Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Mystery Mine

Questions persist on why Lee Mine closed overnight

Jodi Summit
Posted 10/5/16

TOWER- The mystery surrounding the sudden closure of the Lee Mine, the first iron ore mine on the old Vermilion Range, is one of the great puzzles of early Tower-Soudan history.

At last week’s …

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Mystery Mine

Questions persist on why Lee Mine closed overnight


TOWER- The mystery surrounding the sudden closure of the Lee Mine, the first iron ore mine on the old Vermilion Range, is one of the great puzzles of early Tower-Soudan history.

At last week’s Tower-Soudan Historical Society’s Annual Meeting, members got a close-up look at the early mine, and why it closed, without any warning, literally overnight.

TSHS Museum Curator Richard Hanson shared his recent research on the opening and closing of the Lee Mine, which is located on the hill north of Tower, and accessible from the trail that starts behind the school tennis courts, as well as from a gravel road off Hwy. 169, just east of Tower.

The mine was financed by Charlemagne Tower and was led by surveyor George Stuntz, both of whom were involved in the formation of the Soudan Underground Mine, which began operation just weeks after work had begun on the Lee Mine.

In 1882, the newly-created Minnesota Iron Company started mining the rich vein of iron which would soon become known as the Lee Mine. The deposit measured 60 feet wide by 80 feet long, but no one knew how far down the deposit, assayed at 67 percent iron, actually went. Tower’s company had purchased the land encompassing the mine from a Frenchman, a fact that would come back to haunt the newly-formed organization.

A crew of 300 miners were soon at work at the mine, excavating two shafts and bringing up the ore which was then sent by rail to Duluth. While the mine appeared to be successful and profitable, the mine was closed and stripped literally overnight, leaving the mineworkers who showed up for work the following morning stunned in disbelief.

An old miner named Ike Gruben, who worked at the Lee Mine, described the scene to interviewer Herman Olson, a Tower shop owner who had taken an interest in the city’s early history. As Gruben told Olson, the miners showed up to work one morning to find that all the surface machinery, right down to the railroad tracks, had been removed from the site the night before.

“The owners had brought a train in and removed everything overnight,” Hanson said.

The reason stemmed from the land’s initial purchase. The company’s deed to the land was being challenged in court, and another owner had a deed to the same property.

“It looked like that Frenchman had sold the same property two times,” Hanson said.

The case took many years to resolve, and was eventually settled, in 1909, in favor of the Tower company. But by that time, the Soudan Underground Mine was producing all the ore the company could process and ship and the old Lee Mine was never reopened. Over the years, it filled with water, and now provides a pleasant destination for hikers.

The small mine pit, which is reported to be 70 feet deep in spots, is now on city-owned land.

Hanson’s presentation included many historical photos from the mining activity at Lee Mine, as well as scenic views of the mine pit today.

TSHS annual updates

Hanson also gave an update of TSHS projects, and projects getting underway for next year.

Volunteers are currently repainting the train’s caboose car, and work will need to be done soon on the roof on the pioneer cabin located in the mini-park.

“Our volunteers are tremendous,” he said.

Mary Shedd spoke about plans to collect and preserve oral histories from those who grew up or worked in the Tower-Soudan area.

“We want to capture what it was like to live in Tower-Soudan,” she said. TSHS is looking for people willing to be interviewed, as well as people interested in helping collect the interviews. They are also looking for suggestions of people to interview.

Hanson said they have digitized over 1,000 historic photos, and are always interested in making copies of family photos of historic interest, especially if they have information on dates, names, and places.

“We can copy them and give them back right away,” he said.

The group has received a $10,000 grant to hire an architect to draw up plans for updating the old brick fire hall, which the TSHS recently purchased, as well as researching ideas for future uses of the building.

Work continues on the restoration of the Potters Field area at Lakeview Cemetery, with help from students at the Vermilion Country School.

Fundraising is also underway to erect a Veterans memorial at the cemetery.

Over 3,000 people toured the museum and train this year, with visitors from Japan, Spain, France, Norway, Belgium, and Germany.

TSHS has a new website at

Members voted to expand the board size from nine to twelve members, who will each serve three-year terms. This will allow more participation on committees, they said. Pauly Housenga was elected to the one current opening on the board, and members voted to allow the current board to select the three new members.

Gene Osland is writing a history of the old Gornick Grocery, and is seeking any information from area residents. He can be contacted at 651-769-4906 or A draft copy of his history was available for review at the meeting.


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