Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Fading into history

Rolando: Ely’s mining past being forgotten

Keith Vandervort
Posted 5/16/18

ELY – “Our mining history is fading here in Ely.” Those were the opening words from Seraphine Rolando last week as he began a presentation on Ely’s rich tradition of iron ore mining.

He …

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Fading into history

Rolando: Ely’s mining past being forgotten


ELY – “Our mining history is fading here in Ely.” Those were the opening words from Seraphine Rolando last week as he began a presentation on Ely’s rich tradition of iron ore mining.

He spoke as part of a Mining Series sponsored by Up North Jobs and held the second Thursday of each month at the Ely Senior Center.

“All of the people who know anything about this history are gone or going,” he said. “There are only about 20 miners left who actually worked underground.”

Rolando was born in Ely in 1946. He graduated from Ely High School in 1965, and went right to work for Reserve Mining. He was laid off in 1982. A big proponent of community service, 15 years ago with the help of John Seliga, he co-founded the miners museum at the Pioneer Mine site.

“We are trying to preserve whatever is left. We are trying to preserve the remaining mine buildings and equipment over there,” he said. The Pioneer Mine Museum is open for visitors during the summer months. “We are usually open just two days a week because most of the time there are only two of us.” Two other volunteers, Bill Erzar and Doug Popper, help out. And a volunteer tour guide from the Soudan Mine in Tower helps out too, according to Rolando.

Rolando spoke to the 60-plus participants about his tour-guiding experiences along with his mining adventures and misadventures during decades of work . “People come down and see that head frame (the main iron structure across the road from the Grand Ely Lodge) and they don’t know what it is. “I had one lady tell me that it has to be a rocket launching site,” Rolando said. “Yeah, I told her we have a secret base down there and we have to close the doors when we are ready to launch.”

His best story yet? “There were seven ladies at the museum site in the evening and I was out cutting grass. They were looking at the mine site sign and were curious about it,” he said. He directed them to the Trezona Trail with the mining-related historical plaques along the four-mile route.

He also invited them to come into the museum and look around. “The lady looked at me and asked if I was a killer,” Rolando said. “There are seven of you and I’m an old man. I don’t know what they were thinking.”

The Ely community actually started in the Spaulding area as a trading post, he said. “People (from Michigan)came up here looking for gold prior to the 1880s. Duluth was a little city and Beaver Bay was the only other place that had any people. Otherwise, there was nobody up here except the Indians and fur traders.”

He said the fur traders had heard reports of iron rock in the area, but they focused on the reports of gold in the ground. “These folks from Michigan made there way to Lake Vermilion through the Babbitt area and along the way their compasses started going wacky. They were over a big iron deposit. The gold mine thing didn’t work, and later they started the Soudan Mine.”

Iron ore was soon discovered by the Pattison brothers near the site of the present-day Pioneer Mine. “They found chunks of iron ore just laying around,” Rolando said. “They opened the Pioneer Mine, and the Chandler Mine before that,” he said. “There was no railroad up here and they hauled the mine equipment with ox carts across the lakes in the winter.”

The community of Ely actually started closer to the Winton area. “It would have stayed there if more mines weren’t opened to the west. Everybody moved closer to where they worked,” he said. “They didn’t have cars.”

Rolando showed photographs of the displays and equipment at the Pioneer Mine Museum site. “We have a drill core (displayed) there that is 16 feet long and five feet across. In 1938 they bored the Zenith Mine airshaft. It resembled a big hole saw. They went down 1,200 feet and pulled out the core piece,” he said.

The Pioneer Mine site also has a steam-powered diamond drill. “Eventually we want to set it up on th ewest end of the property,” he said. “We have the steam boiler and everything to set it up. That’s one of our projects that has been sitting there for about 10 years. One of these days we’ll get enough people, or somebody might want to do it. We’re all getting old. We don’t have a lot of help.”

As part of the mining display, Rolando and the boys wanted to build a mine tunnel replica. “We used paper-mache for the sides to make it look good,” he said. “We were doing pretty good, but it was slow work and messy. At first, we had a lot of volunteers to help. On the first day, everyone showed up. On the second day, fewer people showed up. Pretty soon, nobody showed up and that project went down the drain. We tried using foam and made it look like rock, but then we found out we were broke. My sister, who is rather artistic, helped out, and now we have paper painted to look like rock; just don’t poke on it too much.”

The Ely area had several mines, Pioneer, Chandler, Savoy, Sibley and Zenith. “The Pioneer is the only one that has ore still in it,” he said. “There is still over nine million tons in there. They were mining at the 16 level and developed the 17 level. Then they shut it all down in 1967. They were pumping 450,000 gallons of water a day out of the mine. They shut the pumps off and it took about 10 years to fill up where it is now (Miners Lake).”

Pioneer Mine: How long will it stand?

Is Ely’s mining history worth saving? Ely Greenstone Public Art believes so. 

EGPA, as managers of the Ely Arts & Heritage Center at Pioneer Mine, has struggled to raise funds to restore parts of the structures that are badly in need of repair. That includes roof materials and rain gutters for the Captains ‘Dry House as well as the fixing the retaining wall that supports the Pioneer Mine Head Frame. Each project could cost as much as $40,000.

The group is concerned that this mine site treasure, visited by more than 2,000 people every summer, will continue to deteriorate if left abandoned. Two structures, Shaft House and the Miners Dry House, were restored about 11 years ago on the seven-acre city of Ely property. The Engine House was demolished due to neglect.

Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, since 2003 EGPA has held a variety of arts events in the complex and, through grants and donations, has paid for and updated the wiring, safety fencing and added new furnaces. 

Monies have also been received for a Miners Memorial with $7,800 in funds dedicated to honor the 213 men who died while working in or as a result of injuries from work in Ely area mines.

Historical signs were installed along the Trezona Trail with city help and a Minnesota State Historical Society grant. These identify the locations of the Chandler, Pioneer, Zenith, Savoy and Sibley mines that were adjacent to what is now Miners Lake. It is now a dedicated trout lake.

Ely miners teach a thing or two

“When the Pioneer mine (Ely) closed, they decided they were going to take 150 or so men to Minntac (modern taconite plant built in 1965). I knew the supervisors at Minntac and they mentioned to me “I don’t know what we’re going to do with underground miners coming down here. They don’t know anything about plants.” When they got our fellas down there and they got them broken in and working, they really changed their tune. They said, ‘Boy, those guys showed us tricks we never heard of before!’ Because in an underground mine, these fellas did everything on their own, and they were good at making things work. It was up to them to do it the best way that they could.”

Iron Range Country- An historical travelogue of Minnesota’s Iron Ranges


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