Books, Family History, History Class, Publishing, Uncategorized, World War 2, Writer's Life, Writing Inspiration

Mining for WWII History (and Character Backgrounds)

Tower Sudan Mine
Image courtesy of Joel Dinda, via License information linked here.

When writing fiction, choosing a solid character name is important. (See my last post for details on THAT struggle.) Developing a solid background for that character is just as essential—if you don’t know who your characters are, how can you write about them?

As I write WWII fiction, I look for real events to help shape my fictional friends’ life experiences. Recently, that search led me back to a place I visited during my childhood: The Soudan Iron Mine.

minnesota map 2
My not-quite-to-scale rendition of my home state. Yes, Minnesota does go further north than Maine. You can tell by looking at the lines of latitude on maps. It’s just the flattening of the globe into map shape using the Mercator projection that makes Maine look “higher.”

The Soudan mine and the unincorporated community it is part of (population 446 in a 2010 census) sit in the Northwoods of Minnesota, just down the road from the town of Tower (population 489 in 2018.)

Tower was incorporated in 1889 and is the oldest Minnesota city north of Duluth. Its location in a swampy woodland meant that even reaching the town was a challenge in its early days—teams got bogged down by marshland in every season but winter and mail was delivered by “dog trains.” Even when the travel troubles were overcome, the climate is what one of my Minnesota relatives might call in typical understatement “a little chilly.” Soudan reportedly got its name because the first mine superintendent, Elisha Morcom, jokingly called it that as an ironic contrast to the climate in the Sudan region in Africa. On February 2, 1996, Tower held the record for the coldest temperature in the lower 48 states at -60 degrees Fahrenheit.

So, what moved people to make their way through swamp and woods to found Tower and Soudan? It started out as a search for gold, but prospectors found something else of value in northern Minnesota: hematite iron.

In 1882, Soudan became the site of the first iron mine in Minnesota. It started as an open-pit mine, but as the diggings grew deeper it moved underground. The iron in the soil was so pure and so strong that the mine shafts could be dug with minimal bracing and could extend far into the ground safely. The deepest excavated area goes nearly 2,500 feet into the earth. While Soudan was not the biggest producing mine of Minnesota’s Iron Range, it was a steady producer until 1962.

Now, you may well be wondering where my World War II connection comes in.

B-25 Mitchells of the 12th Bomb Group over North Africa” Image via Wikimedia Commons

Soudan’s rich, pure iron ore was high in oxygen and excellent for making steel. As the United States amped up its Home Front war effort, steel was an essential item, and Minnesota was one place that could provide it.

In this quote from the Duluth News Tribune, James Juip, an interpreter at Lake Vermillion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park, talks a bit about the impact of Minnesota steel before and during the war.

“These guys (the miners) were proud to tell you that every piece of U.S. steel made between 1890 and 1940 had Soudan ore in it. That’s just the way it was. You can think about the country made out of steel — trains, cars, skyscrapers — none of that stuff happened if it isn’t for these guys here.

He asked the crowd to picture the warplanes coming off the assembly lines during World War II. “Every 90 minutes there was a new plane, and the steel for that plane – right here. “

Kaczke, Lisa L. (2017, July 22, 6:00 pm) “Minnesota mining’s place in American history: Soudan state park showcases mining’s impact on country.” Duluth News Tribune.

Today, the 33,000 or so annual visitors to the state park can take a ride 1/2 mile down into the earth, following the same route the miners would have taken. It’s a fascinating tour and stands out in my memory as one of my favorite Minnesota State Park visits. You can get a sneak peek of portions of the tour in the video below.

As to the connection to my writing, when I began developing back stories for my upcoming novel’s characters, I decided to make several of them Midwesterners so that I could tap into my background knowledge of the area. One, Leroy Anderson, just sort of naturally ended up being from northern Minnesota. (Maybe this was because one of the Scandinavian branches of my family tree took root up there. Maybe. Characters seem to have a way of growing on their own as time goes on…)

The Soudan Mine tour I’d gone on as a child came back to me, as did the bit of research I’d done on its World War II role, and before I knew it, Leroy called Tower his home town. Like many of the real residents of Tower, (listed on their historical society’s page) he left home to serve, though whether any of them left home for the same reasons as my fictional character did or not, I don’t know.

Rolling over, he sighed. He was only four when word of the accident at the Barnes-Hecker Mine in Michigan had reached his family. Still, his memory was seared with the image of Mom crying on Dad’s shoulder because her brother had been working over there and she didn’t know if he’d survived. Not many had—the shaft had flooded too quickly, trapping more than fifty men underground. One man managed to climb out faster than the rushing water; the others were drowned or buried alive. Dad spent years trying to convince Leroy that the Soudan Mine was different—strong, reinforced by the iron they dug out, but Leroy hated the feeling of claustrophobia that seized him in the dark, half mile ride down into the earth. He hated the heavy walls lit only by flickering, artificial lights.

Life underground wasn’t for him. So he’d left, enlisted, shipped abroad, and now, here he was, stuck underground after all. With another sigh, he gave up on getting comfortable.

Where Shall I Flee? Chapter 3

Choosing to use a place I was somewhat familiar with was also a good reminder of the necessity of THOROUGH research. I distinctly remembered the guide on our mine tour talking about the mine using mules, and talking about how it was a fairly forward-thinking place in that the mule handlers would periodically bring their animals above ground with bandaged eyes so that they could reacclimate to the light and regain their health after long stints underground. It was an interesting tidbit, that almost made it into the last draft of my novel.

As I was doing final read-throughs, however, I came to that brief mention and paused. Did I actually confirm that that was still going on in the 40s? Mules were in common use in Italy, but would they have been still in use state-side with the mine having electricity by the 40s?

Here’s where I owe a debt of gratitude to the staff of the park. I e-mailed over, and one member of their team responded, did some research for me, and confirmed that no, Leroy would most likely NOT have been around mules and handlers, at least not many, and certainly not recently (though perhaps in his childhood?) Anachronism averted! Fantastic people like him help make this writing process possible—I still need to send a thank-you note!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at a bit of WWII history and writing background. If you’re interested in more of these stories, I’ll be sharing them as I prepare for the release date of Where Shall I Flee? in just over 2 weeks!

For more information…

I came across a new article from the Mesabi Tribune just today with some fascinating facts about the history of the mine and some great updates on the park.

Here is the “MNOpedia” article on the general history of the Soudan Mine and Tower

Here is a link to the Tower Soudan Historical Society (this site also lists veterans who served in both world wars and other conflicts from the area.)

The state park’s site shares overviews and history, as well as information on attending one of the mine tours: linked HERE

And here is the full citation information for the quotes from the Duluth News Herald, including the appropriate link:
Kaczke, Lisa L. (2017, July 22, 6:00 pm) “Minnesota mining’s place in American history: Soudan state park showcases mining’s impact on country.” Duluth News Tribune.

14 thoughts on “Mining for WWII History (and Character Backgrounds)”

  1. That sort of deep research is fascinating. Its amazing the sort of tidbits you uncover. And bonus, that one person at the park who could answer your question, won’t be able to say “Gotcha!” when they read your book!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I bet if you were to add up the hours you’ve spent researching they would at least match, and maybe exceed the hours you spend writing Anne – but its what made your first book so very readable and believable. Thank you for sharing this – and for sharing the extract from your forthcoming book. Enticing!

    Liked by 1 person

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