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Entries about Minnesota history from MNopedia are made available through a partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society and with funding from the Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

Once Minnesota’s deepest mine, Soudan complex is now a state park

The Lake Vermilion–Soudan Underground Mine State Park occupies over four thousand acres in the far northeast corner of Minnesota. The site contains a historic underground iron mine as well as the fifth largest lake in Minnesota and its surrounding habitat.

Archeological evidence suggests that American Indians lived near Lake Vermilion as early as 7000 BCE. Surviving dugout pits nearby were probably used for storing foods such as maize (corn). The presence of chert and chert chips, used to make sharp-edged tools, indicates that very early people mined in the area. The presence of stones, such as obsidian, that are non-native to Minnesota and from locations in Wyoming and North Dakota, supports the contention that American Indians lived near Lake Vermilion and traded with other Native people hundreds of miles away. Campsite artifacts like a burned bone and a stone projectile point have been carbon-dated to six hundred years old and five thousand to seven thousand years old, respectively.

In 1882, the first Euro-American miners arrived in the Lake Vermilion area to mine recently discovered iron ore. The discovery led to the development of Minnesota’s first open pit mine (converted to an underground operation soon afterwards) and to the modern tradition of iron mining in the state. Soudan was chosen for the mine’s name when a miner commented on how different Minnesota winters were from those in the Sudan region of Africa. When the mine closed in 1962 due to rising production costs, it was the oldest and deepest mine in the state, at 2,341 feet below the surface.

In 1963, the United States Steel Corporation donated the mine, buildings, and surrounding twelve hundred acres to the state to create the park, which merged with Lake Vermilion State Park in 2014. The park is on the south shore of Lake Vermilion in a rugged terrain created by glacial action with a surrounding mixed hardwood and conifer forest. Scenic stands of old-growth pine and exposed rock formations, composed of red jasper, white to pink chert, and gray hematite, capture the visitor’s eye.

When touring the underground mine, visitors wear hard hats and ride an elevator down the deepest mine shaft until they are half a mile underground. After climbing into rail cars, they then travel three quarters of a mile horizontally in a space called a drift (a kind of tunnel). Finally, they take a spiral staircase or elevator to an area called a stope (a cavern where the miners blasted and drilled the rock).

The underground mine is also home to a physics research laboratory, which visitors can tour. The mine is useful in particle physics experiments because of its depth, which reduces the potential for protons on the earth’s surface to skew test results. In 2016, two projects began to phase out their long-term research, creating an opportunity for future tenants.

A mural measuring twenty five by sixty feet, created by Joseph Giannetti, decorates the laboratory’s rough rock wall. It depicts the universe, scientists, and atomic particles, and explains the science of mining and honors the miners who toiled there.

The park contains several original buildings and pieces of equipment, including the headframe, engine house (1901), crusher house (1904), drill shop (1917), dry house (1925), and machine shop (1925). The dry house, which served as the locker room for the miners and as an office for the mine superintendent, later became a visitors’ center.

Visitors to the park can attend nature programs on topics that range from bats to bees to wild edibles and trees of northern Minnesota. They also can enjoy hiking, biking, geocaching, picnic facilities, camping, shoreline fishing, boating, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling. Several long-distance trail systems run near or through the park and include the Taconite State, Arrowhead, and Mesabi trails.

The diverse habitat of both lakeshore and forest in the park provides a unique opportunity for bird watchers. There have been sightings of over one hundred species of birds, including migrants passing through the park and well-known birds of Minnesota like the loon and eagle.

Mammals in the park include timber wolves, bears, white-tailed deer, beavers, and other smaller animals. After the mine stopped operating, several thousand bats made the underground mine their winter home. This created a hibernaculum, or home for bats—one of the state’s largest. White-nose syndrome, a deadly bat disease present in the mine, is an ongoing concern.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

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