MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Last week, WCCO’s John Lauritsen took us thousands of feet above ground in a hot air balloon.

In this week’s Finding Minnesota, he takes us thousands of feet below ground in St. Louis County, and through a history tour of the Soudan Underground Mine.

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Towering high above the twin cities of Tower and Soudan is the beginning of a journey to the center of the earth — or at least a good half-mile in that direction.

“The lowest level goes down 2,341 feet, so nearly half a mile,” supervising interpreter James Pointer said. “We are the deepest mine here in Minnesota. We’re the oldest mine.”

The Soudan mine began as an open pit mine in 1892, but within 10 years it moved underground, and it stayed that way until it closed in 1962.

(credit: CBS)

Visitors today descend in cages much like the miners did. The hoist that transports the cages is powered by an electric motor, and more than 6,000 total feet of cable.

“Once you get underground you load up onto a train. That train takes you about three-quarters of a mile to what was known as ‘the stope.’ That’s where the miners did all their work,” Pointer said.

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Their work was harvesting ore. They could send up to two tons of the mineral-rich rock at a time. It was ultimately turned into steel that helped power the country through two world wars.

“You light a candle and you shine it against the wall, and you know you’re drilling into iron because it sparkled,” interpreter and tour guide Chelsea Anderson said.

Miners would labor in the dark, the cold and the noise. At its peak, about 2,000 miners worked 12-hour shifts, six days a week.

(credit: CBS)

“When she turned the lights off and you realized how dark it was they worked in, I was in awe. I mean, these guys must’ve been hardy souls,” said visitor Tim Rodgers, who was visiting from Cleveland.

For the crew here now, the goal is to shed light on a time that was, and encourage visitors to dig a little deeper into this era of Minnesota history.

“They sacrificed a lot. A lot for their families. They wanted their kids to get an education,” Pointer said.

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After not offering tours during the pandemic, the Soudan Underground Mine re-opened to visitors last month.

John Lauritsen