There were 40 plates to a cartload, and we had to do eight cartloads in a shift. That meant that if you wanted a break or lunch you had to bust ass. If you missed your quota twice you were fired.
From time to time you would hear a popping sound, like a firecracker going off, from bad electrical connections. Once, when I was there, a whole bank of plates started popping and smoking, as if a full room of fireworks was going off at the same time. As As I ran, I could see other workers running in every direction through the dense smoke and sparks. Two workers were injured and carried off, then back to work we went to make our quotas.
It goes without saying that our working conditions were atrocious, and our pay was low. The parasitic union that held the contracts, ruled by the iron law of "union jurisdiction", was worse than worthless. While I was there rank-and-file zinc strippers held a number of meetings with the idea of forming their own union. There was always much talk of their resentment and distrust of the union, the United Steel Workers of America.
There was no love for this union that was forced upon them and cared not for the workers of the district. Though the thought of this little group of young zinc strippers taking on the sellout piecard I.W. Abel and the right wing USWA warmed my Wobbly heart, I knew there was no chance of success. At the first meeting I sat there not saying a word. For I had learned from past experience that a true labor organizer first listens before they open their trap. At the second meeting I spoke just once, and that was to say that the only way we could restore true unionism was to reach out to our fellow workers throughout the district.
Though nothing came of all this, other than a banding together of a number of young rebels to vent their frustration, it was interesting to see history making a full circle. For the union movement began with small groups of workers coming together against incredible odds.
Back in 1882, placer gold deposits were found along the banks of the Eagle and Prichard creeks. At this time, the U.S. government was forcing a treaty upon the Coeur d'Alene Indian Nation. The Coeur d'Alenes signed the treaty that forced them to live on a reservation, and the government agreed not to wipe them out. The treaty was sent to Congress, but they did not ratify it because the news of the finding of gold reached them. So the government forced the Coeur d'Alenes to give up all land in the Silver Valley.
The Northern Pacific Railroad exploited the situation by issuing their infamous "Circular No. 6" which made wild claims of gold in the valley and triggered a gold rush. Mining towns appeared almost overnight, but little gold was found. The Northern Pacific made a killing off transporting gold-crazed prospectors and supplies to the district. Though dreams of gold faded, it was the discovery of silver that made the valley the major metal production district in Idaho. Some gold was mined in the area later along with lead, zinc, copper and other metals.
In 1884, at prospecter by the name of Noah S. Kellogg came into the district. For many years he had been a prospecter in such places as the Boise Basin in southern Idaho, the fields of northern Montana, the Kootenay district of British Columbia, and in the Cascade mountains. In 1885, Kellogg obtained a grubstake and a jackass from two businessmen to prospect for gold in new areas of the valley. When his grubstake was exhausted he returned unsuccessful and gave back the jackass. He formed a second partnership and went looking once again. Somehow the jackass had gotten loose and Kellogg and his new partner came across it. As the legend goes, the jackass, when found was standing on a mineral outcropping of galena (lead sulfide) on a hill above Milo Creek. The story has it that the jackass was gazing across the canyon at another outcropping of galena. This was the discovery of what became the Bunker Hill & Sullivan mines.
The first partners sued and a judge ruled that "from the evidence of the witness, this Court is of the opinion that the Bunker Hill Mine was discovered by the jackass, Phil O'Rourke and N.S. Kellogg." Since the jackass belonged to Kellogg's first partners, they got half the mine. So through the years the story has been told of the jackass that discovered Bunker Hill, owned Bunker Hill, and operated Bunker Hill. Any time the miners were up against it with the boss, they would say "there's that jackass again." There was an old dancehall song about the jackass that went: "When you talk about the Coeur d'Alenes, and all their wealth untold, don't fail to mention Kellogg's jack, who did the wealth unfold." In the town of Kellogg a sign was erected that stated; "Kellogg, the town discovered by a jackass and still inhabited by its descendants!" That old jackass is held in a place of honor in these parts, there is a Jackass Mountain, Jackass Creek, Jackass Flats, Jackass Point, and Jackass Ski Bowl. One old miners said to me once, "did you know that the president came from Kellogg?" I said really? And he said, "yea,, there's a jackass in the White House."
As more and more mines opened up, miners throughout the west began to pour into the district. And with them they brought their union experiences. The first western miners' unions were started in 1867 in Virginia City, Nevada, and Leadville, Colorado. The following year miners in Butte, Montana set up a union. Small independent unions spread throughout the mining camps of the west due to the fact that the mine owners gave no concern for the safety of the miners who were dying in these mines, and their pay was low. In a number of mining camps the miners were not paid in money, rather they were issued "scrip" that could only be used in company stores. So you had a situation in many camps where the miner was exploited in the mines , little if any expense was given to safety, the wages were low, rent was paid to the owners for living space, and scrip was given to be used in company own stores that made a profit off that also. The mine owners were making great profits, and all the miners could do was to organize and try to fight back.
One of the things that is consistent throughout the hardrock mining industry was the injury and deaths of the miners. The most common injuries came from falling objects. The chambers of the underground mine always contained loose rock. It takes little to cause this loose rock to come falling down upon the miner. Even with the safest of support timbers being used this is still a problem. But in many mines, taking the time for safety meant less profit for the bosses. One of the most dangerous parts of the mine is the open shafts because objects there can fall a long distance. Even a small object falling down from the top of the shaft can cause serious injury or death. There is one case where a rat fell two thousand feet down a shaft and struck a miner killing him. As more and more machines were added to the mines and operated within the shafts, the danger increased. In one mine falling objects combined for more than 50 percent of all injuries and fatalities. Falling was another major problem. Rather than the bosses providing proper scaffolding across shafts and ore chutes, the miners had to use mine timbers as bridges. These were not anchored down and there were no hand rails, thus the slightest slip or the misjudging of footing in the dark, would send the miner plunging into the depths.