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The Good Times Are All Gone Now
Life, Death, and Rebirth in an Idaho Mining Town
By Julie Whitesel Weston
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2009 Julie W. Weston
All rights reserved.
Toxic Town Blows Its Stack
I bought a lottery ticket. The prize? Pushing the plunger to dynamite the smokestacks rising above Kellogg, Idaho, on Memorial Day weekend in 1996. I didn't win, but my husband and I traveled from Seattle to watch the demolition of the tallest symbols of the mining industry in the town where I grew up.
Kellogg was once notorious for its brothels and gambling and famous for its lead and silver mine. Now it was noticed again for the extent and cost of its clean-up. TOXIC TOWN TO BLOW ITS STACK, reported the Seattle Times. The Wall Street Journal devoted a whole column to the event. The Christian Science Monitor presented a history of the town, the mines, and the extent of the environmental destruction caused by lead and arsenic emissions from the smelter and the devastation of forests and rivers during ninety-plus years of mining.
Kellogg and the people who lived there had raised me. I felt as if this event marked the destruction of some part of me that I could never recover. Who knew if the town would recover? I could point out sights and talk like a tourist guide, laughing about the smallness and apparent meanness of this little town in the Idaho Panhandle. Inside I was sad, about to bid farewell to a friend.
An hour before the scheduled destruction, we found a parking place near the outskirts of town across the valley from where the smelter once dominated the landscape. We slipped in amidst hundreds of cars, some with license plates from the local county, but most from out of state, like us. Around the corner and up a gulch, the high school I attended still opened its doors for students. We decided to climb the hillside above the former Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant—now an alpine drive-in—to get a good view. Dozens of people carrying cameras and binoculars climbed with us on the spring morning that reminded me of all the overcast days when the smelter smoke blocked out the sun. While waiting for the show, I listened to snippets of conversation.
"What a waste!" one man said to another. Both were dressed in blue jeans and flannel shirts and both sported beards, mostly gray. If the mines had been operating, I would have identified them as miners. "We hadn't ought to let the government do this."
"That big one there is only twenty years old!" his friend said. "Stupidest thing I ever heard of." If these men were former miners, twenty years would seem brief to them. Many of my friends' fathers spent their lives working for the Bunker Hill Mining Company.
I had graduated from Kellogg High School in 1961. A number of my classmates went from school to work for the Bunker Hill Mining Company, "the Bunker" as we called it or "Uncle Bunker" as the workers often called it. Others left for college, but returned to employment in the office building, chemical labs, assay offices. Where were they now? At our first allschool reunion held in 1986, it still seemed possible to townspeople that just maybe the mine might reopen. When the tunnels flooded in the early 1990s, that hope died forever.
Those who lived in the valley could be identified by what they were saying.
"It's the last smelter in the country! We'll be defenseless in another war. Where will the lead come from for bullets?" a gray-haired woman asked her husband. He just shook his head.
"It's the end of an era," I heard.
"Now we'll just be like all other small towns—nothing unique. No symbols."
And a few bets were thrown out.
"I bet they don't fall the way they're supposed to."
"I bet they got to do the yards all over again after this." Each house in town was having its yard dug up and replaced with clean dirt. The football field had already been replaced.
"I bet in ten years they have to build 'em again."
The Environmental Protection Agency had declared the entire valley and surrounding area a Superfund Clean-up Site. The agency imposed a plan to clean up the poisons from the mining operations, and the dismantling of the buildings and destruction of the smokestacks were part of it, as well as the new dirt for yards. Without the pressure of heat and steam going up the stacks, there was the possibility they would collapse and pollute the whole townsite and beyond with the arsenic, lead, and other toxic materials laminating their insides.
"How much is this costing?" someone asked.
"Superfund Site, my ass. I've lived here all my life and I'm not full of lead poisoning."
The tallest stack, 715 feet high, had been built in the 1970s to push the sulfur dioxide emissions away from our lungs and yards and into the air currents to dissipate their effects somewhere else. Until then, the emissions were just something we all lived with. Two stacks stood 500 and 610 feet high and the smallest was only 250 feet. The tallest two were concrete and the others brick.
A carefully monitored destruction scheme was developed. The smaller stacks would be collapsed upon themselves and the bricks and mortar trucked away to be buried at a hazardous disposal site. The other two stacks would be felled, like giant trees, into ditches lined with plastic and then buried.
The last symbols of an era that began in the 1880s and ended in the 1980s were being blown up on this Memorial Day, a fitting date for the men who had worked and died in the Bunker Hill Mine and for the families who lived in Kellogg, supporting the mine for so many years. Kellogg was a town on the brink. It still teetered there, hesitating.
* * *
On the road into Kellogg, our first view of Silver Valley, so named by the area Chamber of Commerce to reflect the long-gone days of glory and riches, included the stacks, exclamation points for the minerals deep in the earth: Lead! Silver! Zinc! Mountains rose steeply on either side of Kellogg and above the remains of the industrial buildings of the mining company on the south slope. Acrid smoke no longer obscured the town. Railroad cars no longer clacked along the tracks. But other evidence of mining remained.
Red sand and clay colored the west end of the valley. Even though the sun shone between gathering clouds, an uncertain combination of water and seepage from the mine tailings, processing wastes, spread like thick gray soup across the area where we used to skate in winter. Time- and chemical-blackened stumps still dotted the surface. The tailings ponds themselves were hidden by high earth walls, like dikes, extending almost a mile along the road. When the mine smelter had been active, steam drifted from behind the embankments in summer and winter. A stream of waste poured day and night from a long pipeline leading from the smelter to the ponds. Now, nothing dropped from the lip of the pipe, and the supporting structure was broken and falling apart, like a crippled railroad trestle that would disintegrate if one more engine crossed it.
Past the slough and the dike was an empty storage yard where a lumber company once stacked timber used inside the mines to keep the earth from collapsing in, not always a successful endeavor. The largest remnant of mining marred the entrance to Kellogg—a black slag mountain of burnt dirt and sand, sharp as broken glass and almost as useless. Beside it lay Smelterville, Kellogg's "suburb," never large, but now its few houses, stores, and bars were deteriorating into shacks and vacant shells.
Above and behind the slag mountain, the complicated buildings and machinery of the smelter had mostly been dismantled. Only a few ghostly remnants remained of the once-thriving industry, including the stacks. In the old days, smoke belched; lights flashed; whistles blared. Inside this mechanical workhorse structure and the crushing plant nearby, ore was ground into powder and workers smelted down the concentrates, separating out the chaff—the tailings—and then processed the lead and silver gleanings into pigs and bars.
Directly above the smelter, horizontal lines cut bare hillsides to prevent erosion and sliding. The mountains, once devoid of trees, showed new growth from trees planted in the early 1980s after the mine closed. In fifteen years, they had grown to fifteen feet tall, still babies compared to the Douglas firs and Ponderosa pines in the mountains around Coeur d'Alene, thirty miles to the west. On the slopes of the higher peaks above Kellogg, real forests grew. Until a ski area was established, I never ventured there. Only from the gondola built to reach the ski slopes on Wardner and Kellogg peaks, its cable running almost directly over my old house, did I see the tailings ponds—squares filled with something white and goopy.
The day we came to see the stacks blown up, and for several years before, wire fences circled the slag heap and the area where the smelter, the rockhouse, the mill, the zinc and acid plants and other buildings once stood, all with large signs:
DANGER! Warning! This is a Superfund Site. No Trespassing! KEEP OUT! Toxic materials!
During my growing-up years, my mother had parked beside the slag heap and painted mining scenes. On later visits to Kellogg, my husband and I had slipped under the fences so he could take photographs. His black-and-white photos reflected the chimneys as empty sentinels standing over abandoned buildings and twisted metal scrap heaps. Her watercolor paintings bloomed with life: smoke streaming across the valley, tanker cars lining the railroad tracks and yellow Caterpillars shoving the black slag around.
Signs along the freeway urged travelers to stop:
Visit Kellogg and Ride the Longest Gondola in the Western Hemisphere and
Kellogg, Home of Silver Mountain and descendants of the jackass who started it all.
The comic head of a large laughing jackass adorned the latter sign, memorializing the story of how silver was discovered in the area by a prospector's burro in the 1880s.
In town, a banner stretched across a main street announcing: Kellogg, a Bavarian Village. When the mine closed, the city fathers hired a consultant who advised them to adopt a Bavarian theme. Such a move would attract a steady stream of tourists, he said, and capitalize on the ski area above town and the gondola soon to be installed. The transformation included a face-lift for all the storefronts. Indeed, several buildings had added false fronts with scalloped edges and painted alpine flowers and red ribbons, but the effort had never been adopted wholeheartedly by the business people, and the combination of empty stores, fake Tyrolean décor, and closed businesses almost made me weep. Between the black slag and the ornamental yellow roses, I wondered what visitors thought the town was doing.
Kellogg had been such a vibrant place with stores crowded by customers, trains sagging under the weight of valuable cargos rumbling through town, men going on and off shift at the mine, a daily newspaper reporting on prices of lead, silver, and zinc, and a thriving penny mining stock market. Who now remembered the hustle and bustle except those of us who grew up there?
While we waited, I saw my hometown through the kaleidoscope of my growing-up years.
On dark winter mornings from 1958 to 1961, car headlights lit my trek across the valley to high school. I crunched along the snowy sidewalk past Lincoln School and down Hill Street by the football stadium. Every November 11, the whole town, wrapped in parkas, gloves, hats and boots, stuffed the stands to watch the gridiron battle between Kellogg and our archrival Wallace, a town nine miles up the valley, played out in a snowstorm where lines were invisible and numbers obliterated by mud.
I crossed the railroad tracks by the Tip Top Bar, already patronized at that early morning hour, and the houses with frosted windows—the brothels. I stopped on the bridge over Lead Creek to study the pasty water. Dogs often drowned in it. A little girl had been pulled under by the weight of the lead sludge, never to be seen again.
Along the road in Sunnyside, I passed a grocery store and a small business where a "known Communist" plied his trade, and the Sunshine Inn with the bar where my doctor father often drank and played drums when he wasn't on call at the hospital. When a representative of the Atomic Energy Commission who spoke at our high school could not get a room at the Inn because he was black, I asked my mother why. Her response was that the miners had killed two colored men several decades ago. Why had such an event occurred in my town? Only later did I understand some of the reasons, which had to do with bigotry and also with labor wars at the turn of the century when black soldiers serving in the U.S. Army had rounded up union miners and held them for months in the equivalent of a concentration camp.
Our school was new then, a modern steel and glass structure. The whole town felt pride of ownership when it appeared in Pittsburgh Glass advertisements in Reader's Digest. I studied Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Dickens, as well as geometry, Latin, Spanish, chemistry, and history, never thinking to link what I learned to life in the valley around me.
Before I turned up the gulch to head for classes, I stopped and looked back at snow-covered mountains, bare of trees. They had a comforting look, like giant pillows against which I could lean for support. The thousand lights of the mine buildings illuminated the sky south of my house. Pinks, neon oranges, and lavenders of the sunrise outshone the fading stars and outlined distant peaks. If the air smelled, my nose was used to it, and I didn't think of particles filling my lungs.
In those years, I thought Kellogg contained the world, and that I could stay and always be content. But I did leave, and, like others in my class, never returned to live. In the wider world, I discovered not everyone thought Communists hid under every bed, and in most places in the North at least, black people could stay in a public motel. I learned the words dago, bohunk, wop, Okie, and Arkie were pejorative, not descriptive.
On visits home after I left, I realized many of the town's limits, and my pendulum swung again: Kellogg squatted on the land like an ugly toad, and the warts of devastation wrought by mining may have rubbed off on the inhabitants. In the last decade, while researching the early days of the mining country, I found that what I thought I knew, both before and after leaving Kellogg, were half-truths, half-lies. There was so much more to learn.
* * *
In 1990, I began to write about the area. Part of my intention was to preserve in writing a way of life fast disappearing from the American and Northwest scenes—that of the miner and the small mining town. Part of my intention was to revisit and try to understand why Kellogg had such a pull on me, on my friends, on the people I knew growing up, and on my parents. I wanted to explore the influence several people in my life had on me, including my father, who worked at doctoring as hard as any man worked in the mines but who also drank too much, and my mother, who supported his work and tolerated his vices.
I researched the history of my own family—five generations in Idaho—and considered again my links to several special teachers. I talked for hours with my first boss, a lawyer who, with a group of courageous miners, helped end a major strike. The strike was a defining event in my life, and I wanted to know what impact it had on others in the community long after the event itself.
I interviewed people whose families came to Kellogg shortly after the turn of the twentieth century and heard them tell of their experiences and devotion to each other and to the town. I found old newspapers and magazines generated during the heydays of mining, just before and during World War I, and read about how the Bunker kept the men on during the Depression and afterwards how the mines became richer and more successful during World War II, and again in the 1950s. I interviewed friends I grew up with, their fathers and mothers, and friends of my parents—miners, businesspeople, housewives, professional people.
Until I began to write, telling stories I'd heard over the years and relating the stories from people who sometimes still lived there but more often had moved away, I had forgotten, if I ever really knew, how the mining industry supported the town. Now that the mining was gone, it was clear the town was struggling. Nor could I understand from my memories of growing up just what the men did, until I, too, went down the mine. And then my appreciation for the workers soared. Mining was not just a job, it was a calling. The miners did not desert the mines; the mines deserted them.CHAPTER 2
A Structural Knot
"The rocks of the Coeur d'Alene Mining District have been intensely deformed in a complex pattern ... referred to as a structural knot."
Arthur B. Campbell and R. R. Reid, Idaho Bureau of Mines and Geology
Northern Idaho once was wild and green. Forests crowded the mountainsides with white pine, western cedar, fir. Blue lakes with swan, geese, ducks, rainbow and cutthroat trout, and big landlocked salmon, the Kokanee, filled glacier-gouged basins. Rivers began as rivulets high in the mountains, bringing snowmelt and rain down creeks that grew and tumbled toward the lakes, and then rushed onward to the Columbia and Snake rivers on a white-water trip to the Pacific Ocean.
Excerpted from The Good Times Are All Gone Now by Julie Whitesel Weston. Copyright © 2009 Julie W. Weston. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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