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Underground In The Sunshine
By Dr. Ralph E. Pray


Hitchhiking east into Kellogg, Idaho I read a billboard sign north of the highway calling for, "Hardrock Miners - $12.67 per shift. Apply at Sunshine Mining Company." The Sunshine Mine in 1946 was the largest silver mine in the U.S. A good adventure. I found the hiring office and signed up as a helper. It was my second job underground that summer.

"Miners in Pioche only make seven-seventy a shift," I said to the hiring manager. 'How can you pay twelve-sixty-seven?"

'It's a different union. You're hiring on here at helper's wages, twelve-seventeen."

There was only fifty cents per day difference in pay between a teenager like me who knew next to nothing, a menace as far as safety was concerned, and a man who had lived half his life underground. The same pay scale difference was true in mines all over the West.

The room assigned me in the bunkhouse near the mine was secure and comfortable. My absent roommate and I each had a dresser and single bed. I noticed a layer of dust on his dresser top. When he didn't show up by supper-time I figured he was on vacation, in the hospital, or in jail.

When I realized I may be alone in the room it seemed like a good time to try going all day without speaking, to act and be totally speechless. It was an experiment. The supper table was the scene of my first attempt. I nodded to greetings and sat at a table seating ten men, five on each side.

"Jes' git hired?" one of the men asked.

I nodded and smiled. It worked.

After the meal a group of men congregated on the porch in front of the rambling bunkhouse. There were chairs, steps and railings to relax on. I sat on a railing near the steps and lit up with the other smokers. The talk was of the forthcoming annual Kellogg Miner's Picnic, said to be a four-day drunk. A short, tough-looking man of thirty or so spoke to the group, "There's bars ya better not get drunk in outside a' town, or you'll sleep it off in the can. Those Kellogg cops must own a piece of the downtown liquor business 'sides the whore houses and slots."

"You stop in Kellogg and see the sights?" he asked me.

I nodded 'no' and smiled.

"Best ya' have somebody with ya', kid,", another man said with a friendly grin. "Some o' them women's liable ta look right motherly attcha."

There was a round of laughter and I smiled broadly, wondering if Kellogg could be as rough as Pioche. The talk went on to cars and mines and deep snow in the winter.

I reported for work on the graveyard shift in my diggers before midnight.

Tony, the tough-looking shift boss, led his crew into a long adit to the main shaft. While waiting for the hoist to bring the cage up Tony asked me, "Ever pull chutes?"

I nodded in the affirmative.

"You're with the ore train on the sixteen hundred. Lou's the trainman. Work with him"

Lou walked over to shake hands with me. I grinned at him. "Where ya' from?" he asked, grinning back. I pointed up with a bigger smile. Aside from his greetings each midnight and my nods that's all we ever said in the weeks we worked together.

We communicated with our headlamps. Lou drove the electric locomotive ahead of fifteen or twenty open mine cars. He moved the train so that each empty car in turn sat exactly, by my light signal, beneath an ore chute. I rode the cars and pulled the boards up from the chute to let the mined, broken ore from above spill out and fill the car. Each steel car held several tons. As the car filled I had to replace the chute boards and cut off the flow of ore. I then signaled Lou by rocking my head up and down slightly. He would see my lamp bob, the universal miner's signal which meant go. When the empty car was in position under the chute I nodded my head side to side. Lou saw my light swing, the underground stop signal. When I emptied the cars one at a time over a floor grill called a grizzly we used the same system. The mine was dark except for our headlarnps and the locomotive light.

The worst part of chute-pulling occurred when I pulled the chute boards up and nothing came out. This meant the chute was plugged, or hungup, like a clogged pipe. Big chunks of rock would bridge across the chute and stop the flow. The chute-puller had to reach over the boards and up into the empty space with a long steel pole. The trick was to keep your lamp light focused on the rock-pole contact point, poke it, and then get the pole and yourself out of the way before tons of rock came crashing down.

Lou and I had run the train for a week when we came to work one midnight to find a hung chute from the last shift. This ore passage was about a hundred feet long, four by four feet across, and straight up. It was full of heavy rock except for the first five or six feet above, my work opening, a chute of thick wood. Sweating and swearing, I poked the hang-up repeatedly to try breaking it loose. The first thrusts into these things were always light and quick, enabling the worker to draw back instantly.

If the steel bar didn't work the next step was to set a small dynamite charge on the end of a wooden pole and prop it in the chute. I took a breather while deciding to try one more strong poke with the bar.

I glanced up the track at Lou sitting on his engine when I saw a new light, a visitor, near Lou's headlamp. I went back to work with the bar, a ten-footer just shy of one inch in diameter weighing about twenty pounds. After a series of hard jabs I found the key to the hang-up and barely got the bar out of the way as fifty or so tons of ore shifted with a crash and rumble. Everything was okay, or so I thought.

Through the settling dust a light flashed close-Lip in my face. It was Tony, the shift boss. "Kid, lemme tell ya' somethin'. Ya' never hold the bar in front of yer head like I jes' seen ya' do. We had a chute-puller did that when the chute broke loose an' he never got the bar out in time. It got drove into his cheek clean through and come out the other side. A reg'ler spear. We couldn't move him with a ten-foot steel bar sticking out of his head. So we brought a cuttin' torch in, gas tanks and all. Every first aid man in the company was here, an' all the man's buddies, a real mess. When the torch starts cuttin' ya' could smell him bumin', his cheeks an' all. hadta' pour water on his head while the torch was cuttin'. He got out, lost a lot o' teeth and wasn't very pretty, but he lived. From now on ya' hold the bar so's it can't kick ya'. Keep yourself clear. Remember that. Okay?"

My lamp shook, more from a tremble than a nod, and I never forgot those words.

My silence in the mine and camp continued. Each day after my graveyard shift and breakfast I roamed the hills until noon, ate a big meal, read a while and slept until nine or ten. One morning after breakfast, Blade, a big Harley biker said to be hiding from the law, stopped in front of me. "Wanna go ta' Kellogg for a game o' pool?" he asked me.

I nodded and held up two fingers to indicate two minutes.

"Bike's out back. I'll bring it around," he grumbled.

A couple of dollars would come in handy in town. I dashed into my room to peel a few bills out of my mattress bank. Blade pulled up out front with his snorting Harley. I climbed on behind him and we tore out of camp and down the mountain to Kellogg. We parked the bike and swaggered around town. We went into town once or twice a week. I never spoke and could tell he liked that.

I stayed at the Sunshine until the weather turned cold. At that elevation early September was cold enough for me. There have been hundreds of mines since then, all over the world, with the echo of Tony's words in my ears.
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Published in ICMJ, October 1998,

Reprinted with permission of the author. Dr. Ralph Pray, Mining & Metallurgy 805 S Shamrock Ave
Monrovia, CA 91016
Telephone: 626-357-6511 Fax: 626-358-8386