“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?”
February 5, 1924*
One of Minnesota’s most tragic workplace disasters seems almost to have been completely forgotten. The 1924 Milford Mine collapse that forever changed the life of 14-year-old miner Frank Hrvatin is rarely mentioned in our state’s history books, but the ghosts of the 41 miners who lost their lives on February 5, 1924 have something to tell us about the mining industry and their public relations tactics.
You’ll not find the town of Milford on Minnesota’s official state map anymore. It is a long lost ghost town whose story rests in the graves of 41 miners. This tragic story starts in 1917 when Minnesota mining magnate George H. Crosby organized Whitemarsh Mining Company to open 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 due to the constant dripping from the ceiling.
The Hrvatins were a Croatian immigrant family drawn to the region for the mining jobs. Frank and his father were working down the mineshaft in separate locations on the afternoon of February 5th. 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 blast of wind 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 initial blast of air. The shock of the fact that Foley Lake had collapsed into the mineshafts gripped the seven survivors. Young Frank remembered dreading the frigid and painful walk home that cold February day to tell his mother that the stench-filled water hole he had just escaped from would forever be the grave of her husband and his father.
The dead miners left behind 38 widows and 96 orphaned children who received little assistance from the state or the mining company. Also, little was said in the press. The mining industry public relations wizards and their purchased politicians soon circled their wagons to protect their industry from the bad publicity arising from the disaster.
A sham government commission was hastily formed without subpoena power to investigate the mining disaster. Those that disagreed with the narrative of the mining company were quickly bullied. 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.
It wasn’t until several years later that any miners from Milford would retell the details. Those who did told how several had expressed concerns to the mining company regarding the danger of collapse beforehand and a few miners had even quit their jobs, warning of the danger. They regretted their silence during the investigation when speaking of the disaster years later but accepted the reality that there would have been little that could have been done and few who would have listened back then.
In an oral history for the Iron Range Interpretive Center, Frank Hrvatin was interviewed before his death in 1976. When asked about the post 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.”
I retell this dreadful story because it highlights the old political and industry public relations tactics employed by the mining industry. Over the next few blogs I will delve into greater detail how this has played out in Minnesota’s primary in 2014 and how it will likely impact the coming general election. The first of those entries will explore in greater detail the recent DFL primary for the State Auditor where incumbent Rebecca Otto pushed back a high dollar attack from Matt Entenza. Overlaid on that race was an aggressive pro-mining effort to “Dump Otto” for her courageous stance on protecting landowners from mineral leases. The “Dump Otto” effort by mining industry supporters clearly demonstrates that their tactics of avoiding truth and bullying opponents has not changed much in the last 90 years.
To learn more details of the dangerous new type of mining being proposed in northern Minnesota, take some time to learn the truth about the benefits and dangers associated with sulfide mining by going to the Mining Truth website.
* Frank Hrvatin Oral History, 05/11/1976, Iron Range Research Center, Chisholm Minnesota and the background for this blog entry comes from the book It Happened in Minnesota by Darrell Ehrlick, Morris Book Publishing, LLC, 2008