September 13, 2005
Filed under Travel
State Highway 1 runs from the northern shore of Lake Superior up to Ely, Minnesota, then on west across the state. Twenty miles west of Ely, it passes along the shore of Lake Vermilion and through Tower-Soudan — two towns that grew up on opposite sides of the tracks, but today accept living together, yet hyphenated. Tower was an end-of-the-road railroad town, populated in its early days by maverick miners, loggers and explorers. With two miles of woods separating them, Soudan was a company town, owned by the Oliver Mining Company of US Steel. If you lived in Soudan, you lived in a company house, got well in the company hospital, shopped in the company store and the man of the house worked in the Soudan mine. Allowing that “remote” still has actual meaning in defining areas of our country — although we have roads that go practically everywhere — then this area is significantly remote.
Here we’re on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness — a jumbled web of lakes and rivers covering a million acres, with lofty white pines and ancient cedars at water’s edge. It’s remote — not just in distance and space — but in evolution and time. It didn’t come to this secluded throwback state by man’s oversight or lack of interest in it. On the contrary, it took an act of Congress. A 1964 law (and a refinement of it that passed in 1978) drastically changed how things are done here. It phased out logging and mining, as well as roads, airplanes, cabins and resorts and cut way back on the use of engines of any kind. Use of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Area in the summer is limited essentially to canoeists and hikers, with their numbers carefully controlled. In the wintertime, skiers and dog sleds are permitted, but forget about snowmobiles — except on two access routes into Canada.
All these restrictions put the sports-fisherman’s town of Ely, population 4,000, into an economic tailspin. But that was decades ago. In the 1980s, canoe-based outfitters sprang up. Resurgence occurred and continues; it is now the gateway for most people entering the wilderness area. Of the areas in our national wilderness preservation system — there are 662 in the United States — this one gets the most use. Down the road 20 miles is Soudan, where conventional tourism calls the shots, as does the basic lifestyle of Minnesota lake country — fishing and water sports in the summer and snowmobiling in the winter. Soudan is on Lake Vermilion, a recreational lake with 365 islands and 1,200 miles of shoreline. Though the northern half of the lake is technically in the Boundary Area, the restrictions don’t apply here.
The National Geographic Society declared Lake Vermilion one of the top 10 most scenic lakes in the United States. Almost 20 percent of its shoreline has no road access. Cabins in those truly pristine areas were put up with what could be hauled in by boat. Owners of summer homes here live as far away as Chicago and Des Moines. Soudan is 90-highway-miles due north of Duluth. The first 70 miles of it are multi-lane, with a wide dual-lane road the rest of the way. Beautiful RV parks are right at the water’s edge. Minnesota’s first iron-ore mine was the one in Soudan — an underground mine with a shaft that goes down a half mile. Opened in 1892, it started as an open-pit mine, as are all operating mines now in Minnesota. This mine was unique in Minnesota because its veins of ore ran vertically. When that was discovered, the mining operation here switched from open pit to digging straight down, or at least close to it (on the Mesabi Range the ore lays out horizontally).
So it’s just a matter of scraping off the overburden, or non-ore-bearing material, to recover the ore. This underground mine in Soudan is now a state park. Those who work here call it the “crown jewel” of the Minnesota park system. One of those is Paul Paulisich, a 58-year-old retired schoolteacher who is a mine-tour guide. Both of his grandfathers worked here on the Vermilion Range, which extends east to Ely. “In all honesty,” Paul said, (we were sitting together talking during his lunch break) “I got into this because I wanted to experience a bit of what my grandfathers’ lives were like. I wanted that connection. Not the best reason for taking a job, I suppose. But I’ve really liked it; been doing it for 11 years now, during the summer. We close at the end of September.” The mine has 54 miles of tunnels and shafts underground, where the temperature is a constant 50 degrees F.
It has a natural ventilation system, with fresh air circulating through three times an hour. It has no timbers; its interior is totally self-supporting. “The elevator goes down at a 78-degree angle, 1,000 feet per minute,” Paul said. “We take a maximum of 36 people on a tour. If a person is claustrophobic, being in the mine doesn’t seem to bother them. It hits them on the way down in the elevator. So, we just take them back up. We get three or four hundred people through here a day, so I guess it’s bound to happen once in while.” Other than maybe on the mine tour, believe me, a person could never feel claustrophobic, confined, or even crowded up here in the lake country of Northern Minnesota.
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