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Memories of the mine

Kathy Heicher

MINTURN – Newcomers to the county in the last 20 years likely only know the Eagle Mine on Battle Mountain as a Superfund clean-up site.Still, there’s history in the labyrinth of tunnels and mine shafts that lie beneath the now abandoned mining company town of Gilman. Minturn resident Bill Burnett, who will turns 85 this month, has captured a bit of it.Burnett, with help from the Eagle County Historical Society, has written a book about the workings of the Eagle Mine during its heyday, from the mid-1930s to the early 1950s. At that time, the New Jersey Zinc company owned the mine, and employed about 750 people in the business of extracting molybdenum – a hard, gray metallic element used to strengthen steel – from the ore-bearing guts of the mountain.As Burnett recalls, the pay was good, and the work was steady. The mine ran three shifts of workers, who extracted ore five days a week. The mill that processed the ore ran continuously. Employees came from Minturn and Red Cliff, and from as far away as Gypsum, Eagle, Leadville, and Buena Vista to work in what Burnett calls “the hole.””Gilman was the king of the hill then, just like Vail is the king of the hill now. Whatever the New Jersey Zinc Company wanted to do, that’s what we did,” says Burnett.The mine started shutting down in 1975, when changing technology caused the demand for molybdenum and zinc to drop. In the early 1980s, the mine completely shut down. These days, the county’s economy is dominated by up-scale ski and golf resort communities and the construction of upper-end real estate. Most of the workers in the valley today can only imagine the kind of hard, physical, and often dangerous underground work involved in working as a miner, Burnett says, which is what prompted him to write “The Eagle on the Battle Mountain, and My Life as I Remember.””After they shut the mine down I was kind of obsessed that nobody knew much about what went on down there in the hole,” says Burnett.Getting it downBurnett was born, raised and schooled in Minturn. He’s a plumber, by trade – not a formally trained writer. His book has an informal, chatty tone. Section by section, he describes the mine, the equipment, and the many different jobs, ranging from geologists and chemists to drill operators and men who handled dynamite.Burnett started out in the mine in 1954, as part of the “bull gang,” a sort of shop crew that worked throughout the mine.He writes of one particular shift in Belden Canyon when he and nine other bull gang workers set to install a new water line. They had to walk up the bed of Fall Creek, carrying 20 foot lengths of 14-inch pipe. Using yokes and manpower, the men would unload the pipes from a railroad car, then stagger up the creek bed, five men on each side of the pipe.”That is the way most of the work on the bull gang was – a man needed a strong back, and looked for quitting time,” writes Burnett.One section describes the “cage,” a steel, elevator-like car on a cable that is used for transporting miners up and down the shaft. There was an order to the cage – 11 men could be loaded at a time, three on each side facing the center and five in the center, all facing the same way:”Your stomach just about hits your head first time down. You drop 400 feet to 16 level in about three minutes. One thing about it, there are no lights. It’s dark all the way in the shaft. There are lights at the top and bottom, and at 14 level only … but you don’t seem to have any fear of height in the dark.”Burnett’s narration includes a description of the working of the lathe, welding and blacksmith shops; and of the mill operation, including the crushing and chemical processing of ore.He writes of the dangers of blasting new holes in the mine: “The miner and his helper always counted the vibrations as to how man holes they set off at one time. Each hole made a vibration as well as a noise. A misfire had to be counted and very carefully taken care of. Lots of men got blown up with misfires that went off late; or misfires dug into, not having gone off.”Ever wonder what the bathroom arrangements are for hundreds of men working in a mine? Burnett’s book offers an explanation of the mine’s system of “potty” cars. He also shares some insights into the town: “Gilman was a company town. There were no council people or mayor elected by the people. The only thing not company-owned was the post office.”His book recalls the popular Gilman Clubhouse, which had a basement kitchen and a main floor used for dancing and basketball that later became a two-lane bowling alley.Miners strikeBurnett’s mining career was interrupted by his service in World War II. Afterwards, he returned to New Jersey Zinc. He recalls the bitterness of a strike in 1954, when the newly-formed union decided to lobby for a 10-cent-an-hour wage increase, better health care arrangement and some safety improvements. Management agreed to the health care and safety requests, but balked at the wage increase, offering only 5 cents an hour. The miners voted to walk out, starting a six week strike that led to some serious conflict.”What really hurt the strike effort was a lot of mill and surface people that didn’t want anything to do with the union. The company made it clear they wouldn’t stop anybody from working that wanted to cross the picket line. The first few days of the strike walk out we had a lot of knock-down, drag-out fights among the men. … there was really hard feelings not only with the men, but the wives got into the action also at the picket line by the shaft house.”As Burnett recalls it, the strike started during hunting season. Most of the miners were happy to have the free time. But then, as the weeks went on, and winter approached, they started to worry. The union representatives brought a load of potatoes to the Union Hall in Red Cliff, handing out 10-pound bags to the striking workers. Eventually, the union agreed to the lower wage increase, and the miners went back to work.”Things were never the same at the company after that. There was s a lot of hard feelings among the men. Some of them wouldn’t even talk to each other that had been friends before the strike. The strike really hurt the whole county economy. All the grocery stores and merchants tried to carry the men on credit, but we were all over six weeks behind, and still wouldn’t get a payday for two weeks.”Vail, Colorado


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