As a part of our weekend up in the Brainerd area we decided to pay a visit to the Iron Range/Soo Line Depot museum in Crosby, MN. We really had no idea what to expect from this, but thought it could be a fun little diversion in the day. The museum is only open limited hours and is staffed by volunteers, and supported by donations. However, a Saturday in the middle of summer is prime tourist time, so we didn’t need to worry about it being open.
Upon entering we were greeted by a friendly gentleman who asked us if this was our first time at the museum. He offered to give us a quick tour of the facility before we browsed on our own. Crosby is a small town NW of Brainerd, MN, and was at the end of a Soo Line spur. It was founded in 1910, and through it’s history has had a long relationship with the mining industry (as have many cities up in this area). More recently Crosby, and it’s nearby neighbor of Ironton, have been known more for the Cuyuna bike park and trail system. In fact our lunch consisted of a visit to the Red Raven which is not just a cafe, but also a bike shop.
Throughout much of it’s history though, Crosby has been a mining and logging town, started by George Crosby to support his mining operations in the area. This history was dominated by the worst mining disaster in Minnesota history, the Milford mine disaster. In the process of blasting new tunnels to search for ore they came up under a lake and the tunnel flooded with water and mud. On that day 41 miners perished, with only 7 escaping alive. It was a huge blow to the area as those 41 men left behind 80 children, and decimated the local economy. By the mid-30s the mine was closed for good.
It’s also rather fascinating that Crosby is the first city in America to have ever elected a Communist mayor in 1932. Given the mine disaster that had occurred, it probably is appropriate that an individual who was rabidly invested in worker’s having control over local politics. The experiment didn’t last long however, and mayor Nygard was defeated when he went for re-election a year later.
Because of the mining disaster a local memorial park was constructed a few miles north of the town at the site of the incident. We went up to this area and walked around the various paths and historical sites. The deer flies were out in force, so we couldn’t take our time like we would have liked to, but it was still a fascinating peek into the past. There are multiple monuments to the 41 fallen miners, with their names listed on various plaques and memorials. The site is also where the small mining “city” existed to support the operation of the mine. Despite only being concrete slabs anymore, the area still shows the general layout of where the buildings were. When the mine closed, the pumps were turned of and the area was reclaimed by the lake, making this a destination for scuba divers that want to explore an industrial area from almost a century ago.
One other claim to fame of this area is the Project Man High II in 1957 which sent Dr. David Simons to the edge of the atmosphere in a capsule attached to a weather balloon to test what the human body was capable of. Dr. Simons was the first individual in history to see the curvature of the earth, ascending to 19 miles above the earth, recording data for 32 hours. This feat helped propel America in the space race with crucial data on how to best protect astronauts on future missions. There is a replica capsule in the museum that you can sit in and see what it was like for his day and a half experiment.
History happens all around us, every day. We’re drawn to the big events, the ones that change the entire world as we know it. Moments in time that become touchpoints for future generations to use to understand a specific time and place. However, there are also the small stories. These are things that don’t continue to exist in the general knowledge of the population, but yet have a significance. Taking a bit of time to explore unfamiliar history gives us a chance to see the world just a slightly bit different going forward. Even in a small town of less than 3000 people, there is history that can teach us about how we got to where we are today as a society. Disasters like the Milford mine had an impact on working conditions of future miners. Discoveries around the human body and space travel have opened up huge advancements in science and technology. These all took place in a little town in northern Minnesota, faded from the memories of most people, but still discoverable because a community decided that history was important, and worth keeping alive.