Tilden/Empire Iron Mine Tour
|Vast Tilden Mine, sister of Empire Mine two miles east.|
Although you must get reservations for this tour, it's worth the trouble, topped by an awesome view of the Empire surface iron mine a mile across and 1,200 feet deep. At the rim of the mine you view yellow trucksótiny in the distance but actually the size of 2-story housesócarry 320 tons of 35% iron rocks at a time up to be processed into pellets of 64% iron that freighters take to steel mills around the Great Lakes. It's the latest chapter in a mining saga that largely created the population centers of the Upper Peninsula's Marquette region in the mid-19th century.
Lake Superior iron mining remains competitive only because of the immense scale of the operation and the relative cheapness of open pit compared to older shaft iron mines. Another key to profitability are the iron-rich taconite pellets which can be shipped economically to North American steelmakers that use traditional blast furnaces to make steel. (Steel from scrap fuels the more modern electric arc furnaces that now account for 60% of North American steel.)
The Tilden Mine began pellet production in 1973; it can produce 8 million tons a year. The Empire Mine (5.5 million tons a year) began production in 1963. Enormous dynamite blasts create the big chunks of rock that are hauled out. Blasts occur two to three times a week, always in the morning, never at tour times.
A bus takes tour-goers from the Michigan Iron Mining Museum in Negaunee at noon. (See below.) Space is limited to one busload. Tour guides have been summer employees at Cliffs Natural Resources. They have grown up around mining. In all probability they are quite well informed and able to handle many questions. The tour, designed by Cliffs district manager of public affairs Dale Hemmila, gives outsiders a good overview of the economics of U.S. iron mining today.
Viewing the immense mine pit, it's immediately apparent how enormously capital-intensive this operation is. Truck tires are 12 feet high. They cost in the neighborhood of $20,000 each; a shovel that can scoop 70 tons of rocks at a time costs $19 million. Mine operations never stop. The Tilden and Empire mines together currently employ around 1,800 skilled workers, from metallurgists, engineers, and computer operators to heavy equipment operators and operators of the Marquette-bound Lake Superior & Ishpeming Railroad.
As dramatic as the huge Empire open pit appears, an even more dramatic scene awaits visitors when they enter Tilden Mine's processing plant.
Inside the plant, noise from the crushers and huge rotating mills makes it hard to hear. Signs explain steps in processing the iron ore into the marble-sized pellets. It's very warm by the kilns. Occasionally the angled geometry of the chutes and towers frames outside views of the massive piles of rugged red waste rock and the precisely angled piles of pellets. Weeds and trees are strangely taking hold even in this monumentally unnatural environment.
The jobs here (starting pay: $23/hour) are an enormous part of the region's economy. And even thought the iron ore goes 800+ feet deeper than the current bottoms of the two big pits, many of those 1,800 jobs aren't secure. Empire Mine may well shut down by 2015, The Tilden Mine is supposed to continue operations for another 30 years.
The tour ends in the quiet control room. Tour-goers leave with free plastic goody bags including souvenir taconite pellets and ear plugs. Bags bear the mining motto, "If it can't be grown, it has to be mined."
Call to find out if tours are being given. Sign up in advance, a week ahead if possible, earlier later in the summer. Tours have nearly always been full. In the past, there's been one tour per day mid-June thru late August, Tues-Sat. The bus now leaves the Michigan Iron Mining Museum east of Negaunee, one mile west of the junction of U.S. 41/M-28 and M-35 (the road to Palmer). Clearly signed from U.S. 41/M-28. Call the Lake Superior Community Partnership at (906) 226-6591 or (906) 226-9658 for reservations, locations, and for guidelines on appropriate dress (for example, no sandals allowed). No photography. Restricted to adults and children age 10 and up. Cost per person: $15. Handicap-accessible: no.
Return to Ishpeming
POINTS OF INTEREST
Cliffs Shaft Mining Museum. See where miners dressed, walked through tunnel to cages to be lowered down in mine. Retired miners tell tales of work life, cave-ins, tragic accidents. Engaging mine model, artifacts, mineral specimens from Ishpeming Rock & Mineral Club. ... more
U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame & Museum. In a ski jump-shaped building, the story is told of how U.S. skiing developed from a minor sport brought by Scandinavians, enhanced by Hollywood, Sun Valley, and the illustrious WWII ski assault team ... more
Da Yoopers Tourist Trap & Museum. The roadside attraction from a popular satirical U.P. comedy group combines free outdoor exhibits like the world's largest chain saw and deer playing cards at deer camp with Yooper novelties, books, and a good rock shop ... more