Minnesota’s Long Mining History

“We heard the water coming down the drift, we didn’t know if we were going to make it.  We just ran and ran for our lives.”

Frank Hrvatin
February 5, 1924*

What seems to be all but forgotten in Minnesota history is that we were home to one of the nation’s most tragic underground mining disasters at Milford, Minnesota during the winter of 1924.  You’ll not find Milford on Minnesota’s official state map.  It is a long lost ghost town whose story holds the graves of 41 miners.

In 1917, Minnesota mining magnate George H. Crosby and the Whitemarsh Mining Company opened up the Milford mine on the west end of the Cuyuna Range to extract high grade manganese ore lying 135 to 300 feet below the surface. This mining company was rushing to take advantage of this mineral just outside of the already well-exploited iron deposits in the region. Manganese was highly valued then because of the newly discovered manufacturing process that created high-grade stainless steel. Unfortunately, this particular vein was just below Foley Lake and its surrounding bogs.  In the hastily constructed mine the workers actually had to wear rain gear while extracting the ore-bearing soil.

Frank Hrvatin was a 14-year-old boy from a Croatian immigrant family who worked with his father in the mine at Milford during the winter of 1924. On the afternoon of February 5 young Frank was performing the duties as a trammer, the miner who transports ore out on carts.  At approximately 3:45 in the afternoon, some 200 feet under the earth, he felt a sudden wet windblast through the mineshafts.  The young Croatian, whose family had a long lineage in mining, immediately knew something was wrong and called out a warning.

Most of the miners ignored him except for a handful that raced for the surface like the hounds of hell were at their heels.  As the seven miners who survived the disaster were scrambling up the shaft to the open air above, water was slapping at their feet only a few minutes after feeling the blast of air.  The shock of the fact that Foley Lake had collapsed into the mining shafts gripped the seven survivors.  Young Frank remembered dreading the painful walk home to tell his mother that the stench-filled water hole he had just escaped from would forever be the grave of his father.

The mining industry and their politicians soon circled their wagons to protect their industry from the bad publicity arising from the disaster.  A government commission was hastily formed without subpoena power to investigate the mining disaster.  Several of the miners and their families would later tell stories of how they were met on the streets of Milford by individuals who made it clear to them that if they were to testify severe harm would come to them.  Not wanting to lose their jobs or be blacklisted in the industry, they were very careful in their testimony — if they testified at all.  The government commission soon cleared the mining companies of any wrongdoing or negligence. The mining company spent significant money reopening the mine only to see it close during the Great Depression.

The dead miners left behind 38 widows and 96 orphaned children who received little assistance from the state or the mining company. Many of the miners continued in the industry.  Despite his experience from that horrific day, Frank Hrvatin stayed with mining for several years.  “I was with my kind of people – miners”.

It is difficult for those of us outside of mining communities to understand their relationship to the industry. These communities listen to the industry claims that the next generation mining is the answer while seeing in the news the continued dangers and disasters even here in the United States. Their desire to rush ahead over careful permitting processes into the next dangers at the expense of safety and the environment is bewildering.

Many miners in Milford expressed their concern regarding the danger of collapse beforehand and a few miners had even quit their jobs, warning of the danger.  Several would regret their silence during the investigation when speaking of the disaster years later but accepted the reality that there would have been little they could be done and few who would have listened back then.  In an oral history done for the Iron Range Interpretive Center, Frank Hrvatin was interviewed before his death in 1976.  When asked about the post of mine collapse investigation, he stated, “That farce they called an investigation?  They went in immediately and got their stories all conflicted and it was ‘an act of God’ – nobody at fault . . . how does a small person without any funds going [sic] to fight a guy with a lot of money or a group with a lot of money? … so they made it stick and that’s the way it was written off.”

Minnesota taxpayers are wise to take our steps carefully with the newly approaching mining of sulfide ores just outside of our traditional iron deposits and within a few miles of our iconic BWCA Wilderness. The dangers and the consequences could be significant. The long-standing mining culture will clamor for expedited process, but history and current events warn us otherwise. I think Frank would also be calling a warning again. We should step forward into this next generation of this old culture with our eyes wide open. That is why you should take some time to learn the truth about the benefits and dangers associated with sulfide mining by going to the Mining Truth website.

*The Frank Hrvatin quote in the background for this blog entry comes from the book It Happened in Minnesota by Darrell Ehrlick, Morris Book Publishing, LLC, 2008

About John Tuma

John is a former state legislator and litigation attorney. He served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for eight years from the Northfield area, beginning in 1994. Elected as a Republican, John was known for his independent thinking and ability to work across party lines. He is well-known in Minnesota state government circles.
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