Crosby: A Commie 4th of July Day Trip
On the 4th of July, I set out with my friends Adam and Lucas to Crosby, Mn for a day of exploration. Crosby, Mn is famous for having the first communist mayor in U.S. history. It is also the site of the worst mining disaster in Minnesota history. This history attracted us to the city, located about two hours west of Duluth, to do a little exploring. We didn’t have a set agenda or defined expectations of what we would find there. I had the general idea that we would explore the Cayuna State Recreation Area to explore the many mine lakes in the area.
We arrived in Crosby, a town of about 2,400 people, as a 4th of July parade was travelling through. The main street was blocked off and we threaded through side streets until returning to HWY 6 and coming upon the recreation area. The area was full of bicyclists there to enjoy the bike trails. We were pleased to find a park by the parking lot, which was full of old mining equipment and plaques about the area’s mining history. The Cayuna Range was named after a surveyor named Cuyler Adams and his dog, Una. He is credited with finding iron ore and mining in the area began in 1911. The ore deposits are located deep underground, so most of the mines were underground mines or deep pits. The plaques mentioned information about Cuyler Adams as well as the mining operations over the years. We meandered the grounds reading the information and taking photos by the equipment and memorabilia. My favorite was a rusted “Work Safe” sign.
As we explored, we stumbled upon a museum! We assumed that the white building was empty, but it was actually full of more information and mining artifacts. Interestingly enough, it was also staffed by a lonely local guide who didn’t seem to get many visitors. Assumedly, most visitors come for the biking trails rather than mining history. Mr. Stokey, the museum guide, informed us about the Milford Mine Disaster. According to Stokey, unlike the Tower-Soudan mine, the mine shafts on the Cayuna range were largely vertical rather than slanted. These vertical shafts tunneled deeply through glacial till to reach the rich iron deposits. However, they were soggy, drippy tunnels with poor ventilation and a need for constant water pumping. One such mining site was the Milford Mine, which began operation in 1917. The drifts of the mine (tunnels where extraction of iron occurred) extended towards Foley Lake. On Feb. 5, 1924, near the changing of the shift, the lake burst through the drift flooding the mine and killing 41 miners. According to Stokey, it took almost nine months to recover the bodies and to this day there are oral histories of ghost/horror stories about the mine. As an atheist, I am not prone to such superstitions, but it was interesting to hear his stories about the haunted mine. I was more haunted by the horror of a watery death and the desperate escape from a flooding mine. Seven miners managed to climb out of the mine…which of course…was not shut down and eventually re-opened so more profits could be rent from the earth.
Beyond the museum, there is the Croft Mine Park and a network of biking and hiking trails. The trails wind around various mining lakes. One of these lakes is the Portsmouth Mine Pit Lake. Upon seeing it, I was certain it was a natural lake…since it seemed much too large to be a mine pit. However, after conferring with the map, I learned that it was indeed a pythonic mine pit. It is in fact, the deepest lake in Minnesota (entirely within Minnesota) at a depth of 450 feet. We also learned that before the pit filled with water it was a site for upper atmosphere flights during the space race.
Stokey was very knowledgeable and kindly told us where we could find the old communist hall as well as the actual site of the mining disaster. This is where we headed to next. Of course, mining resumed after the disaster and resulted in a large crater that is now filled with water. So, the actual site of the disaster cannot be visited as it is in the middle of a lake that is located a few miles up the road from the park off of CTY RD 33 and Milford Mine Rd. However, we were able to view the site from the shoreline.
Following a somber visit to the mine disaster site, we headed off to find the communist hall. It was a boarded up building next to a Holiday Station. We didn’t spend too much time uncovering the communist history of the area, though as mentioned earlier, Crosby was where the first communist mayor was elected. More information about him can be read at: http://collections.mnhs.org/mnhistorymagazine/articles/58/v58i03p168-186.pdf, but to summarize a little about his history, essentially he was originally from Iron Belt, WI and the son of Swedish Finnish immigrants. His father was a miner who moved to Crosby for work. There were many radicalizing influences around him, such as strikes, IWW activity, and the arrest of Finns who did not register for the WWI draft. He attended college briefly at UMD, where he was a starving student and met Marxists (among them sociology students!). He ran for mayor twice, but lost, then finally won in 1932 on his third try after his demands regarding unemployment, poverty aid, and a city audit. He served as mayor for one year and that was his only elected position. We did not search for his grave and indeed, he is likely buried elsewhere as he went on to spend most of his life Becker County. As for the radical history, it was mostly invisible. In fact, we saw a confederate flag hanging from a window on the main street. Times change. Mine pits look as natural as lakes and are stocked with trout. Still, it was a fascinating adventure and a great way to inject worker history into a revolutionary holiday!