- Associated Press - Saturday, June 27, 2015

CALUMET, Minn. (AP) - Mining opened the earth, producing 64 million tons of iron ore, leaving a 200-foot-tall pile of reddish rock and a 300-foot-deep lake, creating a magnet for history-lovers and fossil-seekers.

Hill Annex Mine State Park lies beyond a locked gate. Exploration is by organized tour only, and those tours run only during the summer.

“We have a gate, and we don’t let people roam around unattended. That piques curiosity,” said Jordan Schraefer, park manager for the past four months.

The idea that the 634-acre park could close down any year heightens its appeal, the St. Cloud Times (http://on.sctimes.com/1FrVStx ) reported.

“Every year, we say this is going to be the last year,” Kacie Carlson, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ northeast regional naturalist, said during a May field trip. A provision in the statute that established the park in 1988 states the mineral rights may be reclaimed if the site once again becomes profitable.

The site turned a profit from 1913-1978, briefly as an underground mine and then as an open-pit operation. Hematite-rich ore became steel. The sandy overburden built highways. The gravely middle layer with no immediate use piled up.

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John Westgaard has found more than 80 shark teeth in those discarded piles. A volunteer researcher with the Science Museum of Minnesota, he interacts with visitors while he’s on-site this summer seeking more fossils from the Cretaceous Period.

“We get a lot of wonderment, especially when I can pull out a box of shark’s teeth and tell them I found them right there in Grand Rapids,” Westgaard said.

Since last June, Science Museum workers have found more than 300 fossils from the period when a shallow sea covered this part of Minnesota. During that period, when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth, the Mesabi Iron Range was thought to be on the edge of the Epicontinental Seaway that cut the continent in half.

Most common finds are snails, teeth and clams.

Three never-before-documented finds last season - a type of snail, a rough reptile tooth and what appears to be the left upper arm of a reptile - prompted this year’s more in-depth field work. It’s a job accomplished mostly with hand trowels, rock hammers, dental picks and tweezers.

“We might be able to add new species to our list of animals that lived in Minnesota,” Westgaard said.

Solving the puzzle will involve a trip to Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History in attempt to match pieces - but that bit of an upper arm could belong to a sea turtle.

“That would be a first occurrence,” Westgaard said.

Collected fossils could be added to the Science Museum collection, incorporated into a display there, or returned to exhibit at the state park - where the most unusual piece on view is a replica crocodile snout.

Part of the difficulty for Westgaard and other fossil-hunters: While the piles are accessible, they’re in a jumble of layers going back 100 years to the first mining. Westgaard estimated the volume at thousands of metric tons.

Fossils can be removed from this site because it’s on county land near the state park.

During a May field trip, adults scaled the muddy slope, snapping up bits of anything that looked interesting, filling bags and pockets with rocks.

Most of their finds were no bigger than golf ball-sized, nothing like the miners’ stories of ammonites (critters related to octopus and squid) too big to fit in steam shovel buckets. One partial specimen measured 41/2 feet long and nearly 1 foot in diameter.

“It’s always an adventure digging in the ground and wondering what’s going to come out next,” Westgaard said.

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The rock hit the roof with a cartoonlike clang that reverberated within the metal blasting shack even after the door opened.

More clearly than any other stop on the Hill Annex Mine State Park tour, this one illustrated how much iron ore mining has changed - especially for those who ignored tour guide Loren Yost’s advice to cover their ears before he took aim at the cone-shaped roof.

Before the shack, Yost said, miners covered their faces with shovels during the blasts that freed the rock.

Hill Annex Mine in 1930 became the first on the iron range to replace steam with electricity. Eventually, it became too expensive to extract ore from the pit, 600 feet at its deepest point.

When it closed, it closed suddenly.

“The last day of operations, they did a relatively fast shutdown,” Schraefer said. “There are still clocks in some of the buildings. Where they turned the power off in that complex the clock stopped at 12:01. The stuff that ended up on the conveyors, that’s where it ended up.”

The effect can seem staged just for visitors. The train shop contains some tools. Rocks still rest on the conveyor belt that carried them up the tailings pile, 200 feet tall with a 40-acre surface area. From that vantage point, the view stretches about 30 miles beyond the open pits. Pumping stopped when mining did; even more equipment lies under water.

It’s unclear what might happen to the equipment on the surface - things like the 85-ton truck and the shovel that can scoop 10 tons of earth - if mining resumes. Carlson said no one seems to want to claim them.

But for now, equipment such as the Euclid truck and the Marion shovel are among the stars of a 5-mile bus tour that climbs to the top of that 200-foot overlook.

“Because it’s an abandoned industrial site, we don’t allow people to roam the grounds freely. We get some questions about why can’t I just drive down there. It’s the potential hazards that are associated with that location,” Schraefer said.

That’s why the bus slows down, but no one disembarks during the trip through the train shop.

Yost, a U.S. Steel employee for 12 years and a Hill Annex Mine State Park guide for 18, brings the tour to life with stories from his own experiences (he’s driven an 85-ton truck), a wealth of history and a bit of humor. (But do take him seriously if he says cover your ears or hang on.)

“I like to tell them about the people that came here from Yugoslavia, Austria, Italy and Finland,” Yost said.

The clubhouse, which now serves as the park’s museum and the tour starting point, was a place where Hill Annex Mine workers from all backgrounds congregated. Upstairs were sleeping rooms, rented to young, single engineers who later might live in a company house. Off the back of the building was a single-lane bowling alley.

Meanwhile, it doesn’t appear as if another land-use switch is imminent.

Kevin Kangas, who is employed by Essar Steel and works for Hill Annex LLC, a project development company, said any plans for the Hill Annex Mine State Park property were still in the project development phase. He said the first step would be for the company to propose a project, which it has not done.

“If we do propose a project, we would want to work symbiotically with the park to stay open,” Kangas said.

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Information from: St. Cloud Times, http://www.sctimes.com

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