Conservation Minnesota

Milford’s Mining Lesson to Minnesotans

tumafeature“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*

I revisit this story I told a year ago because it is worth being reminded of the near mesmerizing power of the mining company in their relationship with mining communities, particularly in light of recent reporting here in Minnesota. The story of the great Milford mine disaster in 1924 has been all but forgotten because of lack of courage in the press and government at the time despite being one of our nation’s most tragic underground mining disasters of its time.

You’ll not find Milford on Minnesota’s official state map.  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.

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 5th, 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 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 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 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.  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 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 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.”

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 with what appears to us to be a misplaced hope while still recognizing the inherent danger. Their desire to rush ahead over careful permitting processes into the next danger at the expense of safety and the environment can seem bewildering.

A couple of refreshing recent developments is the willingness of the press and even business leaders to take a fresh look at mining in America. It’s worth reading the recent article in the Star Tribune on the effects of the community in Ely from the pending acid rock mining near the BWCA Wilderness. Minnesota conservatives might learn a lesson from Kentucky, where one of the state’s most conservative groups, the Tennessee Conservative Union, has recently come out against mountaintop mining over the issue of foreigner ownership. That development even caught the attention of Fox News.

Minnesota taxpayers would be 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 to taxpayers, existing businesses and the environment could be significant. The old 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.  To learn more details, 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 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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