On February 5, 1924, water from Foley Lake flooded the Milford Mine, killing forty-one miners in Minnesota's worst mining disaster. Only seven miners climbed to safety.
First mined for manganese in 1917, the Milford Mine reached depths of 200 feet by 1924 under its owner, George H. Crosby, and 70,000 tons of ore were mined and shipped this same year. Manganese ore, an ingredient used to make steel, was shipped from the Milford site to Duluth then to steel factories in cities including Detroit and Cleveland.
The disaster occurred when a surface cave-in at the mine's easternmost end tapped into mud that was a direct connection to Foley Lake. In less than twenty minutes the mineshaft flooded to within fifteen to twenty feet of the surface. Seven men made it to ground level, while forty-one men were overcome by the water or trapped in mud. The last victim was recovered nine months after the disaster.
Fifteen-year-old Frank Hrvatin Jr., one of the survivors, worked alongside his father, Frank Hrvatin Sr., in the mine. On February 5, Hrvatin Jr. was working with his senior partner, Harry Hosford. When they saw the floodwater, they ran for the ladder that ascended two hundred feet to the surface. Miner Matt Kangas was ahead of them on the ladder. As the water rose and Kangas slowed because of the effort to climb such a distance, Hrvatin Jr. climbed between Kangas' legs and propelled the man up the ladder. Hosford was waist-deep in water when Hrvatin Jr. reached down and pulled Hosford out of the mine. They were the last three miners to make it out alive. Frank Hrvatin Sr. was deeper in the mine and did not survive.
Thirty-eight of the forty-one miners who drowned were married, leaving behind more than eighty children.
Recovery efforts were both delicate and dangerous, as the mine was filled with mud and debris and workers worried about potential cave-ins It took months to recover the men's bodies. The last body was removed on November 9th. The mine resumed operations soon after that.
To investigate the disaster, governor Jacob Preus appointed a five-man committee, which held hearings in May and June. The committee's final report said, "No blame can be attached to the mining company for this unfortunate accident. The real cause of the disaster was the fact that imminence and danger from such a rush of mud was not recognized by anyone."
In 1932 with the decline of the need for steel during the Great Depression, the mine closed.
The disaster site is on the National Register of Historic Places, but remains undeveloped. Crow Wing County has expressed interest in developing a park and a monument honoring the forty-one dead, but plans have been on hold while the county seeks funding.
By 2013, the county had developed a parking lot and a canoe launch, built on Milford Lake, as well as a picnic area close to the mine site. Visitors must canoe (or snowmobile in the winter) across the lake from the canoe launch to access the picnic site. There is no marker or description of the Milford Mine disaster. County officials hope to one day build road access and a hiking trail to the site.
Berger, Aulie. The Milford Mine Disaster: A Cuyuna Range Tragedy. Virginia: W.A. Fisher Company, 1994.
Brown, Aaron J, "Milford Mine Site Now Open to the Public," Minnesota Brown: Modern Life in Northern Minnesota (blog), October 26, 2010.
Ehrlick, Daniel. It Happened in Minnesota: From the Great Dakota War to the Invention of Waterskiing, Thirty-one Events from North Star State History. Guilford CT: Twodot, 2008.
Pettersen, Connie, "Failure to learn? Destined to repeat..." in 4 parts. NewsHopper, March 11, 2006.
Richardson, Renee, "Milford Mine disaster: It started with ill wind and left 41 dead in '24 tragedy," Brainerd Dispatch, January 5, 2006.
Strike and Labor Problems Files, 1907–1924
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Court documents, hearings, testimony, and blueprints regarding the Milford Mine Disaster.
Stern, Laurie, and Barbara Wiener. "Iron Range: A People's History." St. Paul: Twin Cities Public Television, 1994.
On February 5, 1924, boggy water from Foley Lake floods the Milford Mine, killing forty-one miners in Minnesota's worst mining disaster.