Memorial remembers lives lost in the Milford Mine
MILFORD — Death in a black flood came quickly.
Fifteen minutes after the first sign of trouble and it was over. A fast moving inky mix of mud and water filled the Milford Mine. Forty-one men were dead. Seven survived.
It happened 90 years ago — Feb. 5, 1924.
It remains Minnesota’s worst mining disaster.
On Wednesday, family members of men working that day and supporters of the Milford Mine Memorial Park gathered for a ceremony near the mine, a few miles north of Crosby. Bryan Pike, Crow Wing County natural resource manager, read the names of all 41 miners who perished that day. He paused, his voice full of emotion, as he noted the 88 children who lost their fathers in the disaster.
“Today marks a significant day in history for the Cuyuna Iron Range,” Pike said.
Gloria Sabyan Perpich’s father was working in the mine that day. The 83-year-old Ironton woman noted she wouldn’t be alive today if her father, a mechanic, hadn’t been called to the surface to work because a piece of machinery needed to be repaired.
“He got called up an hour before it drowned out,” Perpich said. “He was upset. It was 20 below up above and 50 degrees down below.”
Perpich said her father didn’t talk about the disaster.
The Milford Mine’s shaft was 200 feet deep, with the first level at 135 feet. On that fateful afternoon, men were working at the 165-foot to 175- foot level. Their first warning something was wrong was a sudden gust of warm wind. Then a second gust and a liquid roaring sound. The wind was so strong it blew out the carbide gas lamps on their hats or knocked hats off altogether.
The disaster fell upon them with incredible speed.
Men ran for their lives. Others were trapped in mud where they stood. Survivors recalled men who lost their lives when they went back to help others.
On the day of the disaster, Jake Ravnik was 6 years old and walking home from school in Wolford. His home was among the rows of houses in Milford. The remnants of the mine and the small town that grew by it are still visible at the site.
On that February day, Ravnik said the first sign something was wrong came as he saw women walking back and forth. Then he heard about the collapse. In those days children were able to go all over to the mining site. Ravnik and his brother, John, went right up to the mine shaft. He vividly remembers the water swirling near the surface.
“I can still see that water,” he said.
A woman near the mine shaft was screaming.
“She wanted to jump in,” Ravnik said. “Her husband was down there.”
It took a couple of grown men to hold her back.
Ravnik’s father was one of the seven who made it out.
“My dad never said hardly anything,” he said.
Ravnik later learned his dad bought a new lamp for his hat that day. After the lamps blew out, other miners couldn’t relight them, but Ravnik’s father was able to get his to flash. The flash helped the miners close to the shaft make it out.
For those farther from the only way to the surface it was a desperate race. A flood of water and mud engulfed miners as they attempted to flee for their lives. A lucky seven made it out on the only ladder they had to reach the surface. They water was rising nearly as fast as they were.
“It was dark and cold. The wind hit me again. I knew what it was. I was in a time like that once before, down in Michigan. So I knew if we lost a minute it was too late. I yelled. Then I ran like hell. We can’t save our life no more if we don’t run. I know. So I run.
“No time for the gates. No time for the cage. No time for anything. I just run and fall down and run some more. I get to the ladder. I reach for it. I miss it. I grab it and start up. I am all in. But I am damned if I stop,” said Mat Kangas, Milford Mine disaster survivor in an interview with a Duluth News Tribune reporter as recalled in the book “The Milford Mine Disaster.”
For Perpich, growing up in nearby Wolford, the Milford Mine history and the lake that took its place was just part of life. She thinks people didn’t talk about it because they had to go back underground in its aftermath.
“Dad had to work in the mines for the family and everybody was a miner who lived on the Cuyuna Range, that was their income,” Perpich said.
Perpich said it’s important to remember the history so the younger generation knows what their grandparents went through to survive.
“I thought it was fantastic,” she said of Wednesday’s memorial ceremony. “It’s going to be a big drawing card, I’m sure.”
Pike said this summer more work will go into transforming the site into an accessible park. Years ago it took a determined hiker to reach the former mine, as it was being lost to memory. Now Legacy funding for parks will help the Milford Mine site continue its phased development with a trail, memorial walk, historic markers, floating bridges and a trestle bridge trail segment along with seating areas.
The Milford Mine park is being assisted with Legacy funding for its next two phases of development. In 2007, the Crow Wing County Board was presented with a concept plan for the park and later approved moving forward. Pike noted legislative support from Rep. Joe Radinovich, DFL-Crosby, and Rep. John Ward, DFL-Baxter, and Crow Wing County Commissioner Paul Thiede and Laura Ukura-Leir, Ironton City Council, spoke briefly at the ceremony.
Radinovich thanked the people of the community for having the vision for the memorial park. As a third-grader, Radinovich did a report on the mine disaster and remembered going out to the lake and trying to imagine what it might have been like for the miners.
Ward said he was proud to be a member of the Legacy committee. Ward said through a terrible tragedy comes some good, adding the Milford miners were true heroes as the mining industry was made safer later because of what happened to them.
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the Dispatch reported the wives and children who lived in the town that sprang up around the mine crowded to the shaft. “But aid was in vain. Up came the slime ooze, licking the sides of the shaft until within a few feet of the surface. It sloshed the sides and gurgled and then retreated a distance until at 11 o’clock at night it was 20 feet from the collar or top of the shaft.
“... The real grief and outpouring of pent-up emotion will come when the bodies are brought to the surface and the Cuyuna Iron Range buries its dead, when funeral corteges by the dozen will wend their way over the hillsides to the little cemeteries and where in some cases it may be necessary to plot new cemeteries ...”
In 2011, the Milford Mine was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The designation cements the park’s place in the nation’s history, Pike said. Thiede thanked Pike for his efforts and others in the development of the park. Ukura-Lier said the park is a way to honor the study people who came here to work and be part of the nation.
Pike said transforming the site into a park is a humble attempt to preserve the memory of those who gave their lives to pursue the American dream and provide for their families.
Pike said: “Families today and future generations will have this place, this park as a place of reflection, a place to enjoy the outdoor recreation and a greater place of community.”