For nearly a century, Kellogg, Idaho, was home to America's richest silver mine, Sunshine Mine. Mining there, as everywhere, was not an easy life, but regardless of the risk, there was something about being underground, the lure of hitting a deep vein of silver. The promise of good money and the intense bonds of friendship brought men back year after year. Mining is about being a man and a fighter in a job where tomorrow always brings the hope of a big score.
The 1972 fire at Idaho's Sunshine silver mine was one of America's worst mine disasters, with 91 miners killed-some in mid-stride-by a "stealthy tornado" of smoke and carbon monoxide. True crime journalist Olsen (Abandoned Prayers) has the narrative chops for this story. His suspenseful account conveys the already hellish everyday atmosphere of the mine, the panic and chaos of the sudden catastrophe, the heroic efforts to evacuate, the ghastly deaths of victims, the (sometimes overdrawn) horror of their decomposing bodies and the ordeal of two miners trapped in an air pocket. But he goes further, embedding his chronicle within a social panorama of the macho subculture of the miners-whose disdain for safety precautions may have raised the body count even as their hard-bitten sense of fraternity held them together in the emergency-and of the larger working-class community that frayed and bonded in the face of the tragedy. Like Sebastian Unger's The Perfect Storm, Olsen's is a story of male workers engaged in a primordial resource-extraction occupation, battling natural elements-earth, fire and (poisoned) air-that overwhelm the ties of masculine solidarity. In his gripping treatment, stocked with vividly drawn characters, one finds a metaphorical elegy for America's doomed industrial proletariat. Photos. Agent, Susan Raihofer. (On sale Feb. 8) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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February 28, 2005
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Excerpt from The Deep Dark by Gregg Olsen
Tuesday, May 2
Coeur d'Alene Mining District
Morning rush hour in the Idaho panhandle was a stream of primer-splattered bombers and gleaming pickups on big tires that pushed the cab halfway to the sky. All were driven by miners hurrying to get underground. Many rode together so their wives and girlfriends could use their cars to run errands during the day. Some smoked and nursed hangovers with coffee as they planned their day underground: how much they'd have to blast, and how much muck they'd haul out. Some of the best of them took the Big Creek exit between Kellogg and Wallace. Around a sharp curve on the edge of the Bitterroot Mountains, buildings congregated among the steep folds of stony terrain bisected by the rushing waters of Big Creek. A giant green structure clad in sheet metal was planted as though a twister had dropped it in on the edge of the parking lot. A few other buildings flanked the green monster, though none was nearly as commanding. On the other side of the creek was a backbonelike array of metal and wood-frame buildings that included a mill, dry house, machine shop, warehouse, hoist house, assay office, electric shop, drill shop, and compressor shop. The most visually pleasing edifice was the personnel office, a two-story, variegated redbrick structure with a peaked roof and a walk-up pay window. A sign proclaimed that the property belonged to the Sunshine Mining Company, but the biggest billboard faced the mine yard. In demi-bold letters it read, "Today is the first day of the rest of your life-live it safely."
Sunshine has long been legendary, even sacred, among miners. Maine brothers Dennis and True Blake discovered what would become Sunshine in 1884 when a soft glint beckoned from an outcropping on the eastern ridge of Big Creek Canyon. Assaying indicated tetrahedrite, a superior silver ore, and not galena or lead, which was scavenged by other area mines. For a couple of decades the former farm boys worked underground by candlelight while mules hauled out ore and dragged it down Big Creek Canyon on skids. They quietly made a small fortune, calling their discovery the Yankee Lode. Later, in 1921, when they sold their stake to Yakima, Washington, interests, it was renamed Sunshine Mining Company.
It was another decade before Sunshine came into its own, when, at a depth of 1,700 feet, an ore vein of astounding breadth-23 feet-was discovered. In time, the mine would give up more silver than any other mine in the world, a distinction it would hold for decades. In addition to lead and copper, it was also a leading producer of antimony, a metallic by-product primarily used to harden lead. Sunshine's triumph was the result of the development effort led by the go-for-broke, risk-taking owners from Washington State. Most silver mines followed veins from outcroppings that eventually became stringers and petered out. Outside of the Coeur d'Alene Mining District, it was a rare operation that extracted ore at depths greater than 1,000 feet. Not only did Sunshine have viable ore below 1,200 feet, but in the decades that followed, crosscuts chased high-grade ore bodies all the way to the 5600 level. Sunshine by itself was far richer and produced more silver than all the mines on the fabled Comstock Lode combined.