If you’ve ever driven on US-2 through Vulcan the chances are you’ve seen the red slatted signs on the side of the road that say things like “underground mine tour, rock shop, 2000 feet” and “see where iron ore was discovered.”
Those unmistakable red signs belong to the Iron Mountain Iron Mine, where guides have been giving tours of the East Vulcan Mine since 1958, said Karen Secinaro, the general manager of the mine.
“The whole thing is to tell people this is our heritage,” Secinaro said. “And this is how it all started. And, to go and look to see really how we did start, because they worked hard. These men worked very hard.”
Secinaro’s father, Eugene Carollo, is the current owner of the Iron Mountain Iron Mine and one of the three original founders, she said.
Brothers Eugene and Albert Carollo had seen the success of similar attractions, and realized there were mines in the area that could attract tourists and bring business for their families motels, according to “A Brief Illustrated History of Vulcan, Michigan and the Reopening of the Mine for Tourists,” a book written by Dennis Carollo, the son of Albert Carollo.
The brothers had no maps to go by, but eventually found the exploratory tunnel of the East Vulcan Mine which is where tours are still given today, said Secinaro.
The exploratory tunnel was likely dug between 1870 and 1877, and was used to look for the ore with a high enough percentage of iron to make the mining company money, according to the book. The main ore body was found in 1877. After it was found the exploratory tunnel was likely sealed off because it was not needed to extract the ore.
After finding the exploratory tunnel, the Carollo brothers partnered with James Goulette to get the mine ready for the first tour given in 1958, according to the book.
The mine has changed a bit since the first tour, there is now a small train used to bring tourists into the mine, a rock shop and Big John has been added.
Big John is a 40-foot high and 12-foot wide replica of a miner used to greet visitors of the mine, according to the Iron Mountain Iron Mine website.
The real Big John never worked in the East Vulcan Mine. He was a coal miner, but he is used as marketing for the mine because he was a memorable miner due to his height, said Ryan Webber, a tour guide who has been working at the Iron Mountain Iron Mine for three years.
“A lot of people think he wasn’t a real person,” Webber said. “But he was actually a real person back then. He would never have been able to fit in this mine anyway. Being six foot eight he’d be ducking the whole way through.”
Big John now welcomes tourists from all over the world who can be seen with a look through the mine’s guest books, or the maps on the wall near the entrance.
“We have the U.S. map and the world map,” Secinaro said. “What I like to do is have people sign their name and then pin their home town.”
Eric Gonwa is from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, and said he came to the mine from his cabin for something to do. Gonwa said his favorite part of the tour was seeing the big stope.
“It being drilled out all by hand was pretty fascinating,” he said. “To see what kind of work they did, how they did it and what came out of it. That’s what I’d say I like most about (the mine).”
The Iron Mine is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Memorial Day to October 15. Those interested can find more information on the mine’s website.