In old mines, a new sub­cul­ture

Toronto Star - - INSIGHT - LIND­SAY WHITEHURST

Un­der­neath the moun­tains and deserts of the U.S. West lie hun­dreds of thou­sands of aban­doned mines, an un­der­ground world that can hold se­ri­ous dan­ger and un­ex­pected won­der.

They are a legacy of the re­gion’s prospect­ing past, when al­most any­one could dig a mine and then, when it stopped pro­duc­ing, walk away with lit­tle cleanup re­quired. In Utah alone, the state is try­ing to seal more than 10,000 open mines with cin­der blocks and metal grates af­ter peo­ple have died in rock falls and all­ter­rain-ve­hi­cle crashes and from poi­sonous air over the past three decades.

Still, not ev­ery­one wants to see the mines closed. For years, a ded­i­cated sub­cul­ture of ex­plor­ers has been slip­ping un­der­ground to see tun­nels lined with sparkling quartz, cen­tury-old rail cars and cav­erns that open in the earth like buried ball­rooms.

“No­body has walked the path you’re walk­ing for 100 years,” said Jeremy MacLee, who uses old min­ing doc­u­ments and high-tech safety equip­ment to find and ex­plore for­got­ten holes, mostly in Utah.

He also lends his ex­per­tise to searches for miss­ing peo­ple. That’s how he got to know Bill Powell, who looked for his 18-year-old son, Ri­ley, for months be­fore the teenager and his girl­friend were found dead in a mine shaft out­side the small town of Eureka.

“It’s a whole dif­fer­ent life. The un­der­ground life,” said Powell, who has a grav­elly voice, close-cropped grey beard and a quick smile.

On a re­cent day, he and MacLee joined a group of friends in front of a moun­tain­side open­ing near Eureka, wear­ing hel­mets, oxy­gen me­ters and lights, and car­ry­ing a stash of ex­tra bat­ter­ies. Cool air blasted from the open­ing, cut­ting through the desert heat.

The group walked be­tween metal tracks that once car­ried ore carts, mak­ing their way through a tun­nel shored up in places with squared-off tim­bers. Af­ter nearly a kilo­me­tre, the rail­car tracks sud­denly dropped into an abyss as the tun­nel opened into a huge cav­ern. A hun­dred years ago, it would be a bustling scene of busy min­ers lit with can­dles and car­bide lights.

The dan­gers of aban­doned mines weigh on Utah of­fi­cials’ minds. There have been 11 deaths since 1982 and more than 40 in­juries.

There are haz­ards spe­cific to mines that can be es­pe­cially dan­ger­ous to the un­pre­pared, from aban­doned ex­plo­sives to the po­ten­tially fa­tal low-oxy­gen air, recla­ma­tion spe­cial­ist Chris Rohrer said.

“It’s just a wide open, Wild West thing,” he said. “It’s a com­pletely un­con­trolled sit­u­a­tion.”

“For 150 years, peo­ple have dug holes in the ground and brought wealth out of the ground,” Rohrer said. “Un­for­tu­nately, af­ter they brought that wealth out of the ground, they left that hole be­hind.”

RICK BOWMER THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Ex­plorer Jeremy MacLee walks through one of the thou­sands of aban­doned mines in the western U.S.

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