CHAPTER 12

Settling In


The Hercules is located seven miles up a branch canyon in a small mining camp called Burke. As we walked that last seven miles we felt as carefree as kids, although there was just one cent in our pockets.       
The canyon walls became steeper, the floor narrower. The tiny mining settlements of Gem, Black Bear, Yellow Dog, and Frisco followed one after the other until finally we entered Burke, Idaho, just six miles from the Montana border. As it was still Win's birthday we decided not to start work until the following day, which gave us a chance to explore this strange small town which we would call home for the next three months.       
Burke was a squeezed-in little settlement, partly built above a stream which was planked over for the railroad right-of-way. Miners' shacks, strewn about the mountainsides, clung to the slopes as though they had been shot and lodged there by an immense gun.       
The single street was flanked on each side by business places—post office, a couple of groceries, two or three barber shops, some pool rooms or saloons, a large general store, a movie theater, and several other varied structures. Through the narrow planked street between the stores ran the railroad. Another branch of the railroad was built on planking over the creek which flowed behind the row of stores next to the mountain wall. The whole town was not much wider than a large tennis court. Back of the buildings rose the canyon walls, up and up and up. Years later, the crazy construction of Burke was the subject of a Ripley's "Believe It or Not" episode.       
When we arrived, a heavily-loaded ore train was coming down the narrow street, scattering dirt as it went. A few cows were wandering on the planking, occasionally blocking the train. An old bull stood listlessly in front of the general store, eyeing the display behind the glass.       
There was no law in Burke. The place had no town government but was controlled by the mining companies. Drinking and gambling were carried on in the open. No one interfered. It was claimed that a deputy from Wallace dropped in occasionally. His only visit during our stay was after a murder in one of the gambling halls. There were a thousand men and two hundred women in the town. Although it was not a cheerful place, the people were human, and the kids much the same as one finds the world over. To us for a time it would be home.
"Your birthday isn't over yet," I said to Win, after we'd given Burke the first quick once-over. "Why don't we finish celebrating?"
"Celebrate?" Win answered. Probably he was thinking about how far our one cent in ready cash would go. "But at least we can go house-hunting," he added. "It'd be birthday present enough just to find a place to live."
In a place the size of Burke, looking for a house did not take long. In half an hour we had rented a place for four dollars a month. Luckily the shanty was in fair condition. It is true there were a few windows lacking, and we could see daylight through several parts of the wall where windows were not supposed to be. The cooking apparatus would be complimented by the name of stove. But we were lighthearted and happy.
Stashing our packs in a corner, we went out to have a look at where we'd start working next day. At the offices of the Hercules Mining Company we presented our credentials received from the King in Wallace. Deliberately, carefully, Joe Valley, the day timekeeper, looked us over from head to foot.
"You're too small to mine," he said. "How old are you?" Glibly we announced our ages to be twenty-one and twenty-two respective to our sizes. We assured him we had spent most of our lives working on farms, digging ditches, and at other hard labor. He finally gave us our slips and told us to report in the morning. As a parting shot he yelled out, "Don't forget to buy your caps and lamps at the store." This was dutifully done by opening a small charge account.
We reported for the morning shift. Everything that happened on that first day in the mine happened at other times throughout our stay in Burke. The same ride into the awesome tunnel, the same interesting drawl of conversation as the men leaned back for a few minutes of idle storytelling following their noon meal underground, the same mad stampede for the shower room at the end of the day's work. But the events of that first day, the twenty-seventh of September, that first plunge into the inky darkness of the mountain, and that awful sensation of being dropped, not lowered, for a thousand feet in the elevator, those first hours of grueling work, and the bliss that came when the shift was over—these events stand apart from the later similar occurrences and seem dissociated from the rest.
When the whistle blew at 6:00 A.M. that morning it was with something akin to eagerness that we rolled out of bed (which was also different from the mornings afterwards) and hastily prepared breakfast. With shining new miner's lamps and caps from the company store, we marched off to work.
Outside of the shower room (we hadn't learned it was called a "dry"), the timekeeper stopped us. We learned that my number was 268 and Win's 269, the designations by which we were to be tallied each day upon entering and leaving the mine. Outside of the "dry" near the door was a large container of powdered carbon. I punched Win.
"That must be for our lamps," I whispered, and we began filling the cups of our lamps with the stuff.
"Inside, kid. " I looked around to see a gruff, kindly miner smiling at us. "This stuffs been burnt," he said. "They'll give you your carbon inside."
The "dry" was a long room equipped with a few showers and hundreds of clothes hooks and benches. The place was filled with men; some were taking clothes off, others putting clothes on. This puzzled us. Win and I had planned to work in our regular hiking togs. We had none of the overalls which these men were donning, for which we were to be sorry before the day was out.
Another thing bothered us. Having learned by chance the day before that the men carried lunches, we had provided ourselves with a loaf of bread and two quarts of milk But where was this lunch to be eaten? Should we leave it here on the hooks and return at noon, or take it into the mine with us? Already we had asked so many questions we believed every eye to be on us, and imagined every one of the 200 miners was smiling behind our backs. But we had to ask about this lunch business, and soon found we should take it underground.
Our belief that the miners had been smiling behind our backs had not been an idle one. A friend later told us of the fun the men had that day. "They called you the 'Uniforms' ," he said. "Everybody had one question, 'Who are the boys in the uniforms?' You were the smallest kids that ever started in the Hercules, and they knew you had never seen a mine before. They were just naturally enjoying the situation."
The men began to drift out of the "dry. " We followed and took places on the little train which would carry us to our work. But we had no idea at all as to what kind of work it would be. Our imaginations were of no use.
A couple of hundred men were seated on the train. Each topless coach resembled a wagon box hastily improvised for a sleigh ride. The track swung from in front of the "dry" and entered a small square hole in the mountain, the mouth of a tunnel. Beyond was the unknown. We could not even guess what the next five minutes would be like.
The hands of my watch marked 7:45 A.M. The electric motor gave a jerk, and one by one the coaches gave similar jerks as the couplings grew taut. The train swung into the black hole and the cars were enveloped in darkness. Win declares that three months afterward his neck still pained from that first lurch.
The little train gathered speed. Fifteen, twenty, twenty-five miles an hour. The clash of the loose steel wheels on the narrow gauge track made an awful roaring which completely filled the tunnel. As we sped in, the darkness was occasionally broken by lights. The walls of the tunnel were of rough hewn lumber, and jagged rock arched itself not more than two feet above our heads. On and on we crashed, the faint light from the entrance being shut off as the train sped around a curve.
And still we went on. The jagged rock dripped water in places. As we shot under the lights we could see the sober faces of our companions, most of them with eyes closed, letting the wonderful miracles go by unnoticed. Three weeks later it was an unusual thing that kept us open-eyed on those rides, but on this first day we were all attention.
Branch tunnels shot off. The lights became more frequent. Green, red, and yellow lights appeared and presently, just as a New York subway approaches Grand Central Station, this mine train slackened speed and came to a stop in a lighted labyrinth of tunnels and tracks. Everyone got off and started somewhere. We did too. Since that time, Win and I have seen seasoned miners get mixed up in the confusion of the station, trying to take the right way or go to the right place. How we got to where we belonged without a hitch is a little hazy even now.
Our shift boss was pointed out and when we approached him he bawled out "800" and turned away. When we inquired for an interpretation of the figures we learned that they signified "second down. " The elevators, or cages as they were called, were already in operation, going down to different levels of the mine We were to work on the level 800 feet below the station, and were the second group to be lowered. We got into the cage with seven other men, the door was slammed, and for a second we remained suspended in the shaft, crammed together in the cage so tightly we could move tions were of no use.
A couple of hundred men were seated on the train. Each topless coach resembled a wagon box hastily improvised for a sleigh ride. The track swung from in front of the "dry" and entered a small square hole in the mountain, the mouth of a tunnel. Beyond was the unknown. We could not even guess what the next five minutes would be like.
The hands of my watch marked 7:45 A.M. The electric motor gave a jerk, and one by one the coaches gave similar jerks as the couplings grew taut. The train swung into the black hole and the cars were enveloped in darkness. Win declares that three months afterward his neck still pained from that first lurch.
The little train gathered speed. Fifteen, twenty, twenty-five miles an hour. The clash of the loose steel wheels on the narrow gauge track made an awful roaring which completely filled the tunnel. As we sped in, the darkness was occasionally broken by lights. The walls of the tunnel were of rough hewn lumber, and jagged rock arched itself not more than two feet above our heads. On and on we crashed, the faint light from the entrance being shut off as the train sped around a curve.
And still we went on. The jagged rock dripped water in places. As we shot under the lights we could see the sober faces of our companions, most of them with eyes closed, letting the wonderful miracles go by unnoticed. Three weeks later it was an unusual thing that kept us open-eyed on those rides, but on this first day we were all attention.
Branch tunnels shot off. The lights became more frequent. Green, red, and yellow lights appeared and presently, just as a New York subway approaches Grand Central Station, this mine train slackened speed and came to a stop in a lighted labyrinth of tunnels and tracks. Everyone got off and started somewhere. We did too. Since that time, Win and I have seen seasoned miners get mixed up in the confusion of the station, trying to take the right way or go to the right place. How we got to where we belonged without a hitch is a little hazy even now.
Our shift boss was pointed out and when we approached him he bawled out "800" and turned away. When we inquired for an interpretation of the figures we learned that they signified "second down. " The elevators, or cages as they were called, were already in operation, going down to different levels of the mine We were to work on the level 800 feet below the station, and were the second group to be lowered. We got into the cage with seven other men, the door was slammed, and for a second we remained suspended in the shaft, crammed together in the cage so tightly we could move not caring whether the boss saw me or not. For the time I could do no more.
Somehow we got through the day. How glad, oh how glad, we were to get started out again. When the train reached the "dry" everyone made a jump before it stopped, regardless of conspicuous signs commanding to the contrary, and rushed madly for the clothes hooks, to be first undressed and to the showers. Many were done bathing before we made our way to the hooks. Our bodies were weary, our muscles were throbbing with pain, our hands and arms were scratched or bleeding in a dozen places, cut by the jagged ore. Giving our numbers as we left the "dry" we went home to talk it over.