The money was pretty good, and there was a sense of adventure to the job.
But the best part? Well, the best part was the watermelons.
Twice a year for the last several, electrician John Groth would drive to the big Bunker Hill smelter stacks, their aircraft warning lights flashing high overhead.
Groth’s job: changing the light bulbs.
In the tallest stack, Groth, now 28, would strap on a climbing belt and clip himself onto the ladder.
He would tie a rope to his belt, tie a bucket to the rope and put his tools and spare parts in the bucket. Then he’d begin climbing.
It was like scaling the inside of a missile silo - all concrete, steel and fiberglass.
“There were little pads where you could rest on the way up,” he said.
Up Groth would go, hand over hand, the bucket occasionally banging against the ladder.
He’d climb 715 feet. It would take about 15 minutes.
At the top, he’d open a stainless-steel door and step out onto the top of the stack.
“There were lightning rods and about a million burns where lightning had hit the metal up there,” he recalled. “It danced all over the lights and the ladders up there, by the looks of it.”
He’d work on the lights, as the huge stack flexed in the spring winds. Sometimes it would sway enough to roll a screwdriver off the edge, he said.
“It always amazed me how much the wind moved those things around,” he said. “The first time it did that, I was really thinking twice about the deal. They really wave around. It about made you seasick looking over the edge.”
Sometimes he’d take along children’s paper airplanes and fling them off the top of the stack, watching them sail hundreds of feet through the air.
And every once in a while, he’d bring along a watermelon or canteloupe. He’d stand on the lip, watermelon in hand, and lob the fruit out into the abyss, watching it plummet to earth.
“It usually just turned to mist,” he said, chuckling.
Like many people in the Silver Valley, Groth is saddened by the demise of the stacks, which were completed in 1977.
“It kind of symbolizes an industry that’s fading out in the United States,” he said. “I hate to see America losing its industrial edge, and seeing those babies come down is just another nail in the coffin. I hope people don’t forget what built this valley.”
A few miles away, in Elizabeth Park, 84-year-old Fred Fuechsel will also mourn the stacks.
The construction worker helped build the largest stack.
For months, he’d report to work at the top of the growing stack. Concrete would be hoisted up in a huge bucket, then carted to the edges of the stack. Fuechsel and other workers built the stack wheelbarrow-load by wheelbarrow-load.
“I sweated like hell,” he said. “We worked in the rain, everything. Wind blew, but you worked anyway.”
The stacks were built to blow the acrid smelting and refining smoke out of the narrow valley. Until then, residents were used to eye-stinging smoke.
“You could open your door and look out and you’d swear it would look like fog sometimes. It would kill the trees,” Fuechsel recalled. “It wasn’t any too good for you, but it didn’t kill you. Some people lived here 60, 70 years.”
His living room is lined with photos of the big stack, including shots his son took from a passing airplane.
Finally, at 1:30 a.m., one day in late fall 1976, the job was done. The workers shook hands and went home.
Now wheelchair-bound by rheumatism, he said he probably wouldn’t go see the demolition. But he’ll miss driving by the big stacks and telling people how he worked on them.
“Wouldn’t you miss them? I’ll drive through there and it’s gone,” he said.
One person who refused to witness the demolition was Brenda Auld, a Texas transplant to the Silver Valley who fought a pitched battle to save the concrete behemoths for posterity.
“It’s like a Black Monday. I won’t be a part of it,” she said.
Auld gathered hundreds of signatures and testified at public hearings to get the stacks turned into a monument to Silver Valley miners. When no one raised enough money to maintain the stacks, federal officials decided to blast.
Auld is bitter and sad, saying the feds didn’t give her group enough time to raise money.
“These people want to cover up the fact that mining ever existed,” she said. “They have stripped their grandkids of their future and their birthright.”
“They’re tearing down history,” she said.
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