Historian Katherine Aiken is Associate Dean, College of Letters, Arts & Social Sciences and former chair of the History department at the University of Idaho. She recently completed a book entitled Idaho's Bunker Hill: The Rise and Fall of a Great Mining Company.
Q: What did Bunker Hill and the Silver Valley mean to Idaho?
A: We call Idaho the Gem State for a reason, and that's because mining is very important. I often tell my students, when you think about the Idaho state song, what's the second line, silver and gold in the sunlight blaze. There's a reason for that, because it is central to making Idaho go from a territory to a state; and it's a key part of the Idaho economy and especially in the Silver Valley.
Also, a lot of people forget that at the time it closed, Bunker Hill produced over 15% of the silver, lead and zinc that the entire United States used.
And I also think people forget how important it is as a mining district, because it has such longevity. When you think of the Comstock Lode or California gold mines, they have these shorter periods of production. But silver is produced in the Silver Valley starting in the 1880's and all the way to now, and that's pretty phenomenal. And more silver than any place else in the world.
Q: What did the Bunker Hill operation mean to the Silver Valley?
A: The Bunker Hill operation is of pivotal importance, because it's not just a mine. It's also a zinc plant and a lead smelter; and without the zinc plant and the lead smelter, then all of the other mines in the Silver Valley would have had a lot more difficult time being economically viable, because they had a place they could sent their ore that was close, and that they didn't have to deal with issues of shipping and ore contracts in the same way they would have.
Q: What's the one thing folks don't understand about this mining district?
A: I don't think they understand how large the underground operations are. They go for miles underground! And I don't think they understand the ties. I mean, the Silver Valley is a pretty isolated area of northern Idaho. But at the time those mines were all operational, there were close connections all over the world to other mining people, to producers, to people who were interested in smelting and that sort of thing. And here, this little place in Idaho was closely tied in a truly global economy a long time before we started talking about a global economy.
Q: Wasn't mining law actually created in the Silver Valley?
A: First of all, the rule in Idaho mining law is this: mining takes precedence over everything, any time, any place. And for most of the entire history of Idaho, that's been the case.
"Mining is central to making Idaho go from a territory to a state."
There's one thing a mining district has that we are able to talk about on television: lots of lawyers. It's a very litigious kind of business. It's litigious on the part of people who have claims; it's litigious on the part of people who don't have claims and want to. They just are constantly in court, so you've got to have lawyers.
In the Coeur d’Alene district one of the most important pieces of mining law was created, that we call "the rule of extra lateral rights." Mining claims are on the surface and obviously the metals or ore is underground, but it doesn't always follow in sort of perpendicular paths underground. So the question is, when you follow the ore underground, and you go underneath somebody else's claim, what happens? And the extra lateral rule said that a person following ore was allowed to follow it wherever it went underneath the ground, and they had rights to that ore, and it really remained the nature of mining law.
Q: Was labor strife at Bunker Hill the norm?
A: I think all of mining is associated with labor strife, and I think there's one main reason for that, and that is mining is difficult and dangerous work. Because of that, workers have concerns about their safety, and for good reason. And related to that, labor is one of the few elements of the economics of mining that mine companies have some control over.
They didn't have control over how much it cost to transport things, or really what the prices were and a number of other things. Labor was the one thing they thought they could control. So what that creates is a group of people who are doing dangerous work and are worried about their safety, and another group of people who want them to work harder and faster and pay them less in order to make the economics work. That's a recipe for tension, and it was contentious in the 1890's, and it was contentious at the time that the mines started to close in the 1980's.
Q: Didn't Bunker Hill have to deal with enraged farmers almost from the beginning?
A: That's exactly right, and I think one of the reasons that is true at Bunker Hill and really in mining is that people knew that lead was dangerous. They had known that lead was dangerous since the time of the Romans; and there had been a lot of research before any of this happened and so that came as no surprise. It's not like atomic energy where it's a new technology and people are just learning about its dangers.
People knew that lead was dangerous, so I think that's part of it. And clearly the impact of that kind of large scale mining was evident right away for farmers. Primarily because mining has a lot of debris that is left over, a lot of slag, a lot of extra rock that you have to get rid of; and it has to go somewhere; and it goes into rivers; and it goes on other people's property; and it just begins all kinds of law suits.
I think what is true about the early miners though and what makes the 1960's different is, for the first half of Bunker Hill's history, companies are much more powerful than the community or individuals in terms of getting access to courts, or getting courts to agree to their situation. So while throughout the history of Bunker Hill, people were worried about environmental issues, it really isn't until the '60's and '70's that the emphasis goes away from companies to other stake holders.
"By the time of the bag house fire . . . [p]eople in Texas were making decisions, and I think that makes a huge difference."
Q: What’s your take on the 1973 bag house fire that caused so much lead poisoning in children?
A: By the time of the bag house fire, Gulf Resources had taken over the Bunker Hill mine; and so it no longer had the kind of local connections it always had. People in Texas were making decisions, and I think that makes a huge difference.
And the bag house fire happened to occur at a time when the price of lead, silver and gold was on the way up, so people needed to make a profit, and so I think that's part of the difficulty.
The bag house is one of the primary pollution treatment elements of the Bunker Hill smelter, and it's this huge room that has cloth bags that hang from the ceiling, and air and smoke goes through those bags. The hope is that the bag will be like a filter and filter out particulate matter, pieces of ore that are left over, so that it doesn't go out and pollute things. The fire burned part of the ceiling so there was no place to hang the bags, and it made the bags that were left have to work a lot harder, and they wore out more quickly, and, because they decided to keep the smelter operating, the smoke that went through and should have been caught in all of the bags, some of it just went out through the roof.
People wrote that they could see particulate matter coming out of the roof during this whole process. And they worked as hard as they could to make the repairs, but it took a while, and they had trouble getting bags, and they had all sorts of issues. So during the time that the smelter continued to operate when the bag house wasn’t fully functional, a huge amount of materials went throughout the Silver Valley.
It's not as if people in Houston didn't know that there would be some repercussions from having the smelter operate when the bag house had been damaged. But they decided that they could deal with any issues that resulted, and that the price of metals was so high, it would make so much money by keeping the bag house operating, that it would be worth it in the final analysis.
And, I think it's important to remember that people in Kellogg agreed with that, people who lived right in the vicinity of the smelter are part of the people who are operating the Bunker Hill, and there was no huge hue and cry from them. But there was some concern on the part of state environmental officials, because they can drive by and see that there was a problem here.
Q: How would you assess how Idaho officials handled this?
A: One of the things I like about being an historian is you always get to look backwards. You don't really have to be the decision maker. Certainly there are people at professional levels who are telling people at the state that you have a serious problem there. But the Bunker Hill company was one of the most powerful economic entities in Idaho, a key part of the Idaho economy. It was certainly in the interest of state government to keep that operation going and so, there is a real reticence on the part of state officials to shut down Bunker Hill or to do anything of that nature, and clearly that'what happened.
Q: How would you describe your experience underground, in the mine?
A: The first thing they do is give you a self rescuer, which they explain how to utilize it, and they say it will burn your lips off, and they say it's not going to last long enough, you will probably die anyway if you have to use it, which I found totally disconcerting.
And the second thing, I thought it would be cold in the mine. I had dressed warmly, but actually it is incredibly warm and humid in a mine and the Bunker Hill is actually one of the drier mines in the Silver Valley. So that part is amazing.
The person who operates the hoist, the elevator operator, is one of the most important persons in the mine, and happened to have been a former student of mine. I didn't really realize how important that person's job is, because if you get in trouble, you want that person to stay there until you get out; and you also want that person to know where the cars are going, so you don't bump into each other underground.
"Historians think that history is always something that makes people who they are, but in the Silver Valley, people know that is the case."
People don't realize that there are literally miles of tunnel underground at the Bunker Hill. You go down several miles and then horizontally several miles before you get to the work place. And it was not uncommon for people to travel an hour from the time they left the surface to get to the place where they were going to work; and so that gives you an idea how vast this is underground.
Just to know where you are and how to get back I thought was pretty phenomenal. And there's electricity everywhere, huge electric wires that you certainly don't want to touch with one of your tools, so you have to pay attention to that. And you have to do hard physical work once you get past all these other things.
It's a pretty amazing sort of place and you have to have a certain kind of personality in order to engage in that work. Literally your life is on the line every second you are underground, and you just have to deal with that, and then actually get things accomplished at the same time. I know I couldn't have done it.
Q: How many miners were underground in Bunker Hill during its heyday?
A: Bunker Hill ran a crew of about 400 at its height. Also people in charge have to know where all of those people are at any given time, in case there is an emergency, and how we're going to get them out, and they learned at the Sunshine fire it's not all that easy to figure out where people are, and what an alternative escape route might be, and how many there are, and who they are. It's not like at my job, where if I go in and out to do some errand nobody cares. You need to know where everybody is all the time and what they are doing.
Q: Why do you suppose the Sunshine Mine disaster didn't happen at Bunker Hill?
A: A lot of it, I suppose, is luck, but in addition, the Bunker Hill is actually a real leader in terms of instituting safety procedures. Even in the early part of the 20th century, Bunker Hill hired the best mining engineers they could have; its presidents tended to be mining engineers; they had a lot of underground experience. They were tied to the Kellogg community, so that meant that the people who were working underground were associates of theirs; and it was in their interests to make the mine as safe as they could, so they did pay a lot of attention to that.
Q: Do you remember when the mines closed?
A: I think there was disbelief, in part because mining throughout its history had been an industry that had ups and downs. There were boom times and bust times, and people were used to that. Certainly there were times when the mine didn't operate as much and that was really common. Prices fluctuated, production fluctuated as well, so people who worked in mines had experience with that; and I think they thought that it would be temporary.
It also had, quite candidly, been a pretty standard company ploy to threaten to close the mine when they didn't get what they wanted in terms of labor, when they didn't get what they wanted in terms of regulation, when they didn't get what they wanted in terms of transportation rates. This was a story that people had heard before, and so they didn't really take it as seriously as they might have at first. And when it actually happened, people were shocked. They couldn't believe that that was the case.
At a place like Bunker Hill and every place else in the Silver Valley, there were third and fourth generation Bunker Hill employees who everything that their family had done and was, was tied to the Bunker Hill. In fact, they called Bunker Hill "Uncle Bunker," which I think really talks about this familial sort of relationship people had.
Mining isn't really a skill that translates to a lot of other skills. If you're a miner, you're a miner, and that's what you do, and that's what your lifestyle is. So all these people found themselves really without options economically, and they were distraught for good reason.
Q: Would you agree that miners have a certain nobility?
A: I think that's absolutely true. They have a nobility much the way police officers or members of the military have. There's camaraderie there. You are depending upon the person who works next to you to do the right thing and make sure you are safe, and they are depending upon you, and every day you go and do this dangerous work.
I always think about the women. Literally any day, there could be a knock on the door with somebody coming to give them news that their person wasn't coming back; and it happened even in the 1970's and early '80's, enough that people were aware of that. So that creates a different sense of community than you have in other kinds of places. And clearly it requires a sort of bravery and machismo and a willingness to put your life on the line every time you go under there that makes for a different kind of work place than certain other industrial settings.
Q: Did that make it tough for them to accept the EPA into their communities?
A: In Idaho in general and the Silver valley specifically, there's a long history of anti-government sentiment. Its geography helps to create its insularity, either way you approach it. You have to go through these high mountain passes to get there and so it's kind of separate.
And there is a dislike, not just of government but of outsiders, of people outside of the community, trying to tell you what to do.
Mining in and of itself, there's a certain independence about it. You don't work under close and constant supervision. There's a lot of judgment required on the part of even the lowest paid miner, a lot of knowledge and skill; and so those people were not particularly amenable to folks trying to tell them that they didn't know what their situation was.
Q: Do you think mining will ever again flourish in the Silver Valley?
A: That's one of the problems when you're one of the oldest and biggest mining concerns in the country. You already have a physical plant. And it's actually more expensive to replace old than it is just to build new. Yes, I think there are still a lot of minerals in the ground in Kellogg, and I don't think mining is over forever. There are only so many places where those minerals are available, and eventually, when we have exhausted them elsewhere, there will be a return to mining there.
Q: Folks in the Silver Valley seem to appreciate their history, more than in most places.
A: Clearly, what happened in north Idaho in the Coeur d'Alene mining district is essential to understanding any of Idaho history, and it's one of the places in Idaho where the history clearly has national and international implications. People are paying attention to it.
The thing I notice most about the Silver Valley -- and I've interviewed people in most parts of Idaho in my twenty-two years as an Idaho historian -- the Silver Valley is the one place that people have a real consciousness of their history. They recount the 1890's episode, both company people and mining people. That's one of the stories they want to make sure you understand before they want to talk about their current situation.
And historians don't see that very often, where events that happened, now over 100 years ago, continue to inform the way people relate to one another, and continue to be a part of their consciousness. Historians think that history is always something that makes people who they are, but in the Silver Valley, people know that that is the case and constantly talk about that. That's pretty phenomenal.