Minnesota’s Soudan mine now produces awe instead of ore – by Ann Wessel (St. Cloud Times – September 20, 2014)


The mine that once produced the most pure iron ore in the U.S. closed more than 50 years ago. Soudan Underground Mine State Park interpreter James Juip is among those who make a living there today.

SOUDAN – James Juip makes his living underground. The 2006 Cathedral High School grad wears a hard hat, headlamp, bib overalls and flannel shirt when he descends the half-mile into Soudan Underground Mine. He dresses the part. He relays the history. He’s even had late-night home visits from former mine workers who want to tell him their stories.

But his experience is far different from that of the miners who chipped a living out of the rich veins of iron ore under the surface. He walks a well-lit path, for one thing.

Back in the day when candles provided the only illumination underground and miners had to pay for those candles, they conserved their resources and walked the three-quarters of a mile in the dark. About 20 languages were spoken. Miners sang on the way to work to keep track of each other. At peak production in the 1890s, Soudan employed 2,000 people below ground and as many above. Soudan produced the most pure iron; before 1950, all steel produced in the U.S. contained some Soudan ore.

“For a long time, you could not make high-grade steel produced in this country without using ore from Soudan,” Juip said after a day of tours.

“A lot of the families, the miners who lived here, they 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 Soudan.”

In the early days, miners were paid by the amount of ore they extracted. They generally worked six days a week, 12 hours a day.

Soudan operated from 1882 to 1962. The property was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1965.

Now, tours run throughout the summer, and in fall scale back to weekends only. The final tours of the season run the third weekend of October.

Most of the tourists on a weekday in early September were retirees, some of them with ties to mining and specific questions about ore grades and safety records. St. Cloud State University grad Emily Voss led this group, emphasizing several times the safety of the tunnels running through unfractured 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 three times the minimum wage helped earn Soudan the “Cadillac of Mines” moniker.

Voss also reiterated the safety of the “cage,” the lift that took tourists underground. Our ride fit about a dozen people in each of two levels. Miners would have crammed 18 people into each 5-by-6 ½-foot space.

At Soudan Underground Mine, where Juip spends about half of his working hours underground, he sees the elevator that takes tours underground as a sort of time machine. Soudan history starts at the surface with open-pit mining in 1882 and ends underground at 1950. Nothing had changed from 1950 until the time the mine closed.

Minnesota’s first iron ore mine, Soudan produced 15½ tons of ore during its 80 years of operation. Technological advances that made it more economical to add oxygen to lower-grade ore closed the mine.

Today, a high-energy physics lab operates there. Juip sometimes leads those tours, too.

Juip, 26, who graduated from Michigan Technological University and spent 2012 working as an education outreach fellow at St. John’s Abbey Arboretum, stayed in the background during this tour. He ran the ore cars — an operation that involves a battery and a toggle switch. When the mine operated, those cars carried ore, not people.

He traces his interest in geology back to the dinosaurs.

“I loved reading about dinosaurs, and reading about dinosaurs later led into reading about rocks,” Juip said.

“When I was a young kid, I tell ya, I picked up rocks like crazy,” Juip said. “Rocks tell a story. It’s a window back in time, and you can see what life was like. Especially in St. Cloud, they had to form under a massive mountain range probably bigger than the Himalayas.”

At Soudan Underground Mine State Park, Juip starts every tour with a bit of perspective: 80 years of mining history is set amid 2.7 billion years of geological history. He also tries to keep the human history in perspective.

“Every time you put on that outfit, it reminds you of the people who worked here before you and the stories they wanted to tell,” Juip said.

Most-asked questions

Bathrooms: Where did miners working 12-hour underground shifts relieve themselves? In empty dynamite boxes. The youngest miner would have the duty of carrying the box to the surface.

Buzzers: Every tourist awaiting the lift back to the surface sees the sign; BUZZER FOR MEN ONLY. The sign has nothing to do with gender. Instead, it’s to distinguish between transport for people (who would go home after their workday) and ore (which would go to the crusher house, where the rock was broken down into baseball-size chunks. A second, seldom-seen sign on the opposite tunnel wall says FOR SKIP ONLY.

For the original source of this article, click here: http://www.sctimes.com/story/sports/outdoors/2014/09/20/minnesotas-soudan-mine-now-produces-awe-instead-ore/15981859/