Chomping a big wad of gum so my ears wouldn’t pop, I stepped into the Ross Shaft cage and dropped almost a mile beneath Lead, South Dakota, into Homestake Gold Mine’s depths. The open elevator rattled along at 20 miles an hour and time warped. Our descent began in early evening, yet instantly we had morning, because that’s what the start of every Homestake shift was called. When thousands of feet of solid rock separate you from sunshine or moonlight, a guy in the cage told me, you can declare your own clock. Time, weather, and bill collectors never followed a miner down the Ross.
Nor did symbols. Over its 125-year history, Homestake powerfully represented the vast Hearst family fortune, lost lands sacred to the Lakota, a society’s seemingly insatiable lust for precious metal, eye-popping engineering, blatant water pollution and more. But there was no thinking about such things underground, where getting everyone safely through each shift and back to the surface unbroken overrode all else, and where a visitor could only marvel at the operation’s sheer physicality. Cutting routes through rock, blasting and hauling ore—the tangible asserted itself completely in this world of straining muscle. “You can’t be a miner and live alone,” another man in the cage said, “because you need someone to walk on your back when you get home, to work out the cramps and tightness.”
The crew I accompanied exited the first cage at the cold and damp 4,850-foot mark, rode in open cars pulled by a locomotive for a mile, then took a final plunge in another cage. At about 6,000 feet the temperature started climbing. The Homestake jokes about approaching hell pretty much wrote themselves. By 7,700 feet the air temperature topped 80 degrees F, the rock was a good 40 degrees warmer than the air, and 80 percent humidity kept us wiping our brows. We trudged through ankle-deep water, guided only by our helmet lights. Occasionally we heard the rumble of distant blasting; rock conducts sound remarkably well. The crew ended up in a tunnel—or drift in Homestake language—wide enough for trucks and ventilated so diesel fumes didn’t hang long in the air. This shift the crew would use electric and air-powered drills and explosives to extend the drift another 10 feet, adding to a 400-mile labyrinth.
The crew worked and so did I, setting up lights for shooting a mine-safety video. Yet in a way I wasn’t working, because here the term was reserved for activity directly altering rock, or for maintaining equipment that shattered, pierced or hauled rock, or for moving people, supplies, air and electricity through shafts and winzes cut deep through rock. I’d long ago decided I preferred symbols—written, electronic and photographic—over rock reality. That made my presence 7,700 feet underground an aberration.
In the Black Hills during the Homestake era, other vocational callings were perfectly legitimate yet not held in esteem quite equal to underground, hardrock mining. When I attended high school 15 miles down the hill from the Ross Shaft, folks said you considered college if you were smart but if you were smarter you applied to work at Homestake, which was always hiring. They said that because Homestake miners took home more money right off the bat than some South Dakota college graduates made after 20 years in their professions.
Plenty of my classmates were lured underground — I met one down there — as was my favorite high school English teacher, who never returned to the classroom. Many of us who selected other life paths said sure, Homestake guaranteed big wages and benefits and biceps, but it also meant a mindless laboring life. Not so, a woman I knew in college told me recently. She obtained her degree, worked in education, couldn’t pay her bills and hired on in 1978 as one of Homestake’s first female miners. For 20 years she worked underground, largely because she loved the intellectual challenge of keeping up with the ever-evolving machinery.
When I went underground for my sole shift in 1992, the mine’s work force numbered about 1,000. Though historical knowledge of mines told me they all eventually go bust, the inevitable didn’t seem possible for mighty Homestake, then in its 116th year. Indeed, the mine never did go bust in the traditional sense of running out of gold. There’s still gold in the hot, humid deep. But flat international markets through the 1990s meant the metal couldn’t be retrieved profitably from drifts so far below the surface. Homestake cut its employee numbers in half in 1998 and restructured the operation so it could turn a profit if gold brought $325 an ounce. With the price at $272 an ounce in late summer 2000, Homestake announced its closing. Mining ceased in December 2001.
Now, strangely, Homestake has moved into the domain of people like myself, who mine it for stories, cultural meaning and symbols. There’s nothing wrong with that; I listen to former miners tell tales of toil, pranks, innovations and, most significantly, life-and-death camaraderie. I try to decipher their hard-edge vocabulary of stopes, mucking, slushers, barring down, skips and crosscuts. They talk, I write, but sometimes it seems like no one in the Black Hills really works anymore.
Paul Higbee is a magazine and documentary TV writer living in the Black Hills.