On July 31, 1884, ten wooden ore cars holding 20 tons each left the Minnesota Mine in Soudan enroute to Two Harbors, 68-miles through the northeastern Minnesota wilderness.
“Chunks of ore rattled like hail into the cars as the people on the docks competed for the honor of loading the first piece,” the late Iron Range historian Marvin G. Lamppa stated in his book “Minnesota's Iron Country.”
It was the first shipment of iron ore from the Vermilion Range, part of Minnesota's famous Iron Range.
“Everything started out as open pit,” said Jim Essig, Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park manager. “The best we can tell from records was that it started to convert to underground (mining) in 1886 to 1887.”
From 1884 to 1963, what became known as the Soudan Mine produced 16,010,044 tons of iron ore.
In the 136 years since that first shipment, northeastern Minnesota's iron ore mines have grown into one of the state's largest industries, providing the raw material needed to win world wars and supply the iron needed to manufacture American steel.
As natural iron ore became unfeasible to mine, the industry developed a new way to make iron through the production of iron ore pellets from low-grade iron contained in taconite.
Iron ore pellet production from 1950 through 2019 totaled more 2,087,539,350 tons. Today, Minnesota iron ore accounts for 80% of the “first pour” iron made in the United States.
The production of iron ore pellets – which replaced natural iron ore production – is a more than $3 billion a year industry that supports more than 200 businesses and 11,000 jobs across the state.
Still, the history of iron ore remains an attraction, said Essig. Each year, 30,000 to 32,000 visitors come to Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park. Many ride a small mining elevator to the bottom of the 2,341-foot deep underground mine for a tour. Deep underground, carved though tunnels carved out of solid rock, it's the tour of a lifetime.
“From a sampling of what we do, it's one of the best tours in the country,” said Essig. “If you hop onto Google or Tripadvisor, you'll see some really good reviews.”
Yet, mining is not your father or grandfather's industry anymore. Picks and shovels have long been replaced by massive pieces of technological mining equipment. Computers are used to help operate trucks, shovels and processing equipment. And the northeastern Minnesota iron mining industry can today produce about 40 million tons of iron ore pellets per year. Steel made from Minnesota iron ore is used to manufacture cars and trucks, pipe, buildings, ships, wind turbines, and hundreds of other steel products.
“The advances in our industry are exceptional because each position requires higher skill and provides greater safety,” said Kelsey Johnson, president of the Iron Mining Association of Minnesota. “Mining is safer today because of the advances in technology and training. Similar to advances in communication technology or farming, you can now see entire mine plans on your phone or tablet. Farmers can now see their yields in real time and miners can now see the quality of the rock they mine in real time.”
All of the advances have made the iron ore industry better, smarter, and require more advanced skills and training, Johnson said.
“With these advances, people are the real brains – they quickly analyze what they are seeing and shift their course to adapt. Every industry requires evolution, and mining is no different.”
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources officials estimates more than a hundred of years of iron ore remains on Minnesota's Iron Range.