August 25, 1921: Mining report shows the costs of ore in terms of miner’s lives

On this day in Duluth in 1921, mine inspector Ed Smith reported that St. Louis County mines took the life of a man for every 1,044,822 tons of iron ore that was extracted from them. The report stated that in the previous fiscal year the county’s 102 operational mines employed 12,042 men who dug 27,165,385 tons of iron ore. Twenty-six mine employees died in accidents, eleven in underground mines and 15 on the surface, for a death rate of 2.1 out of 1,000 men—and that was actually good news, as the number was down ten deaths from the previous year. Nine of the dead were miners, including four steam-shovel operators; steam-shovels themselves were blamed for the deaths of five men, dump cars for four others, and six men died in cave-ins. The men earned between $4 ($54.66 today) a day as a common laborer up to $12.92 ($176.54 today) for a journeyman steam-shovel engineer. There was more bad news. While 102 mines operated, 74 sat idle, and more would close or cut production as iron demand dropped following the end of the first world war. Smith wrote that, “A number of mines are shut down. A small force of men are kept on hand …. Other mines are on half time basis. Miner with large families are given the preference. The situation is one where mining companies have no choice. They cannot continue the high wages that they have paid for so long and continue doing business.”

A lithographic postcard showing miners in an underground mine in Minnesota made between 1915 and 1925. (Image: Zenith City Press)

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