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The ghostly legacy of Minnesota's Milford Mine disaster

Forty-one men died inside the Milford Mine just outside Crosby when they tunneled a little too close to Lake Foley.

Forty-one men died inside the Milford Mine just outside Crosby when they tunneled a little too close to Lake Foley. RPA - Minnesota Historical Society

It was February 1924. The men digging for ore in the Milford Mine, just north of Crosby, were almost done with their shift. Frank Hvratin, who was only 14 at the time, was hard at work dumping ore so it could be lifted to the surface. He was about 175 feet underground. The last thing he expected was a blast of air to smack him in the face.

The boy, bewildered, peered down to the next level of the mine, about 200 feet deep. He saw a river of brown, rushing water. His heart sank. Young as he was, he knew what was happening. He and his father, Frank Sr., hadn’t planned on working in the mine long because it was so “wet.” Parts of it required workers to wear hats and slickers, and he knew why.

“They were under [Lake Foley],” he said during a later interview about what came next. “The mining inspector’s report will probably say different, but we were under the lake… The mining engineer told the company many times about the danger, but they wouldn’t listen. They just wanted the ore.”

Historical accounts say many miners may have known about this, and even quit rather than risk their lives. Some had reportedly only stayed on because they’d hoped the winter chill would freeze the ground and make it impermeable. They couldn’t have known that the mud and water extended so far underground that they were impervious to the cold. Regardless, they were about to find out.

“The lake is coming in!” Frank yelled as he ran through the mine. He shouted and pleaded, but only a few listened and followed him to the only exit: a ladder stretching to the surface. The men scrambled upward. Frank saw Matt Kangas, an older miner, struggling to climb, and he jumped between his legs and shoved him upward from behind. Meanwhile, the water rushed ever upward at their backs. The last miner was waist-deep by the time he managed to get out.

On the surface, a blaring sound could be heard over the commotion of confusion and panic. It was the warning whistle, screaming nonstop. Another worker, Clinton Harris, had been minding the electric hoist when he got an early warning about the disaster. Accounts say he chose to keep his post to sound the alarm rather than save himself.

It’s not certain whether Harris merely became entangled in the cord of the whistle, or if, heroically, he had tied himself to it in order to keep it running. Either way, the whistle blasted on and on for hours until an engineer on the surface managed to disconnect it. Then all went quiet.

Young Frank was one of the few miners working that day to survive the ordeal. Forty-one died in the flood, including his father. It would take ages to pump all the water, mud, and filth from the shaftto say nothing of the fish and turtles strewn throughout the site, many of which were distributed to the miners’ families for food. In late March, they began to recover the bodies of the men.

“The air underground had the smell of death,” one account read. “Not only from the bodies left to be found, but also of the rotting fish and frogs.”

They could “always tell” when they were getting close to a body from the reek in the air. As the hoses washed away the grime, usually the first thing to be revealed was the “grotesque white face” of the corpse, “swelled to look like a rag doll, peering out of the black muck.”

It took nine months to recover all 41 men, who left 31 wives and 88 children behind. The financial compensation from the Industrial Commission did little to assuage their grief.

The mine would eventually get up and running again… before it closed in 1932. But legend has it that when the first group of miners reentered Milford, they discovered they weren’t alone.

There, in the darkness, they supposedly saw the eerie form of Clinton Harris, still holding the cord. It’s said that before they fled, they heard the piercing sound of a whistle.