Northern Minnesota: Soudan Mine tours reopen after 4 years of work, waiting

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SOUDAN, Minn. — The Soudan Mine reopened last month for public tours on a regular schedule for the first time since the state park attraction closed at the onset of the pandemic in 2020.

After closing for COVID, and then reopening on a limited schedule given ongoing transmission concerns, the facility closed again in October 2021 for a $9.3 million reconstruction project that included rebuilding 500 feet of the steel skeletal structure lining the mine shaft.

“Some of that steel was 100 years old,” said Jim DeVries, assistant manager of the Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park. “As you can imagine, steel that’s been in a wet environment for 100 years was starting to degrade. So we’re glad to get new steel in there, rebuild that piece so that we’re able to bring tourists down for generations to come.”

Interpreter Reed Petersen describes the geology on the bottom level during a tour of the underground iron mine facilities on Thursday, May 30, 2024 at the Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park near Soudan, Minn. (Clint Austin / Duluth Media Group)

That work was concentrated between levels 19 and 24 of the mine, following similar work done on lower levels after a two-day 2011 fire when wood debris was ignited by sparks from shaft maintenance work. Seventy thousand gallons of fire-suppressing foam took a toll, in addition to damage caused by the fire.

“We did that section from 24 down to 27,” said DeVries, “right after we had the fire in the shaft and we had some emergency funds to repair that steel. We knew at that point that we needed to do the 500 feet up above that.”

New video, exhibits

The shaft lining reconstruction won’t have much perceptible impact on the experience of visitors riding an elevator down to level 27, where tours take place. Upon arriving at the decommissioned ore mine, though, visitors will certainly notice the new eight-minute introductory video, as well as new exhibits that include a three-dimensional model of the entire mine.

“We are so fortunate that we were able to, over the last two years, do a lot of research and development to have for the very first time a professionally created exhibit in this space,” said interpretive supervisor Sarah Guy-Levar, standing in the mine’s dry house. That structure, where miners would change clothes after a shift, now functions as the attraction’s visitor center.

The model depicts the 54 miles of drifts — “what we would call tunnels,” explained Guy-Levar — that were excavated during the mine’s 80 years of operation.

“Not only do they get to have a real experience,” said Guy-Levar about mine visitors, “but they can come back here in the visitor center and fully understand the complexity” of the mine.

Tourism landmark

Since first opening for public tours as a state park in 1965, three years after the 1882 mine ceased operations, Soudan has become a tourism landmark on the Iron Range. In a typical year, said DeVries, about 35,000 people descend 2,341 feet below the surface to visit the most recently excavated section of the mine.

That’s deeper than any other public underground mine tour in the United States, based on a list maintained by the National Mining Association. DeVries believes the state of Minnesota, which paid for the recent reconstruction through a combination of bonding money and state park funds, appreciates the value of its unique attraction.

“There’s a lot of commitment statewide, from the (DNR) commissioner’s office to the governor’s office,” DeVries said while standing near the towering elevator hoist Thursday. “They’re excited that we are opening up again.”

A sign at the entrance to the bottom level of the mine greets visitors during a tour of the underground iron mine facilities Thursday, May 30, 2024 at the Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park near Soudan, Minn. (Clint Austin / Duluth Media Group)

Aside from tourist infrastructure such as the passenger rail cars that carry visitors three-quarters of a mile through the mine’s deepest drift — “train is for ore, train is for product,” said interpreter Reed Petersen about how the mine’s tracks would have been used during regular operation — the Soudan Mine remains largely frozen in time as it was left when miners last clocked out on Dec. 15, 1962.

“By the early 1960s, the mine was no longer profitable,” a narrator’s voice explains in the new introductory video. “Instead of the rich iron ore found in Soudan, steel producers wanted a processed ore called taconite … With new technology, mining companies could gather lower-grade ore more quickly, process it more cheaply.”

“Soudan was called ‘the Cadillac of mines,’” said Petersen on Thursday while standing in a stope, or underground room, created by ore excavation. “Because this rock is so dense, it seals out most of the water. … There’s also a good airflow that happens through this mine.”

Total darkness

Standard mine tours offer a 90-minute experience highlighted by the elevator plunge, the train ride and an opportunity to experience total darkness when interpreters briefly extinguish the stope’s electric lights.

In Petersen’s experience, “Whenever you ask people, ‘What do you remember from this tour?,’ they always say, ‘I remember going down the mine shaft and I remember being in total darkness.’”

Park staff said that later this summer, they expect to resume occasional “science tours” that include a visit to the mine’s laboratory space. Most recently, two large physics experiments, active until 2016, took advantage of the mine’s insulation from cosmic radiation.

The science tours will explain the research conducted in the space, which was first used for laboratory work in the early 1980s, and will publicize the fact that “it is open for a new group (of researchers) to move in there.”

The facility’s historic infrastructure includes the 1924 electric hoist that still lifts and lowers the elevator cars. While the cacophonous half-mile ride is a vivid experience that leaves some visitors rattled, DeVries explained there’s no need to be nervous — the elevators have well-functioning emergency brakes and were built to lift heavy loads of iron ore.

“The rope is able to hold up to 90 tons of weight,” said DeVries. “Putting tourists on the cage, we don’t even come close to that kind of weight.”

An aerial view of the Soudan Underground Mine near Soudan, Minn. The Soudan Mine reopened May 25, 2024 for public tours on a regular schedule for the first time since the state park attraction closed at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. (Wyatt Buckner / Duluth Media Group)

During the recent reconstruction work, the hoist returned to something like its original mining schedule, running around the clock. With 40,000 square feet of shaft lining to remove and replace, workers relied on the same hoist and cage used by yesterday’s miners and today’s visitors.

“We had hoist operators from the park here that were manning this hoist throughout that time,” said DeVries. “They did two 12-hour shifts, six days a week while construction was going on.”

Little brown bats

One reason for the hustle: Work had to break for bats.

“This is the largest hibernaculum for little brown bats in Minnesota,” said DeVries. “During our construction phase, we did have to close down for two months, from the middle of March to the middle of May, to allow those bats just enough time to get through that hibernation period.”

Among the many thousands of miners who worked to liberate ore from subterranean Soudan, four live to this day, said DeVries. One of those aged industry veterans recently returned to his former workplace for a tour.

“He was excited,” said DeVries, “to be able to go underground again.”

Park staff encourage visitors to make advance reservations for Soudan Mine tours, as time slots regularly fill up. For information, see

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