SOUDAN — Imagine walking three-quarters of a mile through a mine tunnel in complete darkness to find iron ore, park interpreter James Juip tells the tour group. The lights click off to help people imagine that scenario and the 20 people stand in darkness at level 27 of the Soudan Underground Mine, unable to see each other or Juip at 2,341 feet below the surface of the Earth.
Standing on the last level to be mined before Minnesota’s first iron ore mine closed in 1962, Juip lights a candle in the darkness. Its flame only extends to a few faces near him, leaving the rest of the group still in the dark. He places the candle and sconce on his hard hat, similar to how miners would have placed a candle on their soft leather cap before electricity, freeing their hands to mine the ore.
“By the light of one candle, it would be the job of a crew of three men to find the iron that’s hidden here in the wall, drill it, blast it and get it out of here,” Juip told the tour group on July 13.
Minnesota had 140 underground mines at one point, he said as he concluded the 90-minute tour. A National Historic Landmark located about 90 miles north of Duluth, the Soudan mine has an important place in history. It’s one of only a few mines containing a high-oxygen ore that was essential for decades in the open-hearth steelmaking process, a fact that mattered to Soudan miners, Juip said.
“These guys were proud to tell you that every piece of U.S. steel made between 1890 and 1940 had Soudan ore in it. That’s just the way it was. You can think about the country made out of steel — trains, cars, skyscrapers — none of that stuff happened if it isn’t for these guys here,” he said.