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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Forty years ago, the Pioneer Mine shut down

Mike Hillman
Posted 3/24/07

April 1, 1967, was a difficult day for people living on the Vermilion Iron Range. No one knew, when the women got up early in the morning to start cooking breakfast for their families. Some of those …

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Forty years ago, the Pioneer Mine shut down


April 1, 1967, was a difficult day for people living on the Vermilion Iron Range. No one knew, when the women got up early in the morning to start cooking breakfast for their families. Some of those women also were packing lunch pails for their men. In some houses in Ely, Soudan, and Tower, there were two lunch pails packed, one for the father and one for the son.

A few of these women had packed lunch pails for three generations of their family. Some of them had carried lunch pails down to the mines when they were little girls for their dads. When you worked as hard as the miners did who worked in the underground mines, you needed a good lunch. Miners in Tower and Soudan had been taking the 21-mile ride to Ely to work at the Pioneer Mine since their mine had been closed on Dec. 15, 1962. The rock was harder at the Soudan Mine, and the mine was deeper than the workings at the Pioneer, and that made the iron more expensive to work than the broken iron mined at the last Ely mine, so when the time came for United States Steel to close down one of the last two underground mines operating in the state of Minnesota, it was the Soudan which was closed. It was all about money. Almost two hundred of the Soudan miners were transferred to the Pioneer where they worked for the last five years. For the miners who made the move, it was like going from heaven to hell. If the Soudan was a Cadillac then the Pioneer as an old Nash with the brakes gone and the springs and shocks broken. The Soudan mine was dry and safe. The Pioneer was wet, muddy, and dangerous. But it was the last underground mine left. There was no where else for the Soudan men to go. They had been the first chance at mining in Minnesota, and now they were down to the last chance for the Vermilion Range.

It wasn’t a matter of running out of iron. There was plenty of iron. But as the underground mines on the Vermilion Range went deeper into the earth, it cost more money the further down you went. A ton of iron mined underground at the Pioneer or Soudan was much more expensive to mine than the Mesabi ore mined in huge open pits. The American steel industry was willing to spend more money to mine iron in the underground mines, because for many years they needed the special iron found only in Ely and Soudan, because they could not make steel without it. Vermilion Range Iron was a vital part of the mix that went into an open hearth furnace, and the cost of mining the iron was an expense that could not be avoided. They had to mine iron on the Vermilion Range if they wanted to make steel. It was not a matter of choice, but in the years after World War Two, things were changing in the steel industry. The old open hearth furnaces were being shut down in favor of new and improved blast furnaces which did not need iron from Ely or Soudan to make high grade steel. In a gradual conversion process more and more of the old open hearth furnaces were taken offline as new blast furnaces were added to take their place. For the big steel companies who ran the mines in Minnesota it was all a matter of saving money. As more of the blast furnaces came on line less and less of the Vermilion Range iron was needed, and that’s when they started to close down the last of the state’s underground mines.

The first signs of the end started in the mid 1950s when the Oliver Iron Mining company closed down the Sibley Mine in Ely. It was not much of a shock. The Sibley was the last steam powered mine operating in the state, and people in Ely weren’t too worried. Many of the older Sibley miners were ready to retire, and the rest of the miners were transferred to the Pioneer which was working less than a quarter mile to the west of the Sibley. It was so short a distance that the transferred miners could still walk to work. Closing down an outdated mine made sense to the people living in Ely, and they comforted themselves with the fact that the Pioneer could maintain the same production levels as when the Sibley operated. Who could blame the company for closing an outdated operation, and picking up the slack at the more cost efficient mine. When the Zenith and Soudan mines were closed in the early 1960s it was harder to put an optimistic spin on the future of Vermilion Range mining. The one hope that people in Ely and Tower and Soudan clung to was that they had just finished opening the 18th level at the Pioneer. It took a lot of time and expense to open a new level. The shaft had to be sunk another hundred feet, and extending the drifts to reach the bodies of iron consumed lots of time and money. The hopeful conversations in the coffee shops usually centered around why the Oliver would go to all the expense of putting down a new level if they were going to close down the mine. It was an optimistic outlook for a worrisome situation. Deep down inside everyone knew it was a matter of time, but when would that time come.

At first, when the news went around town on April 1, 1967, that the Pioneer Mine had stopped mining operations and called the miners up from underground, people thought the rumors of closure were nothing but a bad April Fool’s Day joke. It must have seemed that way to the miners at the Pioneer too. They went to work that morning and went down underground like it was just another day. Sometime that morning the superintendent got a call from Pittsburgh telling him to call the men up and to shut down the works. People who were there that day say that the superintendent was as surprised by the news as anyone else in town, and that he sat alone in his office for a half hour, before he could compose himself and tell his workers that mining was finished on the Vermilion Range. For 83 years the Vermilion Range was part of Minnesota’s iron mining industry, and now it was part of history. Ely was no longer a mining town. People were afraid for the future. What would they do now that the mining was done?

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