmet had — both had technology hard to imagine by the other.
Out of their hard hats the Bachus and Corcilius family gathered by the pit to discuss the tour.
“We like mining history,” explained Mary Corcilius. “Our whole family were miners at the Kennecott Copper Mine in Utah.”
They talked of the trip they were having and how they sought out state parks to visit.
“I’m seeing the country,” said Andrew Corcilius of his summer excursion, “and not just staying home.”
Bryce Bachus recited from what he learned on the tour.
“There is a lot of iron in Minnesota,” among other facts and figures. He explained how he was interested in the construction of the mine. Bachus wants to be an architect when he grows up.
Corcilius hopes to be a game warden as an adult. “I like to be outside,” the 15-year-old stated, but when asked about possibly giving mine tours he said, “I‘d rather be outside than underground.”