The Wedge of the San Rafael

The Wedge of the San Rafael
Someone has to live here, in the middle of desert beauty. Might as well be the Kellys.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

In the mines

Sorry about my blogging silence for so long, but when I'm in the home stretch of writing a novel, it'sh hard to think of anything else. I finished the sequel to Borrowed Light on Saturday, and spent the next few days revising and tidying it. I also included a bunch of recipes that Juljia cooked on the Double Tipi. DOn't know if those will be in Enduring Light or not, but I've got them together. Someof them I want to try, especially Lemon Queens.

I also spent last Monday proofing the final copy for Marian's Christmas Wish, which Cedar Fort will publish in September. When I left Signet, I was able to get my copyrights for all my Signet work, plus Daughter of Fortune, my first novel. Since those early Signets are quite pricey on used book websites, it seemed like a good idea. The book will be in paperback and also available in ebook format.

To continue. It's a day or two later, and I noticed that my blog didn't print as I wished. The fault is undoubtedly mine, but oh well. The title is slugged as "In the mines," but none of that came out in the blog I thought I wrote.

I volunteer at the Western Mining and Railroad Museum in Helper, Utah. Last week I got lucky, and was able to interview - for the museum - a brother and sister who were raised in Castle Gate, Utah, near one of Carbon County's numerous coal mines.

Anyone traveling on Highway 6 through the canyons to Price, Utah, will pass Castle Gate, a distinctive rock formation. There used to be a tunnel, but the highway eventually blasted through. There also used to be a town of Castle Gate. It's gone completely. When a mine was closed because the demand for so much coal petered out, or what was there become too hard and dangerous to mine, or for a variety of reasons, the coal company usually just razed the town. In some cases, the people living there were allowed to purchase their homes from the coal company and then the company moved them to a different location.

Castle Gate was one of those coal camps that was razed. There are few, if any, indications that a thriving little town once existed there, in the shadow of Castle Gate and some imposing cliff faces.  Boyd Newbold and his half sister Helen Vexler were raised there. Boyd's wife, Joyce, was raised there, too. Joyce never knew three of her grandfathers, who died in the tragic Castle Gate mine explosion in 1924, when 174 miners perished. (Joyce was a bonus. I was there to interview her husband Boyd and sister-in-law, but her story was equally compelling. I expanded that interview with pleasure. It got even bigger when her nephew Mike Vlamakis showed up, and I got a Greek-American angle, too.)

It's the detail that can make a story memorable. I asked Boyd and Helen to tell me of a distinct memory from their childhood in the 1930s. Helen remembered the whistle that blew, indicating some sort of catastrophe in the mine - one short burst and two long ones, over and over. Then the phone would ring in her house, and her stepfather, Mac McDonald, would report to the mine. He was the master electrician and one of his vital jobs was the get air flowing out of the mine, to drive out accumulations of deadly methane gas.

The McDonalds lived in one of the few houses with a telephone, because his job was so essential to mine safety. Mac didn't generally go in the mine. Boyd and Helen both remembered that he smoked a pipe, and always had matches on him. According to Boyd, when Mac had to go in the mine, they would search him for matches and take them away, because the danger of explosion was always present. "He always clenched his pipe in his teeth," Boyd said. Once they tried to take that away before he went in, and Mac told them in no uncertain terms that if they took his pipe, he wouldn't go in the mine. So there's this tall, thin Scot, pipe clenched in his teeth, working underground and most emphatically not smoking.

Boyd remembers the days of strikes, as the United Mine Workers of America sought to unionize the mines, and to help the miners negotiate better contracts. Before a shift, the men went into the change house (or bath house) to put on their pit clothes and get ready to go in the mine. If a strike was imminent, the president of the local UMW chapter would walk out among the men and dump out the water he carried in his lunch box. (These lunch boxes were cylindrical affairs with part containing food, and part containing water.) When their president silently dumped out the water, they knew they weren't going in the mine that day, because no one went in a mine without water. "Then we'd change clothes again, and go to the union hall to find out what was going on," Boyd said.

The strikes could be lengthy. Three months was not uncommon. Boyd remembers going to other mines to show support for the miners at that location. The striking miners made life as miserable as they could for the "scabs," men the company hired to take the places of the miners on strike. When a coal truck tried to leave the mine, the men on strike would swarm it and pull down the end gate, dumping the coal.

And there's more. I asked Helen for one of her earliest memories. She recalled Mary Kay Burgess, a first grade friend, who died when a large boulder from that cliff face crashed into the Burgess house, killing her. The company had dug deep trenches behind the houses, which generally were effective enough to stop smaller boulders from rolling into the houses. But when a hunk of the cliff fell, that was too much.

Joyce showed me a photograph of her great grandmother Mary Ann Davis Reese, born in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales. She was a beautiful woman, dark in the way of the Welsh, with beautiful eyes. She and her husband moved to Winter Quarters, Utah, and he worked in the mines there, drawn by work he was used to doing in Wales. The promise of better lives in America drew them there, as well as the urge - in the case of Mormons - to move to Utah. As was true in so many cases, the real benefits of U.S. life smoothed the path for their descendants, but not necessarily them.

Mining life is not for the faint of heart, even now. My bishop's wife remembers that day of the recent Crandall Canyon mine disaster, when 6 miners were trapped and died, and eventually 3 rescuers died, too. Her husband, Brad Timothy, was head of mine rescue at a nearby mine. All that day, over and over, the networks played a shot of Bishop Timothy in his truck, headed to the mine. "It was a long, long day," Margaret remembers, as she watched that same shot.

And Helen remembers that when the whistle blew in Castle Gate, all of the wives whose men were in the pit that day would hurry to the mine entrance and wait and wait.

As they say here in Carbon County, if you can turn on a light switch and get light, thank a miner.


  1. Good news about your earlier books! I'm looking forward to them being reprinted. I've never been willing to pay the prices for copies of Marian's Christmas Wish or the Miss Billings book, so I've never read them. I think I own almost all your other Signets, except the short story in the hotel book. (I read it at a library.)

  2. I was just wondering if you know when Enduring Light is going to be released. I loved Borrowed Light and am excited for the new one. Thanks!

  3. Many thanks for the exciting blog posting! I really enjoyed reading it, you are a brilliant writer. I actually added your blog to my favorites and will look forward for more updates. Great Job, Keep it up..
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