Reflections on Extraction 1: Mining the Invisible
Each year, faculty and graduate students from the Center for Culture, History, and Environment (CHE) travel on a Place-Based Workshop to explore an environmental theme embedded in the complexities of an actual place. In May 2014, CHE traveled to northern Wisconsin in pursuit of “Landscapes of Extraction” that could tell stories of how Wisconsin’s land and people have been shaped by the practice of mining valuable resources from the ground. From American Indians showing European settlers the sites of lead deposits in the early nineteenth century all the way through contemporary debates over the industrial extraction of iron, silica sand, and groundwater, a combination of economic necessity, geologic structure, and political values have produced a complicated and contested environmental history.
One of the challenges of exploring mining landscapes, however, is the fact that they challenge the visual quality which we commonly associate with “reading the landscape.” Many mining activities take place deep beneath the earth, in hidden warrens of shafts and chambers which sometimes leave only the slightest material traces above ground. Because of this inaccessibility—and also because of the cultural ambivalence of remembering a kind of labor that some would prefer to forget—the historical memory of these places is often buried away. Mineshafts become both literally and metaphorically sealed.
In these three pieces, participants from the 2014 PBW discuss how to commemorate the history of these complicated places.
—Garrett Dash Nelson
Echoes from Underground
The Miners Memorial Heritage Park in Ironwood, Michigan is dedicated, as the website declares, “to those who toiled underground to work these mines. Many died in the darkness so future generations could live in the light.” The guides who showed us around the park were clearly committed to honoring the legacy of the iron miners. Most of the physical remnants of the mine, however, have been removed or are buried deep underground, making it difficult for visitors to appreciate the labor done here. Having the great fortune to visit a different landscape a few weeks later, where this mining infrastructure was still visible, I came to more fully appreciate what is now invisible in Ironwood.
This other landscape was all the way across the Atlantic: The Big Pit in Blaenavon, Wales. The differences were striking. The Big Pit began as an iron mine and then transitioned in the nineteenth century to a coal mine. It was worked until 1980, closing just prior to the convulsive nationwide strikes of 1984-85 that featured a struggle between the mining unions and Margaret Thatcher. The Big Pit was made into a museum only three years after closure, leaving comparatively little time for the kinds of erasures that have taken place at the park in Ironwood. Practically everything was preserved and open to the public. As visitors, we donned hard hats with lights and emergency respirators before descending 300 feet down the shaft into the heart of the mine. Our guide, a former miner with a jolly but crass sense of humor, showed us the spots where Victorian era child laborers worked in pitch black and the stables where horses and mules were kept. We saw both the old gutters and modern plumbing that cycled water through the mines, the simple carts which nineteenth century laborers pushed along, and the gargantuan drill machines used in the 1970s. Back on the surface, even the shower-rooms were preserved, which now host interactive exhibits on mining tools, domestic gender relations, and geology and where sounds of chatting miners are piped in through speakers.
The trip to The Big Pit gave me more of an appreciation for those working to make something great with the heritage park back in Ironwood. What’s similar in these two places is the mix of pride and pain and the complicated politics, both now and in the past, surrounding mining. How can a museum commemorate a place that both honors those who labored there and acknowledges the often exploitative global political economy in which those mines operated? What does it mean to exalt old mines near places where debate rages over potential water pollution by new new mines, as in the case of the Bad River watershed in northern Wisconsin? How can the history of mining be celebrated near where miners still perish, as in the case of the recent disaster in Gleision, Wales? It’s not an easy task to sort out these complexities but those in Ironwood are making a valiant effort.
My Dad grew up in the 1950s not far from The Big Pit and Blaenavon, in another working-class Welsh valley town called Pontypool. He even worked in a coal mine for a few months before immigrating to the US with his family and going on to work a blue-collar job for an industrial welding company the rest of his life. I think his experience touring the Big Pit with me and other friends and family encapsulated some of the tensions of pride and pain embedded in these landscapes. He was amazed by the work performed here and grateful for the wages he made as a miner but he simultaneously bid good riddance to labor that was dirty, difficult, and often underappreciated. These tensions are difficult to resolve for my Dad and for me too. But what I think is so important about places like the well-established Big Pit and the burgeoning Miner’s Memorial Heritage Park is that they reveal in a powerful way the industrial processes most of us depend upon but often know very little about. They force us modern consumers to confront complexities of modern life even if they are sometimes presented with a tinge of romantic nostalgia.
Andy Davey is a PhD student in the Geography department at UW-Madison. He is currently studying how and why different models of environmental ethics and education, such as Catholic stewardship, evangelical creation care, and secular environmentalism, developed at American liberal arts colleges during the 20th century. He is also working with community groups in the city of Madison to help facilitate place-based storytelling about food, gardening, and racial justice. Contact.
Headframes: Seeing a Layered Past
If you drive northeast on Wisconsin Highway 77, just past the quiet town of Upson, you may be surprised to discover the Plummer Mine Headframe, the last remaining headframe of Wisconsin’s layered mining heritage. The giant steel structure, which opened in 1904, was the access point for the Plummer Mine shaft, an angled tunnel penetrating bedrock to follow a vein of iron ore for half a mile downward. Up on the surface, squeaky wheels at the top of the 80-foot headframe turned power cables attached to elevator cars that lowered miners down into the earth and pulled ore-filled cars up.
The mine operated profitably for 20 years, and the nearby towns of Hurley and Ironwood grew. It closed in 1924, but not because the vein ran dry. Rather, iron lost value as it competed with other more profitable mines elsewhere. Though mining continued in the region for some years thereafter, the closure represented an early case in a long and slow decline of the iron industry in the area.
The landscape of the Penokee Iron Range is, of course, littered with other visible remains of the iron-based economy of the early twentieth century: boarded up miners’ cabins overgrown with vines, cemeteries with headstones bearing the names of the miners in those cabins, a railroad paralleling the highway to transport the ore. But while these objects may show that miners were here, they often leave to the imagination the textured lives and layers of meaning that these people attached to the landscape. It may thus seem puzzling that an abandoned structure designed to access an invisible subterranean world could give such meaning to the past. And yet the headframe does precisely this: it literally and figuratively merges the past with the present. In so doing, it is more than just a neglected steel structure; it is alive in the memory of iron.
My own experience standing on the surface of rock I did not mine and could not see, peering up at a structure that did not move anymore and stood separated by a fence, forced me to imagine the particular meanings that miners made of their daily lives here. These miners, all men, whose families depended on them to work the ore seam, came by rail to a life in a new place. They saw a future in the candle-lit caverns of their dark world. Their hopes, fears, and daily routines depended on a reliable supply of iron and a good price for that supply. When that price dropped, the landscape became inhospitable, and the ore cars stopped turning.
But the headframe’s story continued after the mine’s closing. It became the site of target practice, drunken dares, and falling accidents—a place that in a way forgot its own history. Yet recently, neighboring towns, recognizing the symbolic importance of the mine to their own history, raised money to fence it off and “create” it as a historic site. Eventually, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
As residents of nearby towns visit the headframe, they may ask themselves whether and how they want to remember this place. Does the knowledge that miners worked long hours in the mine give them a sense of pride? Is the collapse of the iron industry a story of failure, of expectations built in a boom but dashed in a bust? Or is it one of quiet temperance, in which a town that most needed the economic stimulus of the iron industry survived without exhausting the resource in its veins? Most importantly, how does this knowledge inform questions of the present: who will benefit from resource development projects in the region, and for how long?
The headframe does more than serve only as an inert historical artifact. It is, quite literally, a way of framing—of bringing into vision and focus—the faces and stories that defined this landscape for over a century. So while the wheels atop its latticework structure do not move miners and rock anymore, the headframe serves a vital and continuing purpose as a living object in memory. It plumbs the depths of its bedrock foundations, serving to bring to light the visual clues that let us see a place more wholly.
Daniel Grant is a graduate student in the Geography Department at UW-Madison. His research focuses on questions of uncertainty, environmental time, and risk as they relate to water in the American West. He is at work on a master’s thesis that contrasts responses to floods and droughts in the Central Valley of California to explore meanings attached to fast and slow natural disasters. Contact.
Sensing Hidden Stories: A Visit to Miners Memorial Heritage Park
When we visit places for the first time, we are keenly aware of new sensations. Sounds, sights, textures, smells, and even the movement of our own bodies are triggers for stories that teach us about where we are. They prompt us to explain our surroundings to ourselves or to ask others what they know. Yet as much as our senses can teach us, they can only detect what is present. When we visit new places, we must remember that some stories are hidden, just out of our sensory reach.
The Miners Memorial Heritage Park in Ironwood, Michigan, is a landscape full of stories. During the first half of our visit to this evolving park, we walked along a meandering path through thick woods. Our guide told us proudly that the trail had become a regional attraction for cross-country skiing. Walking three across, the pace was leisurely and we could imagine a ski race along the level ground. The stories of skiers gave life to the landscape, but they did not make sense of the park’s name: Miners Memorial Heritage Park. There were no apparent clues that the woods we walked through covered mining shafts from the late nineteenth century; to an untrained eye, the trees did not seem different from other secondary-growth forests, and there was nothing in the wind or on the ground to signal that this was once a landscape populated by working people.
We soon came upon a dirt road that cut through the woods. We continued up a gradual hill, and more roads crisscrossed patchy grass and clusters of trees. At the top, we found ourselves at a slab of concrete hemmed in by a wire fence. We had come to the blocked opening of a mine shaft. The tone of the tour shifted as our guide told us the story of miners trapped for days in the mine, having gone down the underground elevator at our very own feet. Attached to the fence with a piece of string was a laminated photocopy of an old newspaper article. The account gave new life to the landscape around us; we could imagine hundreds of people where we now stood, waiting for their husbands, sons, and fathers to emerge. Crouching by the side of the fence, our guide began tossing rocks between the wires and through a gap where the ground had eroded away from the concrete slab. The rocks bounced down the shaft, echoing until we could no longer hear them. A faint coolness seemed to reach us from the depths. In that moment, the world of tunnels and rooms beneath us became real.
The second half of our visit stood out from the first; the road scars, newspaper accounts, photographs, and shaft of echoes were rich sensory triggers that opened a world of stories to us. While our walk along the wooded path did reveal one important story—that of the landscape’s current use—the stories of the past remained beneath the surface. To convey glimpses of the livelihoods, economies, and environments of long ago, in order to honor communities of the past and understand those that have come since, a heritage park needs to unveil stories through its physical marks on the landscape, accounts and images, and smells and sounds. These elements reveal layers of meaning and allow for a richer understanding of place. They also remind us of the many stories that remain hidden.
Rebecca Summer is a PhD student in the Geography Department interested in the relationship between historic buildings and urban cultural and environmental change. In her current research, she explores the different and often competing ways that historic preservationists, governing bodies, and community members define and articulate historic value in the urban landscape. Website. Contact.
Andrew Johnston’s “Mercury and the Making of California: Mining, Landscape, and Race, 1840-1890” has a chapter on underground mining landscapes and how they reflect the organization of labor, racial relations, and changing geological science.
Thanks for the book suggestion – Johnston’s work looks really interesting. I’d be curious to see how his analysis of underground mining landscapes and social relations compares to another book I’m familiar with, Killing for Coal by Thomas Andrews. Andrews provides a fascinating exploration of relations between workers, mice, mules, toxic and explosive gases, and rock formations.