33 Chilean Miners Are All Miners

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The 33 miners in Chile, so dramatically rescued from Mina San José were revealed to be admirable, intelligent, hard working people. They are representative of  miners everywhere, and   Mina San José is every mine.  Consider  the mine at Holden, Washington:

Googling Holden Village, one finds only a curious little looping line in the Wenatchee National Forest in North central Washington. But the satellite view allows one to zoom down Copper peak to an abandoned mine, mill, and tailing pond. Holden village lies just to the North across Railroad Creek and National Forest development road 8301. The mine is closed now, but the Village survives. There is a one room school, and the former Company Store. There are  several two story bunk houses where single miners lived, men attracted by unusually high 1940 pay, upward of $1.25 daily.  Uphill are  8 family homes built for administrators and their families. After the mining company closed it sold the village to the Lutheran Church for $1.

The main Holden family housing area for miners was a half mile down the road to the West; it is gone now because the Forest Service permitted the homes to be built only on condition they be removed when the mine closed. My father built our home after working hours  with material purchased through Montgomery (‘monkey’) Wards and Sears Roebuck catalogs.

It required a four hour boat ride and a 12 mile mountain road to reach the village. There was only one newspaper available in the company town, which I delivered after school to about 100 subscribers.  The early nightfall of winter often froze my wet corduroy pants into sonorous icy clacking tubes. On Sunday, when I had to deliver the heaver papers, I hired a schoolmate to carry the second double front and back newspaper bag half a mile to the family miner homes. His pay was a five cent candy bar, purchased at the company store. Of course 5 cents bought a very large Hershey then. I netted about $8 or $10 monthly, in big Howe Sound company  tin coins. Even so the flimsy light money worked as well as the stuff we use today, also now all base metal. It seems likely our nation has become a company town, though the owners are  called Washington DC. My mother kept the tin coins in a sock in her bedroom. I never saw them again, there being little for a kid to buy there.

When WWII hit the US my father wanted to join the Sea-Bees and take a more active part. But he was declined because he was in a vital industry: copper. He sold the house for $800. We went to Mexico, to another copper mine.

For nine and ten year old boy in Holden it was mostly fun, freedom, food, and fancy. One more mining town. To move every year from one mine, one country, one culture, one language, to another, was normal. It wasn’t easy. But I loved the wildness of small mining towns, the changes, the excitement, the challenge.

In Holden I looked out my little Sears attic window at big soft falling flakes of crystallized Pacific moisture and thought about Flash Gordon. The average winter’s snowfall was 350 inches  with 35 inches of rain in the summer. On clear  moonlit nights I knew I would one day walk the face of the moon.

The investment in time, money, sweat, and  blood required to  find, develop, and operate a mine is huge. It takes years. It includes scouring remote areas to discover where a mineral ore is likely; drilling  hundreds of rock core samples; and analyzing the cores. If there is mineral, that is only the beginning. The real cost balloons: establishing access  to the mine site through roads, conveyor belts, lift lines; providing for  housing, schooling for children, health care, entertainment. (Holden,  like many big mines in those days, had  a school,  bowling alley, dance hall, a  baseball diamond.); providing water,  sewage, electricity. Then one must add up all the costs of infrastructure and of mining, extracting, milling the ore,  dealing with waste rock and tailings, dust, toxic smoke,  possible ligation,  and of complying with myriad known and unknown governmental  regulations; and selling the product…  Only then might one see the  first penny of income.  Profit, if any,  not until years later.

Holden was one of the biggest copper mines in the nation at the time.  But in the 1950′s the ore body was exhausted, the war was over, and it closed. That is the fate of all mines. Yet often the infrastructure remains in  a very remote and lovely place. Holden like many other mining towns, survived the demise of the mine; consider the upscale resorts in Colorado, and Arizona. The  old mining towns at  El Teniente and Chuquicamata  in Chile are World Heritage sites.  ( see http://lufboro.wordpress.com/2010/01/19/chuquicamata-and-el-teniente/) We  ourselves lived in a number of mining towns that now are resorts: Balatoc and  Baguio, Filipinas,  and tiny Manhattan, Nevada, and Holden,Washington.

We never understood one another, my father and I.  He seemed irritated because life came so easy to me. I was grateful that it was so. I  could always arrogantly choose the course that was most exciting, selfish, exotic, and at the same time  seemed to me most ethical, knowing that life was good and God was fair. Only later was I taught we had been poor, that our Holden house, most all our houses, should have been condemned by multiple layers of government as unfit; that my parents were neglectful and abusive to allow me so much unsupervised freedom in old mines, caves, jungles, deserts and high mountains where mines are found; that mining companies  abuse poor ignorant miners and pillage the earth.

My father never  did ‘get it’. At 88 he still consulted with remote and soon to be bankrupt mine operators who agreed to fly him to a place like Borneo to talk about their underground water problem. They would pay him off with a big party and roasted suckling pig. He was always just a conservative, always working, driving around in his old wreck of a car, never wasting, never wanting, wearing his old clothes and acting like Thoreau. But of course the generations never understand one another any better than we understand ourselves. Too bad I didn’t realize all that in Holden. I thought it was paradise. But what else could anyone expect of an ignorant  kid? Mina San José, 32 Chilean miners  and one Bolivian miner taught me what my father knew all along.


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