SOUDAN — Life stands still in the reaches of the Soudan Underground Mine.
Remnants of mining equipment — and fragments of workers’ daily life — sit abandoned in the vast tunnels just as they were left the day mining stopped there more than 50 years ago.
Those reminders of the arduous work forged underground decades ago are frozen in place in dusty, rusty time.
But deep in the belly of the mine, life persists.
Far beneath the surface, where miners had labored, another set of workers has been breaking ground.
Scientists, for years now, have been drawn to the mine as a home for their laboratories, where the results of their labor have contributed to a greater understanding of the universe.
And it doesn’t stop there.
An unexpected discovery in recent years has enticed more researchers into the subterranean depths of the mine.
It is here that miners half a century ago did something incredible — without even knowing it.
In searching for ore to extract, they unintentionally left a passageway for modern minds to unearth mysterious new life.
Or — shall we say — a convincing link to old life. Really, really old life. Ancient, in fact.
Life that could one day lead not only to breakthroughs in biotechnology on our planet, but also in the study of Mars.
Life that could even, perhaps, assist with the future of a particular industry — mining.
Jim Essig boards the “cage” that has long been the transport down the mine’s vertical No. 8 shaft.
The same elevator that carried Soudan miners underground rattles down to level 12. Here, one of the pumping stations works steadily to keep the mine dry. Removing ground water was an important part of mining operations, and today it remains necessary to allow visitors and researchers access below ground.
Essig begins to talk on this recent day about the Soudan Underground Mine; about how the horizontal tunnels called drifts branch outward from the shaft, kind of “like a tree” to the stopes where ore bodies are located; how miners dug their way down, one level at a time, at this mining operation that launched 130 years ago.
But before he can talk about how Soudan’s opening in 1884 marked the beginning of mining in the state — and of one of the richest iron ore deposits in the world. And before he can tell how its first ventures were in open pits; how the narrow, vertical shape of the ore body made for dangerous and difficult labor leading to underground operations in the late-1880s, and how it was a fully underground enterprise by 1891. And before he can talk about his affinity for this historic place that became a state park in 1963 after U.S. Steel donated the property to the state. Before all that, it becomes evident as Essig is suddenly sidetracked.
The Soudan Underground Mine State Park manager’s attention is grabbed by the sound of one of the two cages ascending the shaft. It’s late morning on this weekday and tours down to the 27th level, the only one open to the public, are going on, and other workers are in need of rides to and from the surface.
“Watch this,” he says as the rumble grows louder. The cage shoots by on its way up the shaft. “I love this place!” says Essig, a smile lighting his face.
Essig has been manager for eight years; prior to that he was assistant manger. All together, he’s spent 25 years taking care of the Soudan mine.
“No two days are ever the same,” says Essig, who grew up a farm boy and was naturally interested in the workings of the mine. And that’s just the way he likes it.
The Soudan mine was an “experiment” in nearly every element of its operation from the start. Many different mining techniques and technologies were employed during its lifespan from the 1880s to the early-1960s to extract and haul out the iron ore that was unique to the location.
But the Soudan miners were not the first ones to see potential in the area’s rock. Early prospectors noted there was evidence of jasper and quartz mining taking place prior to European exploration.
The early underground miners at Soudan worked by the light of candles mounted on their helmets; mules kept in underground stables did the hauling, later replaced by carts on rail tracks that transported the rock to the shaft to be lifted above ground. Steam generation was also used prior to 1924, when the mine was electrified and the current hoist used to maneuver the cages was installed.
The iron ore that was drilled, blasted and chipped out of the mine was a very high grade ore. It was special, Essig said, because it had an extra molecule of oxygen. Oxygen is a critical component in the steel-making process, and ore from Soudan was added in small amounts to ore from other mines across country to help burn off impurities to produce high-grade steel.
By the early-1960s, however, new technologies had been developed to inject oxygen into the steel-making process, reducing the value of Soudan’s high oxygen ore. And, along with the great cost of extracting the ore, the mine struggled to compete with others using cheaper open pit methods, including those on the Mesabi range.
Thus, in 1962, the Soudan Underground Mine ceased operations, with the last stockpiled ore shipped the following year.
“There was no need for the extra oxygen molecule anymore,” Essig said. The mine yet has a reserve of more than 1.5 million tons of ore still in the ground.
Essig takes his visitors on this day farther down one of the drifts on Level 12, where the tunnels extend a half mile or so from the shaft.
The only illumination comes from the lights on their helmets and a flashlight Essig totes.
An abandoned ore car used to haul rock out along the rail system sits eerily abandoned. There are various carts remaining on many of the levels, along with pipes and other dust-coated equipment that has rested where it was left decades ago.
When Essig came to the mine 25 years ago, he found many items left behind by miners, including a newspaper from the 1930s. However, after years of surviving in the mine’s cool, humid climate, it disintegrated once it reached the surface. The lesson was to leave the mine’s artifacts alone, he said.
Back at the shaft, Essig calls the hoist operator requesting a cage. Essig and the operator use bell signals to communicate to what level the cage will descend.
On Level 22, a glimpse into the life of the Soudan underground miners is found. “Here’s the lunchroom,” says Essig, opening the wooden door leading into a small enclosed cavern cut into the rock. Inside: A wood table and benches where miners took their breaks.
Magazines, a tobacco tin, remnants of a Christmas tree and a calendar from 1962 were left behind in the lunchroom by miners the day operations stopped in Soudan, Essig said.
When Essig started at the mine, “I knew a lot of the old guys,” he said. Many of the other park employees also had connections to the mine and mining. But there are fewer and fewer of the old miners around, and Essig worries that those connections to the past are being lost.
He can only hope future employees will treat the mine with the same respect of those who have listened first-hand to the accounts of those whose lives centered around the mine.
The mine also presents an interesting challenge when it comes to maintenance. The 1924 hoist, for instance, is not something that can be easily repaired. “You can’t just run to the hardware store,” Essig said. Parts oftentimes have to be fabricated, he noted.
In 1966, the Soudan Mine was designated a National Historic Landmark, which recognized its important role in the industrial development of the United States and its value for preserving and interpreting a piece of America’s cultural heritage.
Starting in 1979, the Division of Parks and Recreation began working with the University of Minnesota to use of the Soudan Underground Mine as a laboratory for physics research.
The depth of the mine shields equipment from cosmic radiation and other high-energy interference that would hamper data collection. Also, the age of the surrounding rock — which geologists estimate at 2.7 billion years old, making it the oldest rock on the North American continent — means it emits virtually no radioactive particles of its own.
Caverns were excavated at the mine’s 27th level — its lowest level at 2,341 feet below the surface. One of the experiments that has been collecting data for years is the MINOS (Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search) that is studying subatomic particles called neutrinos. MINOS is one of several projects being conducted worldwide to study the particles and their role on the structure of the universe. Studying neutrinos at Soudan — as well as at a new facility in Ash River, could yield crucial information about the early moments of the universe, according to scientists.
Miners of yesteryear could have never imagined their work site would one day be home to research on things such as proton decay and dark matter. Nor would they likely have known that the tunnels they dug would one day serve as an important hibernation spot for bats.
For decades, bats — particularly little brown myotis — have been living in the mine, using the No. 8 shaft that extends to the 27th level and Alaska Shaft, the two shafts still open, as points of access. The Soudan mine, in fact, with its consistent temperatures and high humidity, is home to the largest population of wintering bats in the state, with estimates for up to 12,000 bats living in the drifts and stopes. The mine is also important habitat for migrating bats in the spring, and the University of Minnesota and the Division of Parks and Recreation have been conducting bat research there since the 1980s.
Bats across the country are experiencing massive population losses from a disease known as white-nose syndrome. Bats that hibernate in the Soudan mine haven’t suffered from the affliction, and there’s even hope that research at the mine could lead to a cure.
“Some of the fungus we have underground is closely related to the fungus that causes white nose,” Essig said. “It could serve as a competitor to keep the other from establishing itself.”
And the life thriving deep below the surface could have many more uses in days to come.
Several years ago, University of Minnesota researchers stumbled upon something rather unexpected down in the 27th level.
In 1962 miners, believing they would continue on to a Level 28, drilled bore holes to sample the rock for new ore veins. One day, researchers visiting the mine came across the bore holes.
The iron mined at Soudan was formed before oxygen was abundant in Earth’s atmosphere, and water — lacking oxygen — had been seeping out of the holes for decades, slowly creating colorful iron-oxide structures after coming in contact with air.
Perhaps, scientists surmised, this water could be from an ancient ocean. This water, which they suspect is more than 2 billion years old, is teeming with bacteria.
It appears, Essig said, that one of the types of bacteria devours iron and gives off iron oxide. The other consumes iron oxide and gives off energy. “They consume each other’s by-product. The two are symbiotic to each other,” he said. It’s a sort of “perpetual machine.”
And the initial research comes with all sorts of possibilities.
Formations found in the mine are similar to those observed in images on the surface of Mars, believed to have iron-oxid-rich soil, and could lead to a better understanding of that planet.
Research could pave the way to compounds that could inhibit bacteria, particularly those that are resistant.
The discovery could have commercial applications, such as forming new ways to make fuels.
And wouldn’t it be amazing, says Essig, if study of the bacteria could steer the way toward solving environmental issues attached with sulfide mining. “It could turn into a big use if it could consume sulfides,” he said.
The Soudan mine additionally offers a one-of-a-kind location for researching the microbes that are doing things at the mine that haven’t really been studied before. The bacteria found in the water appear to be distant relatives of bacteria commonly found in the ocean.
And getting to the 27th level of the mine is easier than the ocean floor. Many underground today are not accessible.
But not the Soudan Underground Mine. The mine is far from extinct.
Essig remembers taking Louie Cvetan down to the physics lab in 2000. The former Soudan miner worked there from 1936 until the day it closed.
Louis looked around for a bit. Then he said something Essig will never forget:
“If if wasn’t for what we did here,” said old miner, “we wouldn’t have any of this.”