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Flashback Friday: Minnesota's worst mine disaster occurred 96 years ago this week

Updated: February 07, 2020 10:11 PM

Ninety-six years ago this week, 41 people were killed in what is Minnesota's worst mining disaster in history.

The Milford Mine was first mined for manganese ore, an ingredient used to make steel, in 1917, according to the Minnesota Historical Society. Located in the Cuyuna Iron Range, the mine's easternmost end tapped into mud connected to Foley Lake.

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In December 1923, the mine was inspected and declared safe, and by 1924, it was 200 feet deep and more than 70,000 tons of ore was being mined and shipped.

Less than two full months later, disaster struck.

It was about 3:30 p.m. on Feb. 5, 1924, when the mine's easternmost end caved in and the boggy water from Foley Lake quickly flooded the underground network of tunnels with mud and water, claiming the lives of 41 men. Because of how quickly it flooded and there being only one shaft leading to the surface, only seven miners made it to safety.

According to the Historical Society, one of the survivors was 15-year-old Frank Hrvatin Jr., who worked alongside his father. Hrvatin Jr. was one of the last few who made it out alive, but his father didn't survive.

Most of the miners were married, and 88 children were left without fathers, according to Crow Wing County.

A commission began investigating the disaster in May 1924 but found no fault with the owners. 

The White Earth Tomahawk newspaper two days later reported giant pumps were being used to suck 12,000 gallons of water and mud per minute, but engineers called the task "almost hopeless." The newspaper also reported the county mine inspector said he "believed most of the bodies never would be found."

Recovery efforts were dangerous, as mud and debris filled the mine and workers worried about other potential cave-ins.

It wasn't until November that year when the last body was recovered.

The mine closed in 1932 due to the declining need for steel during the Great Depression, but the site was added to the National Register of Historic Places by the National Park Service in August 2011.

Crow Wing County began a multi-year project to make Milford Mine Memorial Park, dedicated to the 41 miners. From 2010-2017, three separate phases of the project were completed to add a memorial walk, several recreational items and signs, as well as a retaining wall and landscaping. Among the items created are a memorial wall, an interpretive information display and a marker of the historic shaft foundation.

Over the years, the safety of mines has improved as more precautions have been taken.

According to U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), in 1924, a total of 779,613 coal miners were employed across the country and 2,402 died that year. The number of mills, sand and gravel, surface and underground miners in the U.S. in 1924 is unclear, but MSHA lists an additional 510 fatalities that year.

MSHA's website also lists just four mining-related deaths in Minnesota since the beginning of 2010 — Thomas S. Edwards, who died June 12, 2010, in Le Sueur, Aaron D. Kaufmann, who died on Aug. 9, 2011, in Fairfax, Scott A. Armstrong, who died Dec. 8, 2011, in Milaca, and Kenny L. Mattson, who died on Nov. 5, 2019, in Virginia, Minnesota.

And, in 2019, MSHA reported the fewest mining-related fatalities ever in a single year with 24 reported. It's also just the fifth time in the past 43 years the annual fatality number was below 30. You can find more data from MSHA here.

While the disaster happened nearly a century ago, it's not forgotten by many in the area. And, thanks to the site created by Crow Wing County, people will be able to learn about it and those who lost their lives for years to come, ensuring it won't be forgotten anytime soon.

You can read more about Milford Mine Memorial Park here.

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