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What I Learned a Half-Mile Under the Earth

August 14, 2019


If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, “Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

—Martin Luther King Jr.

Last weekend, on a cabin vacation outside of Tower, Minnesota, my daughters and I, along with my good friend and his kids, woke up, brushed our teeth, and threw on sweatshirts, rugged shorts, and closed-toe shoes. We packed pants and an extra sweatshirt because, in spite of the perfect seventy-two degree day on the lake, our destination (the Soudan Underground Mine State Park) promised a steady fifty-eight degrees in its subterranean parts. So, with bellies full of scrambled eggs, hash browns, and toast, we trekked out to a site (surrounded by endless forest) that promised to bring us deep into the earth. 

The flannel-shirted guide who greeted us was a bit paunchy and had glimmering eyes. Encroaching gray hair splayed out in tufts from the sides of the yellow hard hat that rested tall upon his sixty-two-year-old head. He stood tall and smiled; it seemed he couldn’t help but smile. He had a story to tell. 

“Let me tell you a little bit about our mine.” 

Oh boy. 

This was going to be an adventure. 

Now, if you’re like me, you are all in on this kind of experience (please see my recent piece On Taking Adventures with My Children). Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to descend a half-mile into the earth in an overfilled, rickety elevator in order to explore a sampling of an iron mine’s fifty-four miles of tunnels? This dad and his daughters wouldn’t miss it.

The Soudan mine originally began as an open pit mine in 1882. A terribly dangerous business, 130 lives were lost (not counting innumerable injuries) in its first eighteen years of operation. As technology advanced and the true financial potential of the region’s rich iron deposits became fully realized, US Steel (the owning corporation) shifted operations to an underground endeavor. This is where things got very interesting. 

Our guide, a local who grew up a few miles away with miners as neighbors, clearly reveled in telling the story. The Soudan Mine was dubbed the Cadillac of Mines. What exactly does that mean? Compared to the treacherous conditions of so many other regional mines, Soudan had great oxygen (and less poisonous gases like carbon monoxide . . . remember the “canary in the coal mine” whose death signaled to miners to evacuate lest they too succumb to poisonous gases?), minimal influx of water (with less risk of drowning), and dense rock (less apt to collapse on you). From 1900 until the mine closed in 1962, only sixteen deaths were recorded. An interesting caveat, however, tells that if you were injured in the mine and made it alive to the hospital only to die as a result of your injuries, your death was officially recorded as a death in the hospital, not a death in the mine. 

As we crushed (and I mean crushed) into the elevator with twelve people and descended twenty-three hundred feet below the surface of the earth, we were officially entering the workaday world of a Soudan miner. Most miners were non-English speaking immigrants from Scandinavia or Eastern Europe. Out of their meager income, they were responsible for buying their own candles (no electricity in these unstable bowels of the earth) and their own dynamite (available, apparently, at the local general store). They were assigned to teams based, in part, on their skills (driller, bar-man, etc.), but based even more on their language. Contrary to logically having teams speaking a common language that allowed them to cooperate efficiently, US Steel management arranged for confused teams of workers speaking different languages—a veritable Tower of Babel—so that, though less efficient, they would be even less likely to unionize in protest of their appalling working conditions.

Miners were originally assigned to an excavated chamber (known as a stope) off of the main tunnel. At various sites high in the stope, a driller would penetrate deep into the rock where sticks of dynamite would be wedged and exploded. After the deafening explosion, one man known as the “bar man” (perhaps the least enviable job) would re-enter with a long stick and tap the ceiling of the stope. This would preemptively enable any remaining loose rock to fall and thus avoid having it collapse later on the heads of miners. 

Twelve hours a day, six days a week, the miners slaved away. Drilling, dynamiting, dragging iron-rich stone into carts on rails, and then pushing the cart three-quarters of a mile to the elevator. While the work was steady, it was grueling. Muscles were pulled. Joints were twisted. Hearing was lost. To give us a sense of just what it was like to work deep in the earth in the early twentieth century, our guide extinguished all of the lights, at once leaving us momentarily engulfed in impenetrable, suffocating blackness. Relieved when the lights came back on, we shuffled back to the elevator realizing just how difficult it was to be a miner. 

In short order, we were comfortably back on sturdy ground, bathed in a blowing breeze and a brilliant sun. We now had a fuller understanding of the operations of the mine and the lives of the miners. But as we looked around, what remained of Soudan seemed so ghostly, so desolate now.  That is because the mine ceased operations in 1962 (over fifty-seven years ago). The fifteen billion tons of iron that was mined over the life of the enterprise was dwarfed by newer, safer, more efficient means of iron extraction. What remains of the Soudan Mine today are towering rusted headframes, silent conveyor belts, and a lonely railcar resting on a neglected, brushed-smothered railroad track. US Steel had long since donated what remained of Soudan to the state. It was simply too big of a tax burden. 

To see a once robust center of industry reduced to a shell of its former self, one may argue, was a testimony to the progress of industry, right? Maybe. But it was also sad. Men and women lost jobs. Employees (descended from generations of Soudan miners) saw their work shuttered without significant future prospects. Families scrambled for income in faraway locales. And the bustling town shrank as its heart withered away. 

The story of the Soudan Mine is more than a story of industry and technology, of deep shafts and unparalleled darkness. It is the story of a man or woman showing up to work every day, to pay their bills, to feed their family, and to be a part of something much bigger than themselves. The tales of these miners (and the weathered faces of those in the introductory videos) spoke to the innate dignity of a hard day’s work. I have had some difficult jobs in my life, but I have never worked this hard. And I have never worked under such oppressive conditions for so long and for so little pay. And yet, these men (and increasingly women) packed a lunch each day, descended into blackness, and risked life and limb to make ends meet. 

As I walked away from the Soudan Mine, I hoped that my daughters would recognize not only the wonder of American ingenuity but also the peril of the mining industry. Even more, I hoped they would appreciate the indispensability of a robust work ethic, the true (and often high) cost of living, and the dignity of honest labor. I pray that they understand that the greatest fruit of hard work is not money, but character. Work of all forms requires grit and elbow grease, a shoulder to the wheel and a nose to the grindstone. It requires vision and tenacity. As one wise thinker once reminded, “You can’t dream yourself into a character; you must hammer and forge yourself one.” 

I imagine that my daughters will never become miners, though I could be wrong . . .

But they will surely have a great respect for them.