Nuggets to Neutrinos

I spent most of my school years living near, but not in, a company town: Lead, South Dakota.

The company was the Homestake Mining Company, and their prize possession was the Homestake Gold Mine.

I’ve walked through forests owned by the company. I’ve seen its buildings on back country roads and logging trucks on the way to the company’s sawmill.

We went on school field trips to see the mile-long, above-ground milling and processing of the gold ore.

I even made several visits to the house of one of the mine superintendents listed in the appendix. (His son was a friend of mine.)

The very landscape around Lead would change between trips home post-college as Homestake restarted surface mining and built large conveyer belts and tunnels to move ore about.

However, neither I nor any of my family actually worked for the company.

I wanted an historical context for all this, I wanted to know what all those Homestake buildings were for, and I wanted all the book’s pictures, so I picked this one up.

Review: Nuggets to Neutrinos: The Homestake Story, Steven T. Mitchell, 2009.Nuggets to Neutrinos

Mitchell’s book reminds me of one of those old James Michener novels with a place name for a title.

Like those novels, Mitchell starts his tale back in the Precambrian past with a look at the geology of the Black Hills of South Dakota where the Homestake Mine was located. He then talks about Indian settlement in the area and early white exploration of it. The various reconnaissance expeditions the U. S. Army mounted in the upper Great Plains from 1853 to 1874 get a chapter as do early explorations by white prospectors. The Black Hills gold rush has a chapter.

White expropriation of the Black Hills, granted to the Sioux Nation by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, is covered. Mitchell gives an even handed, yet concise, summary of white-Indian relations in the context of the Black Hills and the treaty violations on both sides and resulting wars.

It’s only after five chapters and 133 pages that Mitchell gets to the discovery of the Homestake lode. The outcropping of rock which provided the “lead” to the gold ore gave its name to Lead, South Dakota where the mine operated from 1876 to 2001.

In the beginning, ore was dug out by hand from an “open cut” on the surface. The rock was hauled off by man or beast to a steam powered stamp mill to be pulverized and the resulting mix run over copper plates where the gold was amalgamated with mercury. At the end of that time, the mine extended 8,000 feet below the surface, and the ore was crushed to the consistency of talcum powder in vast electric powered ball and rod mills and gold extracted by cyanide solution.

All this required a vast infrastructure to supply timber, water for mills and hydroelectric plants, coal, railroads, and ventilation shafts. This infrastructure extended even further than I, as a local, ever realized. It extended throughout the Black Hills and as far as Gillette, Wyoming. The methods of actually locating ore veins, blasting the rock, hauling ore out, and backfilling the mine evolved.

And there were the problems common to mining camps: fires, ground subsidence, and polluted water. (When I first saw Lead in the late 1960s, the stream through town was a dirty, slate gray, its water burdened with fine sediment from ore processing. When I left town in the 1980s, it was clear and unpolluted.)

The human problems were surprisingly few. The area never suffered real unemployment – if you were a miner. Labor strife was rare. Homestake and other local mines did a lockout of union workers in 1909 and 1910. It successfully stayed off unionization until 1947, but there were only two strikes until the union was decertified in 2003 after decommissioning and cleanup activities were completed after the mine ceased operation.

Homestake provided a good company town. Its department store for locals was well-stocked and no predatory pricing. A golf course was built six miles away for workers. (I lived next to it.) There was a company hospital, a company band, a company baseball team, and a combination recreation building and opera house. (As a boy, I learned to swim in its pool, went to its library, saw movies in its opera house and later worked there as a tour guide after it passed into the town’s hands.)

The recreational complex was paid for by Lead’s great patroness, Phoebe Hearst, part of her involvement in the city between 1894 and 1914. Her philanthropy also included Washington D.C. and San Francisco.

Her husband was George Hearst and their son was the far more famous William Randolph Hearst. George Hearst with other investors purchased the Homestake Mine in 1877. (He even shows up as a character in the tv show Deadwood set in a town just three miles from Lead.)

The expansion of the Homestake Mine led to what Hearst, out of town then, called a “shooting scrape” when three Homestake employees were charged with murdering a man in a dispute over land the Homestake mine wanted for expansion. They were found not guilty in a jury trial with the disgusted judge telling the jurors he never wanted to see them in his court again.

Another notable in the Homestake story is Cyanide Charlie. Not a poisoner, Charles Washington Merrill was a metallurgist who came to Lead in 1898 to refine and make economic a process to extract gold from processed ore using cyanide. He worked long hours during his ten year stay (though he did find time to father three children there), accepted no money, and his wife became popular in town. The family retired to San Francisco with a small fortune since Merrill’s contract gave him a percentage of the extra gold his process extracted.

Somewhere I picked up the idea (maybe from a tour we grade schoolers were given of the mills), that the ore in the Homestake Mine had about an ounce of gold per ton of rock. In fact, while even an ounce of gold per ton is not particularly rich ore, Homestake made a profit on much less rich ore. However, in 2001 the breakeven point for paying for operations was a gold price of $400 an ounce and gold prices then were not that high.

The mine is now home to the Sanford Underground Science Research Facility. Work observing neutrinos, started in the mine in 1964, continues along with experiments to detect dark matter and a study of microbial life underground.

This book will especially appeal to those like me with a personal tie to the area since it’s loaded with photos of buildings and places we local know or knew.

Mitchell is well-suited to tell the tale. Not only is he a life-long native of the Black Hills, but he held numerous engineering and management positions in the Homestake Mining Company and had access to its archive. Though self-published, the work is very well organized and sourced with appendices, a glossary of terms, and index. I only saw, at most, a couple of typos. The only complaint I had was that a better paper stock would have allowed better reproduction of the photos. There are also plenty of maps and diagrams of the various mining processes as well as on the smelting and refining of gold. Mitchell also covers Homestake’s financial history

Definitely worth a look for those with an interest in mining history, the history of the Black Hills, and, maybe, for those with an interest in the American West.

 

More reviews of non-fiction are indexed.

 

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6 thoughts on “Nuggets to Neutrinos

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