THE LEGACY OF THE BUNKER HILL MINE
Deep within the mountains of the panhandle of Idaho is a valley that white people named Silver. This valley is the heart of what became known as the Coeur d'Alene Mining District. The Bunker Hill Mining complex, situated from the west end of the town of Kellogg and through the town of Smelterville, includes a silver, lead and zinc mine, a smelter, a zinc plant and a rail yard.
Bunker Hill has had a turbulent history spanning over 100 years. Though Bunker Hill is now closed down (hopefully for good), the final story cannot be written, for the effects will linger on for generations to come. Many histories are written in such a way that they seem distant in time and place, but the story of Bunker Hill has a personal aspect for me because I once worked there.
Back in 1972, I wandered into the town of Kellogg with my stake, built while picking fruit in Oregon, nearly exhausted. I made my way down to the main drag where I found the employment office for the Bunker Hill Mining Company. The place was old and run down, and gave you a feeling of stepping back in time. Once inside they had me fill out a few papers, and without reading them, and no questions asked, I was told that I would begin work the following day. Because of my youth I was assigned to the cellroom of the zinc plant where I was to be a zinc stripper.
After being handed a few papers and being told to report for the graveyard shift the next day, I decided to scope out the town and find a place to camp until I made enough to pay some landlord for a flop. From the get go I could tell that there was something different about the people, something that I had never seen before. I guess you could say there was a haunting feel about them--a sense of tragedy, a hurting look in their eyes, something that you can't quite put into words. I knew the reason for what I saw. Five miles to the east of town 91 miners had died in the Sunshine Mine only a short time before. The date of that great fire, May 2, 1972 will always live on in the memory of those that live in the Silver Valley.
The Sunshine Mine was a maze of over 180 miles of tunnels reaching a mile below the surface. Old tunnels in the worked-out areas of the mine were not sealed off and were full of dried-out timber. Like the other hard rock mines in the area, the Sunshine Mine was what is called a "hot mine" Down in the hellish tunnels the temperature would exceed 100 degrees and the air was very dry. The timber would dry out and any source of ignition or sometimes even spontaneous combustion will set the timber burning.
Once the fire gets going smoke and carbon monoxide gas rapidly fills the mine's air stream and ventilation system. Once the smoke and gas reaches the miner's, there is only a minute or two before they lose consciousness. The fire started at the 3,700 foot level, trapping the miners below and forcing those above to flee for their lives. Though the law calls for two ways out of a mine, this one had only one. The miners rode an elevator down to their job sites, and this hoist was operated by workers from above.
Some of the hoist operators died at their posts trying to get their fellow workers out. Once the operators were overcome by smoke and gas there was no way out for the miners below. One operator later testified that "The men were choking, down on their knees." When the last hoist came up, "all the miners in it were lying on the floor--either dead or unconscious." He collapsed but was saved by a fellow miner. Nine days later the last of the 91 dead miners were found. On that same day came news of five more miners' bodies found in another mine fire in Farmington, West Virginia, where 78 miners had died and it had taken three years to find the last bodies.
Figures from the Federal Bureau of Mines show that before the fire, the Sunshine Mine had an injury rate five times the average for metal mines, and that the fatality rate was twice as high. Mining inspectors found 35 violations just two months before the fire. And that was in the areas they could inspect, the worked-out areas were too cluttered with old timber and other debris to be inspected. There had never been any fire drills in the mine, no fire escape plan, and the portable respirators were old, rusty and mostly unusable (and the miners had no training on how to use them).
Seven days after the tragedy, Irwin P. Underweiser, Chairman of the Board of the Sunshine Mining Company, spoke the following words to an Associated Press business editor. "In spite of the shutdown, we may make a profit on the closure. Insurance will cover cost of a shutdown of up to six months, although we don't anticipate such a lengthy closure. Also keep in mind that the Sunshine Mine is our nation's largest single silver producer. I wouldn't be surprised if the closure might put a crimp on the silver supply, forcing prices to go up in the ten percent neighborhood." And people wonder why I think the bosses are the scum of the earth. A few months later the Sunshine Mine was up and running again and it is still in operation today.
After I found a place to camp, I made my way over to the Sunshine Mine. Along the way I was picked up by an old-timer who had lost his only son in the mine. He told me that he often drove up to the mine just to think about his son and try to understand why all those miners had died. He showed me where the families had stood their 24-hour vigil for nine days. Right behind that area still stood a sign that read; "This is the first day of the rest of your life. Live it safely." Not far away was the old exhaust stack that billowed out smoke from the fire over the weeks it took before it was put out.
He told me of being a "gypo" miner for over 36 years before mine dust had destroyed so much of his lung tissue that he had to retire. He said the mine owners just didn't give a damn about the miner; it was only the ore they cared about. I asked him how the other miners in the area reacted. In a voice trembling in both grief and anger, he said, "A little bit of every miner died that day. But every miner knows that they carry a death sentence just waiting to be carried out. If they are not killed down in the mine, then the mine dust will kill them slowly."
He did say that a mine east of there, the Lucky Friday Mine, had a wildcat strike 20 days after the fire when the owners refused to allow a union safety inspection team permission to accompany a Bureau of Mines safety inspection team in a tour of the mine.
The next day I made my way up past the mine and smelter to a little box canyon where the zinc plant lay hidden from sight. As I walked up the canyon I noticed that the hills around it were barren off all plant life. At the front gate stood a sign that said the plant had gone 30 days without lost time due to accidents. I was later told that a few years back, when those 30 days was accumulated, they stopped updating the sign. The zinc plant was an old, dilapidated place with rotting walls and floors, in which one had to step with some care so as not to step into a hole. The place had a sulfuric smell to it, with a few other unidentifiable aromas mixed in so that one's nose would never grow accustomed to the stench.
The cellroom was where the zinc from the mine was poured into large vats of sulfuric acid and was then charged with 15,000 volts of electricity. The zinc strippers were all young; nobody over the age of 30 was allowed to work in there. We all wore rubber boots and rubber gloves, and our clothes were patched together with rubber patches. The zinc crystallized on plates, which we had to climb up onto the vats and pull up with a hook that looked like a longshoremen