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Milford Mine disaster, 1924: ‘Save your breath and start climbing!’

On Feb. 5, 1924, boggy water from Foley Lake flooded the Milford Mine near Crosby, killing 41 men in Minnesota’s worst mining disaster.

On Feb. 5, 1924, boggy water from Foley Lake flooded the Milford Mine about two miles north of Crosby, killing 41 miners in Minnesota’s worst mining disaster.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

With time, disasters become chillingly simple: a set of numbers, a series of events, a count of the dead.

On Feb. 5, 1924, boggy water from Foley Lake flooded the Milford Mine about two miles north of Crosby, killing 41 miners in Minnesota’s worst mining disaster. Only seven miners were able to climb to safety. First sunk in 1917, by 1924 the main shaft of the manganese mine was 200 feet deep.

It was a prosperous mine for its owner, George H. Crosby. In 1924 alone, it shipped 70,000 tons of ore. It closed in 1932 with the decline of steel during the Depression.

But those are just numbers. The reality is that on Feb. 5, 1924, Foley Lake and the boggy water near it came crashing into the bottom of the mine, filling it to within 15 feet of the surface. The quickness of the flooding and the horror of that day were captured later in interviews with survivors and relatives of the miners.

‘A liquid roaring sound’

In 2006, Brainerd Dispatch reporter Renee Richardson interviewed several people who remembered the Milford Mine disaster and came away with a depiction of what it was like in the mine:

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“The Milford Mine’s shaft was 200 feet deep with the first level at 135 feet. On that afternoon, men were working at the 165-foot to 175-foot level. Their first warning something was wrong was a sudden gust of warm wind. It was so strong it blew out the carbide gas lamps on their hats or knocked hats off altogether. The disaster fell upon them with incredible speed.

“Gusts of wind were followed by a liquid roaring sound. Men ran for their lives. Others were trapped in mud where they stood. Survivors recalled men who lost their lives when they went back to help others.

“The disaster is believed to have begun when a surface cave-in of six or eight feet at the mine’s easternmost end tapped into mud with a direct connection with Foley Lake. The mine had a single vertical shaft to the surface. Seven men made it to the top with the water rising nearly as fast as they did.

“(F)amilies of the 41 men lost when the Milford Mine flooded did not have to wait for news of life or death. The mine shaft flooded to within 15 to 20 feet of the surface within minutes. Instead the wait was for the recovery of the dead. The last body was recovered nine months after the disaster.”

‘I knew if we lost a minute, it was too late’

In 2006, Connie Petersen of the Brainerd Newshopper found several eyewitness accounts to the tragedy.

“Veteran miner Matt Kangas, later interviewed by The Duluth News Tribune, said, ‘I was working not near anybody. Then the wind hit me. I fell down and my lamp went out. I lit it, it went out again. It was dark and cold. The wind hit me again. I knew what it was. I was in a time like that once before in Michigan. I knew if we lost a minute, it was too late. I yelled. Then I ran like hell. We can’t save our life no more if we don’t run, I know. So I run. No time for gates, no time for the cage. No time for anything. I just run and fall down, and run some more. I get to the ladder. I reach for it. I miss it. I grab it and start up. I am all in. But I’m damned if I stop!’”

Petersen’s article also uses News Tribune quotes from underage miner Frank Hrvatin, Jr., 15, who was worked with his veteran partner, Harry Hosford. His father, Frank Sr., was a blaster in the mine.

“Just after Frank Jr. dumped ore down a transfer chute, a ‘terrific wind’ hit. He thought it strange for a mine so quiet and cool. When he saw rushing water on the level below, Hrvatin told his partner, ‘Look at the water, Harry.’ ‘Water, you’re nuts!’ Hosford said. Then he looked. ‘Oh, my God! My God! For God’s sake, run! Faster!’ Hrvatin yelled, ‘The whole lake has come in!’ Half sprinting, half tripping along a 600-foot dark drift, the two reached the shaft where Emil Kainu had come over from the pump room. Kainu cried, ‘What’s the matter? Something’s wrong!’ ‘Save your breath and start climbing. We know what’s wrong!’ said Hrvatin.

“Veteran miner Clinton Harris operated the electric hoist at the Milford shaft, … Harris apparently could have escaped, but remained at his post. He yanked the cord of the whistle, warning miners in the upper level to get out. Either he tied it around his waist so the alarm would continue, or he became entangled in it.

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“When Matt Kangas reached the ladder, he had little strength for the 175-foot climb to the surface. Hrvatin and Hosford were behind Kangas on the ladder. With water already rising up the shaft, Hrvatin jumped between the older miner’s legs and boosted Kangas up – rung-by-rung – supporting him on his shoulders. At the same time, Hrvatin reached down for his partner, the last of the seven who escaped. Hosford, soaked to his waist in rising muck, yelled, ‘For God’s sake, hurry!’ When the seven survivors collapsed on the surface, men ran to help. They lowered the cage hoping someone could be pulled to safety, but it returned empty, encased in silt and muddy water. In less than 15 minutes, the 200- foot mine filled to within 15 feet of the surface. Everyone knew no one else would escape.

For over four hours, Harris’s warning whistle blasted until someone from the engine room could disconnect it. … Hrvatin remained by the shaft, staring down at murky, bubbling water. His father, Frank Sr. was trapped with the others. People standing near Foley Lake could see the thick ice crack and the water level drop.”

Milford miners
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
From left to right: Superintendent Harry Middlbrook, Steve “Bubash” Perpich, Martin Valencich, Frank Hrvatin, Jr., Gust Snyder, Jacob Ravnick and Clyde Revord. Hrvatin escaped the flooding, but his father died in the mine.

‘I knew I’d never see my dad no more’

Petersen continues: “Over 50 years later, when interviewed about the Milford disaster for Berger Aulie’s book “The Milford Mine Disaster: A Cuyuna Range Tragedy” Frank Hrvatin Jr. got emotional while remembering: ‘I took my partner out of the mud … He was in mud up to his hips. That’s how fast the water came in – but we made it. Less than 15 minutes. I knew I’d never see my dad no more. They were all dead.’ Hrvatin remembered ‘super human strength’ on his climb to the surface.

Thirty-eight of the 41 miners who drowned were married, leaving more than 80 children. In 2006, Brainerd Dispatch reporter Renee Richardson talked with some of them.

Katie Perpich’s father, Peter Magdich, died in the disaster. He was a 40-year-old Yugoslavian immigrant when he died, leaving his wife three months pregnant with Katie and five other children at home. Katie never knew her father.

“It’s always on my mind what would I be like if my dad was still living,” Katie said in the article. “I wish I knew my dad, but I don’t. That’s how it goes. They all had these children to raise and they had to work hard.”

Katie’s husband, John R. Perpich, lost a brother-in-law in the disaster. In the article, Richardson writes that John “was about 5 when the mine flooded. He remembers playing with his sister’s son who was about 6 months younger than he was when his older brother came home with the news. His sister’s husband, George Butkovich, died in the mine. In his late 20s, he was the father of four children. ‘He was a big strapping man and he was a pretty sharp man,’ John Perpich said of his brother-in-law. ‘I think he would have went a long way if this hadn’t happened but I guess the Good Lord wanted him first. He was really a nice guy.’ Every day Butkovich’s young son loved to cling to his leg and be dragged along as his father walked. After the mine accident, Perpich said the 4-year-old boy kept asking ‘where’s my daddy?’ ”

Married just six weeks

Richardson talked with Evelyn Bedard of Crosby, whose husband, Earl, was named after his uncle who died in the mine accident. She said his uncle was in his early 20s and had been married six weeks when he died.

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Edna Wolford was 9 and living on a farm near Crosby when she heard news of the disaster. She later met her husband, John Wolford, in Iron Hub. John Wolford’s uncle, Arthur Wolford, died in the tragedy. Edna Wolford told Richardson that waiting to recover his body was terrible for her husband’s family. “You can imagine if you had somebody you cared for in an accident like that — it would be horrid,” she said.

Today, the disaster site is on the National Register of Historic Places, but that won’t help you get to the scene. Crow Wing County would like to set up a park and a monument honoring the 41 dead, but their plans have been on hold while they continue to apply for a Parks and Trails Legacy grant. They have been turned down two years running. So far, the county has a parking lot and a canoe launch built on Milford Lake, as well as a picnic site and some benches close to the mine site. The problem is that you have to canoe (or snowmobile in winter) across the lake from the canoe launch to access the picnic site, and even then there’s no marker or description of the events from Feb. 5, 1924. County officials hope one day to build road access and a hiking trail to the site.