Not every mining story that Jerry Dolph tells is a tragedy.
Which is surprising when you consider how much of the history of Idaho hardrock mining has been hardship and pain. Strikes, fires and cave-ins are what draw the headlines, but the mere stress of daily digging rock thousands of feet below ground is tough in itself.
Watch the way Dolph, who worked the mines of Idaho’s Silver Valley for some 16 years, sits in a chair and you’ll see the truth of that. He sets himself down gingerly, supporting his arthritic back while propping his right leg on a chair.
“Blew out the knee,” he says with a smile. “I was lifting lumber and it just gave out. It was really a mess.”
That happened in 1988. Several operations and a steel plate later, the 50-year-old Dolph knows he’ll never return to mining as a career.
“It’s a young man’s job,” he says.
But he does return to the mines. Sometimes he does so in his sleep.
“For years, and it’s been some time now, I used to dream at night about mining,” he says. “They say that once it gets in your blood, you can’t get rid of it. And that’s true.”
Mostly, though, he does it now with a pen in hand. Dolph has become a writer, and his area of expertise is the mines he worked in so long.
Once a columnist for various Silver Valley newspapers and now a freelance writer for several mining and engineering journals, Dolph is also the author of “Fire in the Hole: The Untold Story of Hardrock Miners” (Washington State University Press, 174 pages, $28 paperback).
The book is a personalized memoir, detailing Dolph’s experiences following his hitch in the Air Force. Unemployed in 1966, he tried his hand at various trades, from logging to construction to even becoming a trainee policeman in Coos Bay, Ore.
None of them stuck. Then after attending mining school in Butte, Dolph discovered life underground in 1972. In one of the book’s more poetic passages, he describes the sensation of entering the Bunker Hill mine: “Suddenly, we were immersed in the familiar darkness of an underground mine. The squeaking of the train’s wheels clicking along tracks and the groaning of the straining cars echoed off the walls. As the bar from the motor rubbed against the trolley line, it gave off static buzzing sounds, showers of sparks and eerie strobelike flashes of light. A damp, musty smell surged through the air. … Hell, I was home.”
Not everyone is capable of such insight. But then Dolph always harbored literary ambitions.
“When I was a kid, I wanted to write,” he says. “I tried but I was sort of discouraged by the family. They’d say, ‘Get busy. Make something of yourself. Go to work.’ And so I did. I just sort of forgot about writing. Then I got hurt and couldn’t do anything else.”
Except remember and pass on the stories that he and his friends either heard or personally experienced.
He remembers, for example, the harsh environment of the Crescent Mine.
“I was taking seven salt pills a day because they had really poor ventilation,” he says. “Hot? You wouldn’t believe it. I’d take a gallon Coleman water jug, fill it half full of water and put it in the freezer at night. Freeze it solid.
“Then just before I went underground, I’d fill it the rest of the way with cold water. And it would be warm before lunch.”
He remembers the amazingly destructive power of “air bursts” (also called “rock bursts”), a peculiar condition caused by the pressure on deep mineshafts that result in rock explosions similar to mini-earthquakes.
He remembers the psychological pressures that wear miners down.
One day sitting at the edge of a chute, the vertical shaft where rock is dumped for delivery to the surface, he had a curious thought.
“I was sitting there with my legs dangling down over the side of the chute looking down at this hole,” he says. “I got to thinking, ‘I wonder what would happen if I just pushed off?’ I was really getting tired of the rat race. Big money, spending money and that sort of thing. And then I started hearing what I thought were voices, cries and whatnot, coming up from that hole.
“So I didn’t do it. I think right then is where I first started the idea of a book.”
He remembers, too, the wild side of mining life. And the characters who inhabit it.
“They had a pie-eating contest in one of these annual festivals in Wallace,” Dolph says. “Maybe it was Mullan. Anyway, these guys are all drunk - miners get drunk at those things - and they had this pie-eating contest where you had to put your hands behind your back, eat the pie, and whoever ate the pie first got some prize. So this miner got drunk, went BANG, like that, and broke his nose right in the pie plate. Then he ate it, blood and all.”
Then there was the guy who lived over in Montana. Commuting daily to work at the Lucky Friday Mine in Mullan eventually won him a nickname.
“He was on his way to work one day and somebody had hit an elk,” Dolph says. “The thing was still flopping, and he got out and whacked off a leg to take home. So they started calling him Road Kill.”
And, of course, not everything that happened in the mines themselves was dark and dangerous.
“A guy over at the Lucky Friday wanted a Christmas tree,” Dolph says. “So they brought one in, had lights on it. That was on a Friday. They came back in Monday morning and it still had lights on it, but it was only half a tree.
“Somebody had cut it in two and taken the other half up to the upper level so that they could have a tree, too.”
Dolph’s intent with his book, and with all his writing for that matter, is to tell the real story of the world he once lived in and the men who live there still.
“You see it in the newspaper sometimes,” he says. “‘Joe Schmoe was killed in a rock burst.’ That’s it. That’s the summation of all the work and the effort, the toil and labor, the guts, blood, tears and whatever that he’s put into his life and work. That’s all you have left is one sentence.
“I don’t want the miner to be remembered as an animal, as a tool. I want him to be remembered as a family man, a hard worker.”
After all, Dolph says, “If there wasn’t any miners, there weren’t be any rich guys running around here.”
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