Holding On To History: Ely’s Pioneer Mine offers surface tours

The A-Shaft of the Pioneer Mine has been on the north side of Ely since the 1880's.
The A-Shaft of the Pioneer Mine has been on the north side of Ely since the 1880's.(kbjr)
Published: Jul. 24, 2023 at 9:40 PM CDT
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ELY, MN. (Northern News Now) - The Soudan Mine was the first to open on the Vermilion Range in 1882. Ely’s Pioneer Mine was the last to close.

“The Pioneer mine opened in 1889 and closed in 1967. It was owned by the Oliver Mining Company which turned into U.S. Steel at one time.” said Seraphine Rolando.

Click above for the video version of the story

Seraphine Rolando is known to Ely locals and tourists as the driver of this vintage jeep with dummy 50 cal. He gives tours of the headframe for the A Shaft of the Pioneer Mine. He tells visitors that the Soudan Mine went down 2,300 feet through solid rock. The Pioneer went down 1700 feet into ore that was fractured and crumbly and soaked with water.

“That’s soup right there. That comes down on you, and you got nowhere to go.” said Rolando, holding a can of Pioneer Mine mud in a coffee can.

That made the Pioneer and the other four Ely mines working the same ore body dangerous places. 213 miners were killed in the mine’s 83 years. When the mine shut down, the shafts were capped with concrete and half the buildings were demolished. The rest were left to rust like the A Shaft in this picture I took in 1974. By the 80′s, Seraphine and several other volunteers plus the City of Ely started cleaning up the property and filling it with a mini-musuem. Today, this young man from the Cities finds the mine fascinating; especially the creation of Miner’s Lake from subsidence of the surface as the ore was removed from below.

“Yeah, I think it’s cool and I’m surprised how much it’s changed because you look out there and it was basically all land and now it’s big mine pit with water in it right now.” said Owen DeYoung of the Twin Cities.

The volunteers at the Pioneer know that’s the creation of their ancestors who came from the old country for a life underground. Bill Erzar’s family did just that.

“Went by train from Ellis to Detroit to Chicago to Milwaukee to Duluth to Virginia and then they walked from Virginia to Ely.” said Erzar.

So far, the Ely Arts and Heritage Center has restored the Miner’s Dry Building which was a locker room for the rank and file miners. That building is open for event rental and recently hosted an art fair. The A-Shaft headframe has been conserved but the B-Shaft headframe was demolished in 1967. The brick Captain’s Dry Building is under renovation right now. The Ely Arts and Heritage Center welcomes grants and donations both large and small. They hope to use that building for a larger museum and event center, too.

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