Want to Travel a Half-Mile Below the Earth's Surface into a Mine Shaft?
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 the 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, we figured that sounded neat and spontaneously made the stop. We were glad we did.
Here's some of what we learned, along with photos from the tour.
Welcome to the Soudan Mine—Going Down?
The Soudan Mine is known as Minnesota's oldest, deepest, and richest iron mine. You ride in a cage to the 27th level!
Opened in 1882, Soudan produced an iron ore that had a high oxygen content, that was 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. The United States Steel Corporation was the owner then and 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.
Would You Go Down There?
Squish into a small metal cage with a dozen or more of your suddenly closest friends, pass through a half-mile of solid rock and tunnels to the lowest level of a mine, and spend about an hour below the surface?
I'm curious to know, so let me know in the poll below. Or check out the video just below the poll to see what it's like going down, down, down! You'll have a better idea if it's something you could handle!
Chillin' on the 27th Level of the Soudan Mine
Down here is 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tour Rates: Adults (ages 13+) are $10, youth (ages 5-12) are $6, and there is no charge for children under 5.
More to See and Do in Northern Minnesota
- International Wolf Center
Located in Ely, the International Wolf Center advances the survival of wolf populations by teaching about wolves, their relationship to wildlands and the human role in their future. See live wolves in their native habitat.
- North American Bear Center
A wall of windows overlooks the bear enclosure with a pond and waterfalls. You'll hear subtle background sounds of bears foraging, cubs nursing, and birds singing-all the natural sounds that come from the 30+ TVs playing high-definition video footage
- Ely-Winton History Museum
Located on Ely's Vermilion Community College campus, this center shows the local history of logging and mining through artifacts, photographs and displays.
- Tour the Willaim A. Irvin
The William A Irvin is a 610ft Great Lakes freighter now located in Duluth. The hour-long tour also includes a look aboard a Coastguard ice cutter
- Visit the Great Lakes Aquarium
Located in Duluth, the Great Lakes Aquarium features animals and habitats found within the Great Lakes Basin. The Aquarium also houses animals from other freshwater ecosystems such as the Amazon River.
- Communities | Grand Marais | Visit Cook County, MN
Named as America’s Coolest Small Town, Grand Marais offers inspiration like no other. Discover something new in this North Shore harbor village.
- Visit Grand Portage National Monument
Explore the history of the Ojibwe people and the North West Company of the North American fur trade as you take in the sights and smells of a bustling depot reconstructed over its original footprint.
- 101 Things to Do on the North Shore of Minnesota
The name basically says it all.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2009 Deb Kingsbury