SOUDAN - Imagine walking three-quarters of a mile through a mine tunnel in complete darkness to find iron ore, park interpreter James Juip tells the tour group.
The lights click off to help people imagine that scenario and the 20 people stand in darkness at level 27 of the Soudan Underground Mine, unable to see each other or Juip at 2,341 feet below the surface of the Earth.
Standing on the last level to be mined before Minnesota's first iron ore mine closed in 1962, Juip lights a candle in the darkness. Its flame only extends to a few faces near him, leaving the rest of the group still in the dark. He places the candle and sconce on his hard hat, similar to how miners would have placed a candle on their soft leather cap before electricity, freeing their hands to mine the ore.
"By the light of one candle, it would be the job of a crew of three men to find the iron that's hidden here in the wall, drill it, blast it and get it out of here," Juip told the tour group on July 13.
Minnesota had 140 underground mines at one point, he said as he concluded the 90-minute tour. A National Historic Landmark located about 90 miles north of Duluth, the Soudan mine has an important place in history. It's one of only a few mines containing a high-oxygen ore that was essential for decades in the open-hearth steelmaking process, a fact that mattered to Soudan miners, Juip said.
"These guys were proud to tell you that every piece of U.S. steel made between 1890 and 1940 had Soudan ore in it. That's just the way it was. You can think about the country made out of steel - trains, cars, skyscrapers - none of that stuff happened if it isn't for these guys here," he said.
He asked the crowd to picture the warplanes coming off the assembly lines during World War II.
"Every 90 minutes there was a new plane, and the steel for that plane - right here. That's cool. That's a very, very cool thing. And if you think about the job that these guys had - they work at a job that their dad worked at and their grandfather worked at and you're doing something that means something for the country. That's what made it special for those guys," he said.
The Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park is different from other Minnesota state parks because of its mine tours and, over the years, what draws visitors to the Soudan mine has changed, said park manager Jim Essig. When he began working at the park 27 years ago, people came to learn about the history of the mine. Today, Essig credits the park's interpretive staff with bringing in visitors, many of whom are repeat visitors to the mine.
"We don't do canned tours. Everybody has their own theme that they want to offer. We've seen it become, 'Yep, it's still a mine; yep, it's still historical in nature,' but then there's a cultural piece of it that I think is starting to come out more and more that this is where we all came from. Building of America has some very deep roots in this place," Essig said. "I think that, for a lot of young families now, it's a way to have their kids see that this is how we became what we are today. I think that's becoming more and more of a theme that we see throughout the tours."
In the visitor's center aboveground, "Mine and Community" is written across the wall. A display of black-and-white photos showcase the early years of the mine and the development of the nearby towns of Soudan and Tower. The mine's buildings aboveground have also been preserved and via signs, visitors can learn about the journey the ore took from the mine to the steel mills.
An average of 33,000 to 34,000 people take the mine tour annually, a number that has remained steady over the years, Essig said. But there could be an increase on the horizon.
The park added 3,000 acres along Lake Vermilion's shoreline to the park seven years ago and the first phase of the expanded park's new campground is nearly ready. Thirty-three campsites and three group camps are expected to open later this year, Essig said, adding that camper cabins are scheduled to open at the park in 2019.
A new campground coupled with the tour experience provided by the staff may provide a boost to attendance on the mine tours.
"I don't think we've ever broke 35,000 (visitors). I would like that to be this year. I really would," Essig said.
Never the same tour experience
The mine's parking lot was full on July 13, with some of the cars pulling campers and speed boats. A family arrived in a car carrying two canoes and headed into the mine while another family ate lunch pulled out of a cooler in their car's trunk. Although not all the tours were sold out that day, Essig pointed out that they were completely sold out the day before.
Visitors could spend all day on tours with a different interpreter each time and never have a repeat tour experience - and that's the way Essig wants it. Instead of a canned tour, each interpreter speaks from their own knowledge and experiences on the tour and tailors it to the group, Essig explained. The interview process to become an interpreter includes doing a five-minute program related to mining, geology or the Soudan mine, which gives Essig a good idea of how willing the applicant is to add their own theme to the tour. Once hired, the interpreters then begin to share their knowledge with each other, he said.
Juip provided tidbits about geology and other Midwest mines as he led a tour through the mine on July 13, with the help of Alyssa Hujanen, a local resident whose family worked at the mine.
Juip spends his summers as a Soudan mine interpreter, living in one of the old mining houses nearby, and then he spends the school year at Michigan Technological University. After receiving his bachelor's degree in geology, he's now working toward a master's degree and then a doctorate in industrial archaeology, a subject he said he "fell in love with" when he started working at the Soudan mine five years ago. Many of the old Soudan mine shafts and infrastructure still exist on the property and he said his dream job is to work with kids on discovering that infrastructure. The Soudan mine is where he first became interested in geology as a child, and now as an interpreter he said he gets to share his passion with children on the tours.
"I came on a tour when I was 6 and one of the old miners gave me a tour. He got me so pumped about geology, I went off and got my degree at Michigan Tech," he said. "That's why I like giving the tours. It gives them just a little bit of a taste of what this place really used to be like, and hopefully in the future it'll inspire more geologists and more kids to do what I did."
Hujanen is among the Soudan park staff whose family history is intertwined with the mine's history. Her great-grandfather Reino Hujanen worked at the Soudan mine before it closed and his name is inscribed with other miners' names in the mine's underground lunchroom.
"It makes me feel more connected with my history, like my family members used to work here and now I work here. It's just keeping it in the family almost. That's what got me interested in working here," she said.
Hujanen, who grew up in nearby Tower and was Miss Soudan-Tower a few years ago, said she had visited the mine about a dozen times and studied wilderness and park management at Vermilion Community College in Ely before she began her internship this summer. She hopes she'll be able to join the Soudan park staff because working there is her "dream job," she said.
"I told my mom that I wanted to work at the Soudan mine one day and just be really close to home ... all my family lives around here in Soudan and Tower," she said.
Essig joined the Soudan park staff in 1990, intending to only stay for two years before moving on.
"But this place has so much going on and I can honestly say in 27 years, I have never had two days ever the same. I don't know if I've ever had another job or know many people who have had a job where you don't start to have days that are quite a bit alike," he said.
The Soudan park doesn't do a lot of marketing, but the park is "a pretty high-profile park" in the media because the mine contains a science laboratory in addition to its mine tours. Despite that, the lack of an increase in visitor numbers over the years has been frustrating for Essig.
The mine is open for daily tours from Memorial Day weekend through September, but its busy season lasts from around July 4 to the end of August. During October, the mine opens only on weekends, with the exception of Education Minnesota weekend when the mine is open from Thursday through Sunday, Essig said, adding that all of the tours sold out during Education Minnesota weekend last year.
About 4,000 students tours the mine annually, typically in April and May. Essig has seen the school groups also change over the years from a sole focus on Minnesota history to science classes due to the laboratory, which is about 20 feet on the other side of the wall from where the mine tours take place. The laboratory has been closed to the public since the University of Minnesota's multi-year physics experiment concluded last year. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has been meeting with scientific research groups and private-sector companies since last year to find either a new experiment or tenant to move into the lab. Soudan's mine tours will continue regardless of the lab's future and aren't affected by the lab changes.
With the addition of the park's new campground at the park, Essig said they're expecting a boost in visitors. When the mine tours begin to sell out, Essig has few options except to add an extra tour to accommodate more people. However, that can start to make for a long day for the staff, who typically lead three tours and clean the visitor's center.
Visitors can walk in and reserve a spot on the next available tour and the park has added an online reservation system. It's limited in its same-day tour online reservation capabilities, but Essig said they're considering ways to expand same-day online reservations. Online reservations help him anticipate visitor numbers and adjust staffing levels accordingly, he explained.
Park staff is also considering ways to handle an influx of visitors during the busy summer season once the campground opens. One option under consideration is to have a specific tour time for campers that would allow the park to accommodate the campers while still keeping tours open for walk-in visitors.
Although the park is busy during summer, all the tours selling out in a day happens only about 10 times a year.
"I've had times when we've opened the gate up at 9:30 and had 90 people standing at the counter when we started, which is our first three tours, and by 11 o'clock, we're sold out for the day and we're already adding extra tours," he said.
Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park: www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/lake_vermilion_soudan