Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Learning about Minnesota’s worst mining disaster September 1, 2021

A photo of iron ore miners displayed at the Soo Line Depot Museum in Crosby, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo July 2021.

I CANNOT IMAGINE WORKING as a miner. Underground. Enclosed in tight spaces. Enveloping darkness. Fear and danger and sometimes unsafe working conditions. I couldn’t do the job. I need light and air and space. To feel free, not trapped.

A photo of the Milford Mine displayed at the Crosby museum. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo July 2021.

On February 5, 1924, nearly 50 men mining iron ore in the Milford Mine on the Cuyuna Iron Range in central Minnesota faced their greatest fear. Death. They were only 15 minutes from the end of their shift when the unthinkable happened at 3:45 pm on a Tuesday. When mud, water and quicksand from Foley Lake flooded the shaft. Only seven of the 48 miners escaped.

Mining photos and equipment are part of the museum display. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

I cannot imagine the horrible scene which unfolded in that mine as these hardworking men struggled to get out. To survive. To return to their families. To see the light of day. To breathe.

The headline in the Duluth newspaper erroneously reports that 42 (not 41) miners drowned. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

Forty-one men died as the 200-foot deep mine shaft filled with water to within 15 feet of the surface in just 20 minutes. That’s not much time to scramble up a ladder to safety.

Canaries really were used to detect gas levels in mines, as replicated at the museum. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

Until two months ago, my knowledge of Minnesota’s worst mining disaster was limited to just that—an awareness that this tragedy happened. Beyond that, I was uninformed. I don’t recall ever hearing of this disaster in any history classes.

Info on use of caged canaries is included in the museum exhibit. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

Yet, this event, this substantial loss of life in a single horrific tragedy, needs to be taught and remembered. It’s an important part of our state’s mining history and of the families who lost loved ones in the Milford Mine. I expect many a family in the Crosby area—the mine was located just miles from town—can trace genealogy back to the disaster.

The Soo Line Depot Museum. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

In Crosby, the Soo Line Depot Museum, 101 1st St. NE, features a display on iron ore mining with an emphasis on the mining disaster at Milford. The displays heightened my interest, my desire to learn more. And I did by visiting Milford Mine Memorial Park located some four miles north of Crosby on Milford Lake Drive, just off Crow Wing County Road 30, just off Minnesota State Highway 6.

Miners pose for a photo in this image displayed in the Soo Line Depot Museum. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo July 2021.

I’ll take you to that memorial park, which personalizes this tragedy and honors the men who died and those who survived. It’s a remarkable park in volume of historical information and setting—on-site of the disaster. Boardwalks and hiking trails lead visitors into the woods, across marshland and along a mining lake. In a beautiful natural setting, where, 97 years ago, 41 miners died, trapped underground.

A list of mines on the Cuyuna Range shown at the museum. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

NOTE: The Soo Line Depot Museum closes for the season on Labor Day weekend and reopens Memorial Day weekend. Milford Mine Memorial Park is open daily from sunrise to sunset.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


MAN HIGH II: Historic journey toward space from a Minnesota iron mine pit July 21, 2021

A view of MAN HIGH II, a capsule launched in Minnesota in 1957, laying the groundwork for future space travel. This replica sits in a Crosby, MN., museum. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

WHEN JEFF BEZOS, founder of Amazon, and three others blasted into space Tuesday morning aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket from the west Texas desert, the world watched.

Major Simons made the cover of LIFE magazine in 1957. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

But when Air Force Major David Simons lifted toward the edges of space in a capsule the size of a telephone booth on August 19, 1957, from a Minnesota iron ore pit, far fewer watched. Yet, the journey of MAN HIGH II to an altitude of 19 miles (a new record) was equally, if not more, significant.

A full view of the replica capsule shows just how small this spaceship. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.
A student created this informative MAN HIGH display, now part of the museum exhibit. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.
A mural in downtown Crosby honors PROJECT MAN HIGH. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2020.

I learned about this unknown, at least to me and I expect many others, event last week while vacationing in the central Minnesota Brainerd lakes area. A replica capsule and exhibit at the Soo Line Depot Museum in Crosby tell the story of this amazing flight toward space. The museum defines PROJECT MAN HIGH as the “first manned space flight.” Simons, 35, an astronaut, scientist and medical doctor, proved man could survive just on the edge of space, for at least 32 hours.

The astronaut aboard MAN HIGH viewed the world through these windows, small compared to the spacious windows in the 2021 Blue Origin’s New Shepard. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

This 1957 mission was kept intentionally secretive given the time period. Months later the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik. The space race was on.

Museum visitors can climb into the mock capsule. The actual seat was a sling type seat, different than the one placed in the replica. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

That Minnesota played an important role in the U.S. efforts to win that race is significant. And, of all places, this happened in an iron mine pit outside a small mining community on the Cuyuna Range. A 200-foot wide paper-thin balloon holding 3 million cubic feet of helium lifted the capsule skyward from the base of the Portsmouth iron mine pit. Eventually the spaceship landed in a flax field near the North Dakota/South Dakota border. And, as our tour guide Tim told me, Simons was met by a rancher and a young boy on horseback. That boy showed more interested in an arriving helicopter than the capsule, so the story goes.

Major David Simons, depicted on a mural in Crosby. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2020.

The story of MAN HIGH II truly impresses me, especially after seeing the small size of the replica capsule and feeling the thinness of the helium balloon. (The actual capsule is displayed at the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.) Simons was one brave man to confine himself inside that tight space for 44 hours. He was sealed in well before arriving at the iron mine pit from South Saint Paul. Claustrophobia got the best of another candidate. I would feel the same. Simons endured much—lack of sleep, extreme temperatures, uncertain weather, and the very real fear that he could die if the thin helium balloon developed even a crack.

1957 technology: Technicians used this pressure monitor to monitor the MAN HIGH flight. The equipment sat in the basement of the local high school until the school was demolished. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

As much as Jeff Bezos and crew made history with their 62-mile high, 10-minute and 25-second space journey, using the best technology possible, the flight of MAN HIGH II 64 years ago from a Minnesota mine pit impresses me even more. The people behind the 1957 flight truly represent pioneering in space. They blazed the trail for men to land on the moon and, yesterday, for civilians like Bezos to pursue space travel.

The Soo Line Depot Museum showcases local history. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

FYI: The Soo Line Depot Museum in Crosby houses a detailed display on MAN HIGH II. You can climb inside the replica capsule for a photo. Tour guide Tim was especially knowledgeable. You can also visit the site of the launch, the Portsmouth Pit by Crosby, although I didn’t this time. Next trip. I encourage you to check out the Crosby museum, which also highlights Minnesota’s worst mining disaster. More on that in an upcoming post.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling