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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

The “Cadillac of Mines” reopens for public tours

David Colburn
Posted 6/19/24

SOUDAN— After a four-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a $9.3 million reconstruction project, the Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park re-opened tours of …

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The “Cadillac of Mines” reopens for public tours


SOUDAN— After a four-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a $9.3 million reconstruction project, the Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park re-opened tours of Minnesota’s oldest and deepest mine to the public late last month, and according to park officials the response has been strong. This marks the first time since 2020 that the attraction is fully operational for tours.
Visitors can travel nearly a half-mile underground to the 27th level of the mine, where temperatures remain a constant 51 degrees year-round. Since first opening for public tours in 1965, three years after the mine closed in 1962, the Soudan mine has become a landmark on the Iron Range, attracting about 35,000 visitors annually from around the world.
The Soudan Mine, which began operations in 1882 as open-pit mines before shifting over to deep underground tunnels, played a major role in the nation’s industrial development. The rich ore mined there was vital for forging steel used to build everything from buildings and bridges to military equipment. The mine operated for eight decades until it was no longer profitable due to the emergence of taconite, which could be mined and processed more efficiently.
“Most mines that close don’t continue operation because you have to use pumps to keep the mine dry and somebody has to pay for that,” Interpretive Supervisor Sarah Guy-Levar told a special media day gathering recently. “And most active mines certainly don’t offer tours because if you have people in your cages, you are not hauling ore out of the ground, so you’re not making money. So Soudan is an incredibly unique experience.”
The recent renovation project focused primarily on replacing 500 feet of the steel structure lining the mine shaft, some of which was over 100 years old. The mine shaft’s aging steel and concrete lining had started to degrade significantly, posing potential safety risks.
“Steel that’s been in a wet environment for 100 years was starting to degrade,” said Jim DeVries, assistant manager of the park. “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.”
The reconstruction work, concentrated between levels 19 and 24 of the mine, followed similar work done on lower levels after a two-day fire in 2011. The fire, ignited by sparks from shaft maintenance work, required 70,000 gallons of fire-suppressing foam, which, along with the fire itself, caused significant damage. The recent project involved removing 70 dump truck loads of debris and thousands of square feet of concrete. Contractors lowered 2,000-pound steel beams and tons of concrete to rebuild the shaft lining and steel infrastructure that supports the cages that lower visitors down the shaft for the tours.
“And now we have a very, very strong steel structure. We don’t have to worry about anything caving in,” Guy-Levar said. “And it is a smooth ride right now!”
The three-minute ride down the mine shaft in the confined, dim cages takes visitors to the 27th level. From there, they board a train for a nearly mile-long ride to the last and deepest area that was mined.
The improvements to the shaft are barely noticeable to visitors, but those who have been there before will find two outstanding surface exhibits created during the renovations, a new eight-minute introductory video and a three-dimensional model of the entire mine. The model shows in scale the intricate network of 54 miles of tunnels that were excavated during the mine’s operation. Other items were added to the visitor center as well to create a more immersive and educational experience.
“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,” Guy-Levar said. “Not only do visitors get to have a real experience, but they can come back here in the visitor center and fully understand the complexity of the mine.”
The narrated video walks visitors through the history of what was known as “the Cadillac of Mines” due to its relatively good working conditions compared to other operations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The relative dryness of the tunnels and having good air ventilation clearly set the Soudan mine apart from its competitors. The voices and stories of former miners embellish the video narrative.
Aside from the renovations, little has changed since the mine closed in 1962. The historic 1924 electric hoist still lifts and lowers the elevator cages. The hoist ran around the clock during the recent reconstruction to speed along the work.
A tour led by guide Reed Petersen included the cage descent, a ride through the dimly-lit mining tunnel, also called a drift, and an opportunity to explore the stope, the place where active mining took place. Petersen also treated his group to the same experience all visitors get, one of total darkness when guides briefly extinguish the stope’s electric lights.
“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,” Petersen said.
Later this summer, park staff will revive the popular science tours that include a visit to the underground laboratory space that once housed two large physics experiments, taking advantage of the mine’s insulation from cosmic radiation.
Guy-Levar emphasized that the tours are ADA-compliant and accessible to all with mobility challenges.
Visitors planning to tour the Soudan Mine are strongly encouraged to make advance reservations as time slots regularly fill up. Visitors are advised to wear a jacket and sturdy boots or shoes. Complete tour information, schedules, and reservations are available online at