The Legacy of the Bunker Hill Mine
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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.
Figures from the Federal Bureau of Mines show that before the fire, the Sunshine Mine had a injury rate five times the average for metal mines, and that the fatality rate was twice as high. Mining inspectors found 35 violations just two months before the fire. And that was in the areas they could inspect, the worked-out areas were too cluttered with old timber and other debris to be inspected. There had never been any fire drills in the mine, no fire escape plan, and the portable respirators were old, rusty and mostly unusable (and the miners had no training on how to use them).
Seven days after the tragedy, Irwin P. Underweiser, Chairman of the Board of the Sunshine Mining Company, spoke the following words to an Associated Press business editor. "In spite of the shutdown, we may make a profit on the closure. Insurance will cover cost of a shutdown of up to six months, although we don't anticipate such a lengthy closure. Also keep in mind that the Sunshine Mine is our nation's largest single silver producer. I wouldn't be surprised if the closure might put a crimp on the silver supply, forcing prices to go up in the ten percent neighborhood." And people wonder why I think the bosses are the scum of the earth. A few months later the Sunshine Mine was up and running again and it is still in operation today.
After I found a place to camp, I made my way over to the Sunshine Mine. Along the way I was picked up by an old-timer who had lost his only son in the mine. He told me that he often drove up to the mine just to think about his son and try to understand why all those miners had died. He showed me where the families had stood their 24-hour vigil for nine days. Right behind that area still stood a sign that read; "This is the first day of the rest of your life. Live it safely." Not far away was the old exhaust stack that billowed out smoke from the fire over the weeks it took before it was put out.
He told me of being a "gypo" miner for over 36 years before mine dust had destroyed so much of his lung tissue that he had to retire. He said the mine owners just didn't give a damn about the miner, it was only the ore they cared about. I asked him how the other miners in the area reacted. In a voice trembling in both grief and anger, he said, "A little bit of every miner died that day. But every miner knows that they carry a death sentence just waiting to be carried out. If they are not killed down in the mine, then the mine dust will kill them slowly."
He did say that a mine east of there, the Lucky Friday Mine, had a wildcat strike 20 days after the fire when the owners refused to allow a union safety inspection team permission to accompany a Bureau of Mines safety inspection team in a tour of the mine.
The next day I made my way up past the mine and smelter to a little box canyon where the zinc plant lay hidden from sight. As I walked up the canyon I noticed that the hills around it were barren off all plant life. At the front gate stood a sign that said the plant had gone 30 days without lost time due to accidents. I was later told that a few years back, when that 30 days was accumulated, they stopped updating the sign. The zinc plant was an old, dilapidated place with rotting walls and floors, in which one had to step with some care so as not to step into a hole. The place had a sulfuric smell to it, with a few other unidentifiable aromas mixed in so that one's nose would never grow accustomed to the stench.
The cellroom was where the zinc from the mine was poured into large vats of sulfuric acid and was then charged with 15,000 volts of electricity. The zinc strippers were all young, nobody over the age of 30 was allowed to work in there. We all wore rubber boots and rubber gloves, and our clothes were patched together with rubber patches. The zinc crystallized on plates which we had to climb up onto the vats and pull up with a hook that looked like a longshoremen's hook with the point cut off. We placed the plates on a cart and then we stripped the zinc off in another area.