Month: March 2012
Googling Holden Village, one finds only a curious l ittle 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 across Railroad Creek and National Forest development road 8301. Much of the Village is visible. There is a one room school, and the former Company Store, and two-story bunk houses where most miners lived- single men- attracted by unusually high 1940’s pay, of $1.25 daily. Nearby are 8 or 10 administration family homes. Across the creek- above the tailings pond- are the remains of an abandoned mill; and farther up the side of Copper mountain is the mine entrance. A half mile up Railroad Creek is the footprint of a family village where miners built their own homes. My father built our home there in off hours with mail ordered material from Montgomery (‘monkey’) Wards and Sears Roebuck catalogs; the site is now marked only by the stub of an old street light and his faithful rhubarb plants.
In 1940 there was only one newspaper available in Holden, which I delivered after school to about 100 subscribers. The early nightfall of winter often froze my wet corduroy pants into stiff icy clacking tubes. How sonorously important that made me! On Sunday, when I had to deliver the heavier papers, I hired a schoolmate to carry the second double front and back newspaper bag. His pay was a 5 cent candy bar, purchased at the company store. Of course a nickel bought very large Hershey then. The profits were less than $10 monthly, in big Howe Sound company tin coins. Even so, the flimsy money worked as well as the stuff we use today, which also now is all base metal, as if our nation has become a company town, whose owners live in Washington, DC. My mother kept the coinage in a sock in her bedroom, and I never saw it again, there being little for a kid to buy there.
Age 8-10 is often prime time for a boy. For me, Holden was freedom, to be, to roam, to dream. At night I looked out my 12 x 12 inch Sears attic window at big soft drifting flakes of Pacific moisture, made larger and brighter in the glow of the street light. On clear dark nights the Aurora Borealis and the moonglow spoke of Flash Gordon. 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, scouring remote areas to discover where a mineral resource is likely, drilling hundreds of rock core samples, analyzing the cores. When mineral is found, that is only the beginning. The cost balloons: establishing access to the mine site through roads, conveyor belts, lift lines; providing for housing, schooling for children, health care, entertainment-a bowling alley, dance hall, baseball diamond. Then one must invade the mountain, extract and mill ore, deal with waste rock and tailings, ventilate the mine, control dust, toxic smoke, and deal with litigation, or myriad known and unknown governmental regulations; finally the product must be sold. Only then does the first penny of income appear. Profit, if any, comes years later, but it can be so significant that the whole enterprise is worth the effort.
The life of a miner may be thought hard, sad, or poor. Yet I suggest that the miner’s life is like most, and better than many. Miners are often poor by some measures; our Holden house- like most all mining town housing- would have been condemned by multiple layers of California government. My parents would have been considered neglectful or abusive to allow me and my sisters to roam old mines, caves, woods, and mountains unsupervised. Yet that freedom shapes responsible, resourceful independent adults; it is a priceless gift.
Miner and mountain are as natural enemies as wolf and caribou. Both make sacrifices to the needs, or wants, of society for things like jewelry, and copper wire. The miner attacks the mountain to remove its minerals. The mountain resists passively, but always readying a cataclysm. Yet in time the mine and miner die, while the vast bulk of the mountain survives. When a mountain is abandoned, snow melt percolates down through the wounded rock leaching out minerals, and the water leaks from the mine entrances. The mountain bleeds. But as a living organism it slowly heals. As to the mine, a valuable mining infrastructure remains, and is sometimes recuperated, as in upscale resorts of Colorado and Arizona, or World Heritage Sites like El Teniente, and Chuquicamata, Chile. Holden, Baguio and Balatoc (Filipinas), Eureka and Manhattan, Nevada are all rehabilitated dead mining towns I lived in as a child. Holden is a year round operation of the Lutheran Church.
Some may think that miners and their families are victims of mining, or mining companies, just as, in a sense, the mountain is. Yet most miners will deny that. My father became an expert in problems with underground water, and at age 88 still consulted with remote and soon to be bankrupt mine operators who agreed to fly him to places like Borneo to talk about their problem. They would pay him off with a big party and roasted suckling pig. Like many miners, he was always working, driving around in his decades old car, never wasting, never wanting, wearing his old clothes and acting like Thoreau. It is axiomatic that neither different generations nor the world’s different cultures understand one another any better than individuals understand ourselves. As to Holden, while my dad sweated in the deeps of Copper Peak, I found it paradise. But what else could anyone expect of an ignorant kid who is a child of every mountain, every miner, and every mine?