Holden, Washington: A Company Town

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The 32 Chilean and one Bolivian miner so dramatically rescued in Mina San José were revealed to be admirable, intelligent, hard working people. What was not very obvious is that San José,  its miners and their families, and the mine itself, are all mines and all miners everywhere. Consider the Once-Upon -a-Time Holden  Mine and Company Town, in 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. Much of the Village itself still survives. There is a one room school, and the former Company Store. There are two story bunk houses where most miners lived, single 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 ours with material purchased through Montgomery (‘monkey’) Wards and Sears Roebuck catalogs.

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, mostly in big tin Howe Sound company 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 resource is likely; drilling hundreds of rock core samples; 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 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, comes 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. Old mining towns at  El Teniente and Chuquicamata  in Chile are World Heritage sites.  ( see We ourselves lived in a number of mining towns that still live on after death of the mine: Balatoc and  Baguio, Filipinas,  tiny Manhattan, Nevada, and Holden,Washington.

We little understood one another, my father and I. Perhaps that’s not unusual; the generations live in different worlds, even  if the place is the same. He seemed irritated because life came easy to me. And 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, consistent with my religious heritage: I knew life was good and God was fair. Only later was I taught of His mining sins; we had been poor,  our Holden house, most all our houses, should have been condemned by multiple layers of government as unfit; my parents were neglectful and abusive to allow me so much unsupervised freedom  to roam the earth, and its 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’, what I learned from my time. 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.  As to Holden, while he sweated in the deeps of Copper Peak, I found it to be paradise. But what else could anyone expect of an ignorant kid who is a child of a gentrified  U S God, every miner and every mine?