I have volunteered several times to give an oral history of my youthful adventures at the Empire Mine, from the fall of 1954 to the spring of 1956, leaving my business card with the museum staff . Since the staff has never contacted me, I have decided to share my adventures with blog readers, perhaps some day my grandchildren can Google the Internet and read my stories.
In the fall of 1954, my Uncle Fred Whitord, an engineer at the Empire Mine, and my neighbor, asked me if I wanted a job on Saturdays. The engineering office needed a “gopher” one day a week. Having harvest most of the scrap metal on Banner Mountain for spending money, I was ready for a real job. The next Saturday, with a new black lunch box, baloney sandwich, orange, and a thermos tea, I rode to work with Uncle Fred in grumpy solitude. Uncle Fred was not fit to live with until he had his thermos of coffee and a pack of Lucky Strikes.
He took me to the administration office in the main building, where I was given an employee number and instructions on how to record my hours. Outside, I could hear the whomp, whomp of stamp mill pulverizing the gold ore, and smell hot metal in the blacksmith shop when the wind swirled around the corner of the building.
“Show ya your office,” said Uncle Fred, as he walked past the door to the Engineering Office.
Office? I did not know how to respond. Silently I followed Uncle Fred, around the corner of the white stucco building. My office turned out to be a cramped space at one end of the core shed, a corridgated metal building behind the Engineering Office. Metal stairs let to a short loading dock and a corrugated iron door. As you can see in this picture the loading dock is long gone.
Inside was a crude wooden workbench attached to the wall, over the bench was a single light bulb, on the wall a large exhaust fan. My “office” every Saturday for the next 20 month.
On the loading dock were two braces of canvas bags, each bag about the size of a boot sock, with cloth tags marked in grease pencil tied around the neck. Uncle Fred explained, my job was to pour the diamond drill dust in the canvas bags into small brown paper sacks, after transferring the information on the cloth tags to the bag with a grease pencil. These bags were stored on trays in the core shed, and could be sent to the assayer if the engineers found some significant gold bearing indicators, when they examined the diamond drill cores.
Once the canvas bags were empty, I had to turn them inside out and beat them on the work bench so they could be reused. Beating the bags produced clouds of choking dust, which gave me a ghostly patina, before the dust was sucked out by the roaring exhaust fan. Turning the stiff canvas bags inside out , and then returning them right side out was hard on the fingers. After a few months, I found an old 1930s vacuum cleaner in the Thomas Ranch barn, with a suction pipe about the same diameter as the canvas bags. The vacuum cut my time in the unheated core shed by half and eliminated my sore finger problem.
Transferring and cleaning the canvas bags took most of my morning, but I paced myself to finish by lunch. My goal was to eat with the engineers. When the noon whistle blew, I grabbed my lunch pail and headed for the office. Entering the engineering office, my eyes were drawn to the naked pinup girls covering the upper walls. Calendars provided by mine supply companies. Standing in the middle of the room with my mouth open, one of the engineers whacked me on the shoulder, “Ya gonna eat, or stare.”
It was hard to keep my eyes off the pinups as I hiked myself up on a stool next to the map table. After fifty years, I can still close my eyes and see pinup girls on the wall over the desks. My favorite was a blond looking over her shoulder, like Betty Gables’ famous over the shoulder pose, only this girl was naked, her smooth buttocks and left breast without tan marks. Having just turned 16, I had yet to see my first Playboy.
“Hey, ya can’t eat on the map, use that empty desk,” barked Uncle Fred, pointing to a desk under the window.
I had set my lunch box down on a table covered with a map about twelve feet long and six feet wide. On the edge of the table were rollers, handles at each end for moving the map across the table. On the map table was a hand cranked Monroe calculator similar to this one.
The calculator was in the same place every Saturday for over a year. It, or the map, never seemed to move from one week to the next.
After lunch, the engineer that whacked me on the shoulder showed me how to make blue prints on an Ozlid machine in the model room. Hand drawn vellum maps, with light sensitive paper covering it, were fed into the Ozlid machine, which cast yellow shadows on the 3D model of the mine behind me. Once the copy inched out of a slot, I fed it into another machine which filled the room with ammonia fumes. The Ozlid machine and the photo paper were stored in the same room as the 3D map of the Empire and North Star mines. This secretive model was hand crafted from sheets, bars and rods of solid brass. Museum visitors can see this model today, but the Ozlid machine is long gone.
My final chore of the day was to take a water sample, in two pint Mason jars, from the creek just below the tailings dam. On the way home, we stopped at the Bret Heart Hotel Bar, where Uncle Fred had a few beers while I drank lemon cokes with a cherry on top. We were soon joined by the engineer who whacked me at lunch, and he teased me about my open mouth response to the pinup girls. That night I concluded being an engineer’s “gopher” was OK, pinup girls and all.
But, my mining engineering education was just beginning.
Next, Christmas on the tailings pond.