Fred Brackebusch stood suspended over a wide hole at the center of the New Jersey gold mine. Two lengths of board ran side-by-side across the opening, bending under his weight.
A rope bannister at his side gave more the impression of security than security itself. Below him, the mine shaft fell away like a rocky gullet waiting to be fed.
“It’s a long way down,” Brackebusch said from the ersatz bridge, tossing a rock into the opening.
The rock clattered sharply against the sides, gaining speed as it fell deeper into the shaft.
Several seconds later, a noise that sounded like a steel door slamming shut at the far end of a long hallway echoed from the pit.
“There,” Brackebusch said. “It’s hit bottom.”
Then the hole let loose another series of low-throated booms, like some distant drum corps.
“By golly, no it hasn’t yet,” he mused, the lamp on his miner’s hat barely making a dent in the darkness.
The New Jersey mine is no mere geologic hobby for Brackebusch, who has rediscovered a forgotten matrix of “beautiful little tunnels” that were first scoured for gold 90 years ago.
He found the mine virtually the way it looked near the turn of the century. At the end of some tunnels, drill bits, hand mauls and pick axes leaned against the rock face, as if awaiting the next shift.
Later this year, production will start once more at the New Jersey, where veins of silver and gold weave through a storehouse of North Idaho mining history.
Lost in time
The hills above Kellogg are so riddled with holes that they breathe, old-timers say.
“That mountain is just honeycombed with tunnels,” said Wendell Brainard, pointing across Interstate 90 to a ridge line southwest of his home. “Sometimes you can see the steam coming out of the hillside where the old Bunker Hill was discovered.”
Brainard, a retired editor of the former Kellogg Evening News, has written about most of the mines in the Coeur d’Alene Mining District.
In 1938, his father sent him into one that hadn’t echoed with a human voice for decades.
The New Jersey gold mine had operated for fewer than five years, turning out low-grade ore from about 1903 through 1907. Brainard’s father - a newspaperman with a hand in several mining deals - obtained a lease on the New Jersey when he heard about a California investor seeking a gold mine.
The elder Brainard hired a crew to open the mine’s caved-in lower entrance. He sent his two sons and a partner down the hole to retrieve ore samples.
“That was a good tunnel,” Wendell Brainard recalled. “Bigger than most. We were able to walk clear into the main station.”
At that point, the three explorers encountered a “raise” - carved out at a sharp angle and climbing to intersect a second tunnel.
Below them, a shaft dropped away for at least 100 feet. Attached to the rock wall was a wooden ladder that hadn’t been used for more than 30 years.
Because the ore samples were in the upper level, they had to make the climb.
“It wasn’t so bad going up, but coming down,” Brainard said, pausing to shake his head. “The ladder was rickety. We’d bust a rung, stop to hang on to each other and then keep on going.”
The ore samples pulled from the New Jersey gold mine weren’t promising enough to attract the investor’s attention.
“And that was the end of that,” Brainard said.
Neglected, the lower tunnel tumbled shut again.
The New Jersey was sealed to the outside world for another half century.
In 1987, a mining engineer stumbled onto a large quartz outcrop near his Kellogg home.
He kicked a few rocks around and examined the terrain.
The prospector in him told Fred Brackebusch there was gold at his feet. What he didn’t know was that he was standing directly on top of the network of tunnels and shafts that made up the New Jersey gold mine.
Brackebusch found that out only after requesting copies of claim patents from the National Archives. Prospectors had staked the claim more than 100 years before Brackebusch’s find.
A small firm named the New Jersey Mining Co. had chased a gold vein into the ground, hand-mining about 2,500 linear feet on three levels.
A new lease was drawn up for the 350-acre site. Brackebusch gave new life to the New Jersey Mining Co., naming himself president and his son, Grant, vice president.
He then set about locating the buried openings to the mine.
When work began, an excavator dug through more than 100 feet of rubble before striking solid rock.
Brackebusch looked on as, a few minutes later, the upper entrance was uncovered.
“All of a sudden, we opened the tunnel and the air just blasted out,” the mining engineer said. “Steam came rolling out of the mine.”
The New Jersey was breathing again.
For the next 10 years, Brackebusch took ore samples, surveyed and mapped the mine’s interior.
But that first day, his explorations were limited to areas that either weren’t filled with water or threatened to swallow him up with a careless step.
His first map was hastily drawn at home while he described the mine to his son.
What he found was a collection of tunnels - 5 feet wide, 7 feet tall, crafted by brute strength and nitroglycerin.
“This tunnel is as straight as an arrow,” he said during a recent walk-through of the mine. “The old-timers had pretty good workmanship.”
On his initial exploration of the mine, Brackebusch rounded a turn at the end of the tunnel and discovered the pit at its center.
“I remember walking in here, looking down that hole and immediately hanging on to the wall,” he said.
A few feet south of the big hole, miners at the New Jersey had driven a shaft straight up toward the surface.
At its base, a heap of rock and timber is all that’s left of a 90-year-old structure that once shored up a work station there.
Pairs of glass insulators sit atop wooden pegs driven into the tunnel wall at periodic intervals.
Brackebusch believes electrical wires strung between them might have powered a winch at the station.
To the north, across the mouth of the hole, tunnels were more cramped.
“I guess they got lazy starting about right here,” Grant said, second-guessing his predecessors. “Everything gets smaller.”
Although the tunnels close in from the top and sides, wooden ties slowly rotting in the ground march on at 2-foot intervals along the length of each passage.
Brackebusch stopped at a fork in the underground road, explaining how the New Jersey crew took a wrong turn in their search for shiny metal, then doubled back to find the ore body.
At his feet, a stack of light-gauge rail curved around the corner leading to the gold vein, ready to be spiked into place on the ties.
Leaning nearby, the rusted remnants of steel tools wait to be pressed into service.
“It was like they’d be back to work the next day,” Grant said.
Standing at the last gasp of the New Jersey gold mine, Brackebusch drew attention to a geologist’s graffiti - a note burned into the rock wall with the flame of a carbide lamp, marking the course of the vein. Behind him, the final tunnel stops after a few feet.
“It had to do with the fact that they weren’t making any money,” Brackebusch said, adding that low gold prices of about $20 an ounce closed the mine. “It’s well-preserved for a mine that’s about 90 years old. We found it pretty much the same way it was then.”
Brackebusch said the recently revitalized New Jersey Mining Co. will concentrate on exploring the promise of a silver vein on the property until gold prices rebound from their current slump.
A recent merger gave New Jersey a spot on the over-the-counter bulletin board for stock trading. Money raised from stock sales will be poured into mining operations.
Modern extraction techniques will make the mine more profitable than it had been during its first incarnation, Brackebusch said.
And where crews of a half-dozen men once hand-pounded and blasted tunnels forward at the rate of 2 feet per day, the updated New Jersey will be mined by remote control as soon as funding allows.
From outside its entrances, a piece of equipment called a load-haul dump will be driven by a joystick down the tunnels to muck out the ore.
Brackebusch crossed the boards that spanned the raise, climbed over the tumble of debris at the work station and started down the arrow-straight tunnel to the outside.
In the dark recesses of the New Jersey mine, gravity and the ravages of time pull rock and timber down into heaps, down toward the hole that falls away beyond the reach of a miner’s lamp.
One more rock skitters down the sides of the raise. It drops out of sight and drums up the echoes below.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 photos (2 color) Map of area