Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Minnesota mining disaster up close & personal at Milford Mine Memorial Park September 2, 2021

A peaceful and lovely scene at Milford Mine Memorial Park on a hazy July afternoon, rural Crosby. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

IN A BEAUTIFUL NATURAL SETTING, among the woods and water and wetlands, an American tragedy unfolded nearly 100 years ago on the Cuyuna Iron Range. In the late afternoon of February 5, 1924, water seeped into and then flooded the Milford Mine near Crosby, killing 41 miners in Minnesota’s worst mining disaster.

Information about the mine disaster is included in a traveling exhibit from the Minnesota Historical Society. I photographed this at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna several years ago. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Their deaths left 38 women without husbands. And 83 children without fathers.

This sign marks the gravel road entry to the memorial park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

Today the memories of those 41 hardworking iron ore miners, and the seven who survived the mine collapse, are honored at Milford Mine Memorial Park. The Crow Wing County Park is located four miles north of Crosby, just off County Road 30. The Milford Mine Historic District is on the National Register of Historic Places, so important is this to the region’s mining history.

Those who died in the mine. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.
The first boardwalk lists the victims’ names, spaced along the path. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.
Signs along the trail honor each miner. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

This is truly a remarkable park that covers the history of this event in a deeply personal way. Through names on boardwalks and brief bios on signs, this park moves this disaster beyond statistics. Only then do we begin to understand, to feel the loss.

Honoring George Butkovich. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

George Butkovich, 29, an Austrian immigrant married to Anna Perpich (a well-known name to Minnesotans who remember our 34th and 36th governor, Rudy Perpich, a native of the Iron Range) died in the mine. He lived with Anna and their three children in Ironton.

A summary of the disaster. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

Emil A. Carlson, 29, from Finland, was the father of four and married to Elma. They lived in Crosby.

The bios of four who died in the mine. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

Nels R. Pitari, 37, also a Finnish immigrant, was married to Hilda. They lived in Brainerd and had four children, one only five months old at the time of his father’s death.

The park is not only a great place to learn about history, but also a great place to hike and enjoy nature.
Bold berries pop alongside the trail. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.
Not to be missed, the many wildflowers gracing this park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

According to signage at Milford Memorial Park, the park “is an attempt to preserve the memory of those who gave their lives to pursue the American dream, provide for their families and build their community.” That’s necessary to understand given the importance of iron ore mining in this region. The high grade ore from the Milford Mine was used in the production of steel. This region of Minnesota was built around iron ore mining.

History honored and shared… Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

Many who came to this area arrived from across the US, Canada and the European continent. They were a diverse group, looking to better their lives, to raise their families in a new place, to build strong communities.

Site of the timber shaft. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.
What I presume to be iron ore. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.
The entry to the mine shaft is fenced around and over. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

In walking through the park, pausing often to read the history of this place and to view marked sites like the machine and blacksmith shops and the mine and timber shafts, I felt a sense of reverence, a sense of understanding of the loss connected to this land.

Originally named Lake Foley, the lake has since been renamed Milford Lake. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.
Water lilies in Milford Lake, Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.
A flower brightens woods’ edge near the lake. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

Investigators determined that pressure from Lake Foley, connected to adjoining wetlands, caused water to rush into the mine resulting in the collapse of the mine’s walls. Within 20 minutes of that occurrence, the 200-foot deep mine shaft filled to within 15 feet of the surface. That allowed only minimal time for the miners to attempt an escape. Only seven got out. They, too, are recognized at the memorial park on a survivors’ boardwalk: Carl Frals, Harry Hosford, Mike Zakotnik…

Lengthy memorial boardwalks curve into the park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

As I walked the boardwalks and trails, I felt sometimes overwhelmed by the sheer tragedy of the Milford Mine Disaster. So much loss. So much grief and pain. So many father-less children. And it is that, perhaps, which touched me the most.

NOTE: Milford Mine Memorial Park is open daily from sunrise to sunset. I encourage you to visit, to experience this important part of Minnesota history.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

8 Responses to “Minnesota mining disaster up close & personal at Milford Mine Memorial Park”

  1. beth Says:

    this is so tragic and thank you for sharing their story. i’m glad that they have not been forgotten, and beauty has taken hold there

  2. Valerie Says:

    This is very interesting. Thank you for enlightening me on this disaster, and this memorial park in Crosby.

  3. Lynette Says:

    Growing up in southwestern Minnesota, we studied Minnesota history in 6th grade. I never heard of this mining disaster until I read your posts about it.

    • Exactly. Not a word about this mining disaster in our sixth grade history lessons. But then my husband, who attended school in central Minnesota, never heard of the US-Dakota Conflict of 1862. That I knew a lot about, with it happening right in our backyard. I even penned a term paper on the topic.

  4. Sandra Says:

    A very poignant remembrance for the town and families. That’s a wonderful broadwalk to the site, the planner is on YT here: https://youtu.be/TEQPHWh7vvM
    Your point about the 1862 conflict is well made. What I knew about native Americans in Rice County was nothing, we vacationed in northern MN, folks bought me moccasins. Now I have at least one classmate that speaks the language, fluently! After studying the Whipple legacy, as well as the recent MHS exhibit….well, better late than never. And I still think of the Iron Range as further north than Crosby. Thank you for this post.


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