It looks like there's no more gold in Black Hills By Bob Karolevitz The elevator cage went down, down, down as I rode it to more than a mile below the earth's surface.
I was one of the privileged non-miners to experience the depths of the fabulous Homestake back in its heyday of production. Now that South Dakota's great treasure chest is scheduled to close, that trip into subterranean stopes renews a special memory for me.
Like most natives of the state, I guess I've always thought that the Homestake Mine would last forever, giving us bragging rights that our Black Hills boasted the major gold-producing lode in North America. Suddenly that's all changed.
In a lengthy article in The Elks Magazine, I once wrote:
"The 'noblest of medals' has served as a basis for monetary systems since kings of old stamped out the first coins some seven centuries before the birth of Christ. Beauties through the ages have been adorned with lustrous ornaments of gold. Dentists have not yet found a worthy substitute for it; and today new uses in the electronics industry, medicine and space travel have added greater demands for the obsessive goal of alchemists and prospectors."
Unfortunately, that greater demand was not enough to save Homestake as prices plummeted, and the "lead" (pronounced "leed") began to peter out in terms of economic return. The mine has survived labor troubles, cave-ins, a $6 billion lawsuit by Sioux Indians, fires, a Great Depression and two World Wars, but this time its cat-life has obviously come to an end.
Like many others, I have long been fascinated by the subject of gold. I've panned for it in the mountain streams of Washington State, only to learn that it's harder work than mowing the lawn. I've got voluminous files on the tantalizing topic, but all I can show for it are fillings in my teeth, wedding rings for Phyllis and me and a couple pieces of Black Hills Gold jewelry.
The announcement that Homestake will be shut down in the next 15 months or so has generated a spate of newspaper features which tell how the Manuel brothers � Moses and Fred � staked out their three claims on an outcropping of gold-bearing quartz in the spring on 1876. And how George Hearst (father of William Randolph Hearst, the journalist) and his California partners bought the claims for "peanuts," as the billion dollar bonanza ultimately proved.
Lost in the romantic story, however, is the drudgery of extracting the precious metal from the millions of tons of rock which have been hauled out of the honey-combed mountain on which sits the city of Lead, now undergoing a nervous period of speculation about what the future will bring.
I recall writing about the "Cousin Jacks" from Cornwall in the Welsh country of Great Britain who were early-day miners at Homestake. I've eaten their "pasties," which is somewhat like Norwegian lefse stuffed with meat. It's sort of an enthic pot pie they carried in their lunch boxes.
What will happen to their successors who have gone underground through the years to reap the harvest from what was once the richest deposit of the elusive element in America?
Will they be retrained to "mine for gold" in the casinos of nearby Deadwood? Will the sprawling Homestake plant continue as a major tourist attraction, or will it deteriorate as so many lesser mills have done throughout the Black Hills?
I'm not alone in wondering how the scenario will eventually play out. I do understand, though, that losing Homestake will have long-time repercussions for South Dakota, even worse than if the Mitchell Corn Palace and Wall Drug would suddenly close down.
As for me, I'll cherish the memory of my excursion deep into the once-flourishing mine with its 500 miles of tunnels where railroad trains have replaced mule-drawn carts.
I can tell you this: it was eerie down there. And it was no place for claustrophobics!
� Robert F. Karolevitz