In old mines, a new subculture
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.”
Explorer Jeremy MacLee walks through one of the thousands of abandoned mines in the western U.S.