Cliff starts mine tours

ISHPEMING – In the processing plant of Cliffs Natural Resources’ Tilden Mine, low-grade iron ore extracted from a nearby open pit undergoes a complex process by which it’s transformed into a flux pellet product bound for steel mill furnaces – it’s ground, crushed, mixed with water, de-watered, separated, rolled, dried, preheated and fired in enormous kilns.

The mine’s two kilns are enormous, 25 feet in diameter, 160 feet long and rotating slowly above metal grates and rows of machinery in the dank, cavelike building. Everything is covered in a patina of red dust, mantles of rust. With earplugs in, the building itself seems to churn and chug in a dulled roar. It smells like metal. It’s hot – heat pours from the kilns as the pellets are baked at more than 2,300 degrees.

“I now know what Jonah felt like in the belly of the whale,” said Elaine Racine, an Ishpeming City Councilwoman, shouting to be heard over the din, a big smile on her face.

Racine and more than 20 others, many of them from the media, were nearing the end of Cliffs’ VIP Mine Tour on Monday. The tour, explained Jennifer Huetter, Cliffs’ district manager of public affairs in Michigan, served as both a friendly invitation to the media, city officials and local business leaders and as a “dry run” before the 21st year of Cliffs’ summer public tours opened today.

“I think it went good, yeah.” Huetter said after the group disembarked at the Michigan Iron Mining Museum in Negaunee. “I’m excited for this year… I hope we get lots of people to sign up and do it. It’s a great opportunity for us to showcase those operations and to tell the U.P. and to tell visitors about our story and where we’re at and what we’re doing out there at the mine. But I also think this is a great family kind of orientation. There’s not mines everywhere, so if you’ve never seen anything like this, it’s certainly impressive.

After a hiatus last summer to do some maintenance at the Tilden, this year’s tour-goers, for $15, will be bused from the mining museum past Miners Park in Negaunee and Cliffs Shaft in Ishpeming as part of a history lesson given by tour guide Jocelyn Clickner, before entering the mine premises. From there, they’ll go first to the Empire Mine pit, where, at the bottom, trucks two storeys high work hauling ore, looking like toddler toys.

After that, visitors are treated to a walk through the Tilden plant.

For Racine, who’s lived in the area all her life but had never seen the mines before, the tour was a huge educational opportunity.

“I had no idea what was out there. I’m absolutely astounded,” Racine said. “I’ve seen (the pit) from the air, because I’ve flown over it with my son, but you do not get the perspective. I think everybody who lives in our area should go see what’s going on. It’s beyond comprehension. You have to see it to believe it.”

The tours will run Tuesdays though Saturdays from today until Aug. 23, and last roughly three hours. Tickets can be purchased from the Lake Superior Community Partnership office on Front Street in Marquette. Everyone ages 10 and up are welcome, but those under the age of 18 must be accompanied by an adult.

Zach Jay can be reached at 906-486-4401.