Soudan marks 130 years of mining

First load of iron ore shipped July 31, 1884

J. Summit
Tim Tomsich, Breitung Township Chairman speaks during a celebration marking 130 years of mining in Soudan.
Jodi Summit

SOUDAN- It seemed fitting that the long-time Chairman of the Breitung Town Board has long-time ties to the mining industry.

Tim Tomsich, who works at Hibbing Taconite, was right at home talking about mining, and about Soudan’s role as the birthplace of the mining industry in Minnesota 130 years ago, to a standing room crowd at the Breitung Town Hall on Thursday, July 31.

Reading from historical accounts, Tomsich went back to that memorable day in 1884 when the first load of iron ore from the Soudan Mine was loaded into a railcar. He spoke about Charlemagne Tower Jr. and Elisha Morcom, and how miners and their families came dressed in their best clothes, and huddled in, trying to toss the first pieces of iron ore into the railcar, which would travel on tracks that had just been completed that very day.

The celebration in Soudan, organized by the Iron Mining Association of Minnesota, featured brief talks by many in the mining industry, as well as area politicians and DNR officials. The Soudan Mine is now operated as a state park, and Park Manager Jim Essig noted that the park’s mission is to help visitors understand the history of mining in Soudan, as well as the history of the people who worked in the mine.

“We were part of an industrial revolution that changed America,” Essig said, echoing what other speakers had said about the importance of the iron ore mined in Soudan to the national and world economies.

Essig noted that the reason the mine was closed had nothing to do with the quality or quantity of the ore, but instead, had to do with changes in the technology of mining. And the history of mining in the area stretches back thousands of years, Essig said. Results from archeological surveys in the adjacent Lake Vermilion State Park showed evidence of chert mining that dates back as far as 9,000 years ago. Obsidian spear points found in the park are possibly 1,200 years old, and came from the western United States.

Governor Mark Dayton signified the importance of the date by proclaiming July 31, 2014, as “Minnesota Iron Day.” IRRRB Commissioner Tony Sertich presented a framed copy of the proclamation, which was presented to the state park. The proclamation noted the importance of Minnesota’s iron ore in the past and current economy, and the fact that the industry contributes over $3 billion annually to the state’s economy, and taxes and royalties from iron mining contributed more than $90 million to Minnesota schools last year.

State Representative David Dill said he was encouraged to see all the signs lining streets in the area which stated “We Support Mining.”

“But the signs should say, ‘We Live Mining,” he told the crowd. “Every person is dependent on steel.”

Dill noted the technological advancements that have changed how iron is being mined over the years, and said the next jump, to copper-nickel mining, will be another important milestone.

State Senator David Tomassoni talked about the history of our area, and how it was tied to mining. He noted that the number of jobs relating to mining has fallen drastically in the last 40 years.

“I think that non-ferrous mining is going in the right direction,” he said. “These jobs support families.”

St. Louis County Commissioner Mike Forsman, another mining industry employee, said he looked forward to his children and grandchildren finding good jobs in mining.

Larry Sutherland, representing US Steel, which employs 1,900 employees in Minnesota, talked about his own history in the industry, starting out as a millwright at Keetac and now overseeing operations. He talked about the Iron Ore Alliance, a new organization formed between the industry and the steelworkers. He said the industry faces new challenges, including environmental regulation and competition from global producers, who may be importing steel at below-cost rates.

“We need to be protecting the environment of this region where we live, work, and play,” he said.


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