The Soudan Mine, which opened in 1884, is located at the western edge of the Vermilion range, about two miles northeast of Tower. It was the first iron mine in the state, and its first ore shipment in the summer of 1884 marked the beginning of the state’s mining industry.
Ojibwe living in northeastern Minnesota had long been aware of the presence of iron ore in the region. They told blacksmith N.A. Posey about it in 1863, when Posey was living among them to teach them his trade at the request of the U.S. government. The Ojibwe gave samples of the region’s iron ore to Posey. He shared the samples with area surveyor and civil engineer George Stuntz. In 1875, Stuntz made a test blast near what would become the Soudan Mine and told Duluth businessman George C. Stone about the promising ore that turned up.
During the 1870s, George C. Stone worked to persuade millionaire Pennsylvania investor Charlemagne Tower Sr. to develop the Vermilion range, including the Soudan site. The Vermilion range is one of three ranges that make up the Iron Range in northeastern Minnesota. Tower, who had made much of his money in the coal mining industry, decided to invest in the region only after sending in his own experts, such as geologist Albert Chester, to investigate.
With help from Stone, Tower bought up key pieces of land in northeastern Minnesota and purchased an inactive railroad project, the Duluth and Iron Range Railway. Eventually, this railway would run from Two Harbors on Lake Superior directly to the Soudan Mine. It would provide a way to get the area’s ore from the mine through the swampy forest lands of the Vermilion range to a shipping port.
Construction on the Duluth and Iron Range Railway line began in the summer of 1883. Cornish miners recruited from Michigan traveled overland to Minnesota the next winter and began digging at the Soudan site. The ore they mined was stockpiled for shipping until the railroad line was finished. The mine’s first superintendent, Elisha Morcom, named the mine after the tropical Sudan region of Africa. He meant it as a joke, because of the cold winters in northern Minnesota, but the name stuck.
The Duluth and Iron Range Railway arrived at the Soudan Mine on July 30, 1884, and carried the first shipment of almost 3,000 tons back to Two Harbors the next day. A few days later, the ore was loaded onto the steamers Ironton and Hecla and shipped across the Great Lakes to Cleveland. In Cleveland, George H. and Samuel P. Ely sold it for Tower’s firm, the Minnesota Iron Company.
Later, once it was clear that the Soudan Mine would make money, the Minnesota Iron Company was bought by a group of New York investors and merged with the Oliver Iron Mining Company, which eventually became part of U.S. Steel.
Iron ore on the Vermilion range is unusually hard and high-quality. Soudan miners first dug it out using the open-pit technique, since the ore was close to the surface. As the ore was removed to a depth of more than 20 feet, operations shifted underground for safety reasons. By the 1890s, operations were entirely underground. During this period, miners were able to excavate with minimal bracing and little fear of mine collapse, since the ore was hard and ran through the surrounding rock in nearly vertical columns. Miners followed the seams of ore downward, excavating on many levels at once, until the depth of the mine reached nearly 2,500 feet.
Never as big as the Mesabi Range to the southwest, the Vermilion Range and its mines were steady producers of iron ore over many decades. The Soudan Mine peaked in 1892 at 568,471 tons of iron ore shipped. However, it reliably produced tens of thousands of tons of ore every year from its opening in 1884 until its closing on December 15, 1962, with more than 15 million tons shipped over the life of the mine.
The last shaft of the mine to be worked was number eight. It was preserved and turned into Soudan Underground Mine State Park in 1965. The deepest excavated area of the mine is now used by the University of Minnesota for a high-energy physics lab, since it is uniquely protected by its depth from cosmic radiation.
Huber, Molly, “Soudan Mine, Tower,” MNopedia, Minnesota Historical Society; www.mnopedia.org/place/soudan-mine-tower (accessed May 18, 2020).