The Legacy of the Bunker Hill Mine
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By Arthur J Miller
Deep within the mountains of the panhandle of Idaho is a valley that white people named Silver. This valley is the heart of what became known as the Coeur d'Alene Mining District. The Bunker Hill Mining complex, situated from the west end of the town of Kellogg and through the town of Smelterville, includes a silver, lead and zinc mine, a smelter, a zinc plant and a rail yard.
Bunker Hill has had a turbulent history spanning over 100 years. Though Bunker Hill is now closed down (hopefully for good), the final story cannot be written, for the effects will linger on for generations to come. Many histories are written in such a way that they seem distant in time and place, but the story of Bunker Hill has a personal aspect for me because I once worked there.
Back in 1972, I wandered into the town of Kellogg with my stake, built while picking fruit in Oregon, nearly exhausted. I made my way down to the main drag where I found the employment office for the Bunker Hill Mining Company. The place was old and run down, and gave you a feeling of stepping back in time. Once inside they had me fill out a few papers, and without reading them, and no questions asked, I was told that I would begin work the following day. Because of my youth I was assigned to the cellroom of the zinc plant where I was to be a zinc stripper.
After being handed a few papers and being told to report for the graveyard shift the next day, I decided to scope out the town and find a place to camp until I made enough to pay some landlord for a flop. From the get go I could tell that there was something different about the people, something that I had never seen before. I guess you could say there was a haunting feel about them--a sense of tragedy, a hurting look in their eyes, something that you can't quite put into words. I knew the reason for what I saw. Five miles to the east of town 91 miners had died in the Sunshine Mine only a short time before. The date of that great fire, May 2, 1972 will always live on in the memory of those that live in the Silver Valley.
The Sunshine Mine was a maze of over 180 miles of tunnels reaching a mile below the surface. Old tunnels in the worked-out areas of the mine were not sealed off and were full of dried-out timber. Like the other hard rock mines in the area, the Sunshine Mine was what is called a "hot mine" Down in the hellish tunnels the temperature would exceed 100 degrees and the air was very dry. The timber would dry out and any source of ignition or sometimes even spontaneous combustion will set the timber burning.
Once the fire gets going smoke and carbon monoxide gas rapidly fills the mine's air stream and ventilation system. Once the smoke and gas reaches the miner's, there is only a minute or two before they lose consciousness. The fire started at the 3,700 foot level, trapping the miners below and forcing those above to flee for their lives. Though the law calls for two ways out of a mine, this one had only one. The miners rode an elevator down to their job sites, and this hoist was operated by workers from above.
Some of the hoist operators died at their posts trying to get their fellow workers out. Once the operators were overcome by smoke and gas there was no way out for the miners below. One operator later testified that "The men were choking, down on their knees." When the last hoist came up, "all the miners in it were lying on the floor--either dead or unconscious." He collapsed but was saved by a fellow miner. Nine days later the last of the 91 dead miners were found. On that same day came news of five more miners' bodies found in another mine fire in Farmington, West Virginia, where 78 miners had died and it had taken three years to find the last bodies.