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Fifty years gone... but not forgotten

Despite a half-century, mining and its culture remain deeply embedded for many in Ely

Keith Vandervort
Posted 8/16/17

ELY— It’s been just over half a century since the last mine closed in Ely, but the tradition of mining remains deeply embedded in both culture and identity for many residents of the community. …

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Fifty years gone... but not forgotten

Despite a half-century, mining and its culture remain deeply embedded for many in Ely


ELY— It’s been just over half a century since the last mine closed in Ely, but the tradition of mining remains deeply embedded in both culture and identity for many residents of the community. Beginning in the late 1880s, as many as five iron ore mines operated for a time in and around Ely. The last of them, the Pioneer Mine, ran its final shift in April of 1967, and for many residents, it was the day the town died.

Those views reflect the sometimes stark divide between Elyites who still pine for the old days, and hope for a new generation of mining, and those who see a future as a town built on natural amenities like wilderness and outdoor recreation.

For the former, Ely is in an economic death spiral that will never be saved by a “bunch of canoeists.”

Keeping Ely’s mining heritage alive is the mission of a dedicated group of volunteers at the Ely Arts and Heritage Center, which manages the buildings and grounds at the former Pioneer Mine, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Pioneer Mine was a major employer in Ely from 1888 to 1967. The water tower and the A shaft head frame still provide a landmark visible from many places in town on the north side of Miner’s Lake, formed when the pumps used to keep the water out of the mines were silenced forever.

Two interpretive signs tell about its history:

“The Pioneer Vermilion Iron Mining Company opened the Pioneer Mine in 1888 and began shipping ore the following year. When Oliver Iron Mining Company leased the Pioneer in 1898, it was producing over 500,000 tons annually. It was considered the richest of Minnesota’s underground mines.”

“The mine closed in 1967, not because the ore body was exhausted, but because underground mining was so labor-intensive as to make the whole operation too expensive to bring in a profit. With a 100-man workforce, open pit mines produced about five million tons of ore every year. The underground Pioneer operations employed approximately 600 miners to produce one million tons annually.”

“Working conditions were extremely hazardous. There was constant danger that water would soak the ground above, break through and run into the mine, sometimes to a depth of 200 feet, killing all those not fast enough to escape. Cave-ins, mud-slides, and premature dynamite blasts also caused injuries or fatalities.”

Remaining mine structures reflect the Pioneer Mine’s “glory days.” They include the captains’ and miners’ dries where employees changed from work clothes and showered, as well as the shaft house which provided weather protection. Other structures include the stack, built in 1902 to create a draft for boilers powering early steam hoists, the 1927 engine house, that powered later electric hoists, the steel head frame, and a water tower.

Keeping history alive

Former Pioneer Mine worker John Seliga retired from teaching and moved back to Ely in 2005. “I was asked to talk to some high school kids about mining,” he said. “I found out they had a very limited grasp of our history. One thing led to another and we opened up a museum in the shaft building.”

Seliga and Seraphine Rolando, along with Bill Erzar and other volunteers, maintain the museum and are living history interpreters for visitors.

“There was nothing in this building, the shaft building, and people wanted to come in here,” Rolando said. “We opened it up and started to talk to people who wanted to know where grandpa worked or where their dad or uncle worked. “Now we have all kinds of stuff, such as maps that go back to the 1890s, that show where the mine tunnels were. We have old books; all sorts of stuff.”

Rolando said he found many old mine parts, like drill rods, and other machinery parts in the dump. “People clean out their garage and don’t know what this stuff is,” he said. “They don’t want these treasures anymore.”

The Pioneer Mine maintained two shafts, known as Shafts A and B. Shaft A was used to lower men, timber supports, and equipment into the mine, while Shaft B was used for hoisting ore from within the mine to the surface, where it was transported by rail car to the port of Two Harbors on Lake Superior.

At one time, Shaft B was the tallest structure north of Duluth. At the mine’s closing in 1967, it was operating at 1,626 feet below the surface. More than 41 million long tons of ore were mined during the life of the Pioneer Mine.

Original telephones from area mines, a scale model of Shaft B, many photographs, stained glass art and old equipment fill the shaft house. “We keep putting one foot in front of the other and little by little we are building quite an interesting collection and history of our mines,” Seliga said.

Another sign gives some information about the Pioneer Mine and pit that is now Miner’s Lake beneath the mine buildings. Its text reads: 

“Miner’s Lake Pit. In 1887, the Pattison brothers – Martin and William – gold seekers turned timber cruisers, discovered the once heavy pine timbered property that is the Pioneer Mine site. A property lease was gained in 1886 by the Pioneer Iron Mine Company from which the mine gets its name. By 1889 the first shipment of ore made its way to the port of Two Harbors on the Duluth and Iron Range Railway.

“While some of the Pioneer ore is similar to others in hardness, some is soft and earth-like, and when wet from groundwater, becomes difficult to mine. This created great dangers from mud slides threatening and taking lives of many courageous miners.

Looking ahead

Rolando and Seliga talked about the past of Ely with a real sense of nostalgia. “The thing is, it is part of me,” Rolando said. “I was here when it was all running. There were steam locomotives running when we were kids. We want to try and preserve it.”

People from all over the world visit the mine museum to look at the past. “You look at the mines down in Virginia, and that’s a whole different world,” Rolando said. “I worked for Reserve Mining Co. for 17 years. My grandpa worked in a mine. My father worked in a mine. Many friends of mine worked down there.”

The work was good, Seliga said. “The wages were good, safety was important. We had prescription pill coverage. They took care of us.”

Rolando recounted the enormous amount of taxes paid by the mines to the schools at that time. “We didn’t buy pencils, paper or anything - it was all bought by the mining company. Junior College was free here. Mining paid for everything,” he said.

Mine work made it possible for families to not only survive, but to thrive in Ely. “My dad had an eighth-grade education. He raised a family,” Rolando said. “I had a high school education. I raised a family.”

Rolando has a much different view of Ely these days. “It ain’t nothing,” he said. “These people who think Ely is just wonderful and vibrant are wrong.” He talked about the number of hardware, grocery and shoe stores. We had over 6,000 people. You couldn’t find a place to park downtown,” he said. “Tonight, you go downtown after 5 o’clock and you might see three cars,” he said. You can’t run this town on tourism.”

Seliga agreed. “This town is dying little by little.”

Rolando added. “We aren’t even maintaining this town. There is no tax money coming in.”

The Boundary Waters canoe business is hardly noticeable to the city’s economy, according to Rolando. “They come into town and maybe stay the first night. They go out for a week, and they come back, stay for a night and then leave. It is not like they come here and stay a whole week.”

Retired miner Bill Erzar Jr. joined in the conversation. “Most of us have a decent pension from the mine, and because we made good wages, we have good Social Security, too,” he said. “There’s no question in my mind that some of these young carpenters and those working in the restaurants are not making it. They have to work two or three jobs to survive.”

Does Erzar think Ely will cease to exist in another half century? “Yeah, I do,” he said, “if nothing happens here.”

For residents like Erzar and others, the prospect of copper-nickel mining may be the only way to bring a sizable economic boost to Ely, but that’s a view that’s hotly contested by others in the community. Mining is sewn into the fabric of Ely’s history. Whether it will be part of Ely’s future remains to be seen.


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