As Struggling Town Considers New Mine, Ex-Miners Look Back With Ambivalence

Kari Lydersen

Sylvia Delgado-Barrett, one of the first women miners at the Magma Mine in Arizona, is wary of plans for a massive new copper mine.

SUPERIOR, ARIZ. — The fire that kids set in a creek more than three decades ago in Superior ignited a nearby house and then spread to the home of Sylvia Delgado-Barrett, who had two kids and no insurance to cover the losses when her house burned to the ground. After the disaster, a friend suggested she apply at the local copper mine, which for about a century had been the economic and social bedrock of the small desert town 60 miles southeast of Phoenix.

Why not, Delgado-Barrett figured — and that’s how she became one of the first seven women to work in the Magma Mine in 1979. Her partner, Audrey, was a big Viking-looking woman” who wasn’t afraid to mouth off to the men, she remembered. By contrast, Deglado-Barrett was slight and skinny, so she felt she had to work extra-hard to prove herself, especially to the contingent of men who absolutely did not want women mining.” Those men sent women to work at the lowest, hottest, hardest levels of the shafts almost one mile underground.

Delgado-Barrett, now 62, worked as a mucker, bringing miners timber, explosives and other supplies; and doing other jobs underground. She also worked as a cager, conducting the cages that dropped miners down through the earth; and a motorman, driving the ore cars through tunnels. She earned roughly $12 an hour — a very good wage at the time — was a union member and enjoyed the work.

I think the women’s movement opened a lot of doors for us,” she told In These Times.

Delgado-Barrett described what the work was like:

We drove a little train that had loaded flat beds, we took the flat beds to the timber dump, unloaded and stacked the timber, got the miners’ list of supplies needed, loaded up the flatbeds, took it to the different stopes (areas), unloaded their stuff and made sure we left it where they wanted it placed. We had lunch and afterwards you went to see the miners again to see if they were going to need explosives that day….If you were lucky to get an upper level, which had only a couple of working stopes, you pulled” muck. For this, the mucker had an orecar that would be loaded from a chute and would take the muck to the grizzlies” and dump it. The grizzly (a BIG hole) had a grate over it and you have to use a safety belt (for just in case) so that when you stand on it to break boulders you don’t fall in.

In 1982, Delgado-Barrett was one of about 1,400 miners laid off when the Magma Mine closed unexpectedly. Another former miner, Roy Chavez, remembers the day all the bars in the neighborhood were packed in the afternoon — the Copper Penny, the XXX, the Miners Café. He figured there had been an accident or some other calamity. The miners had been sent home early, and most were enjoying the afternoon off and fully expected to be called back shortly, he remembered. But that was the start of a long wait.

Day after day, people kept expecting the mine to re-open. Delgado-Barrett waited around for about a year hoping to get her old job back, she remembered recently, sitting in Los Hermanos restaurant on Highway 60 after a meeting of retired miners. But the call never came. Eventually she moved closer to Phoenix and took a desk job with a boat company.

Others took jobs with the Department of Corrections, including at a maximum security prison in Florence, Ariz., 30 miles away, and many moved out of town – Superior’s population dropped from a high of 7,000 to about 3,500. Businesses on main street closed up and historic adobe buildings fell into disrepair.

Delgado-Barrett moved on with her life, but she always felt connected to Superior as if with an umbilical cord,” and visited frequently, happy to see old friends and usually taking a minute to pull off the highway and gaze up at the red rocky mountains — covered in saguaros, oaks and sycamore — rising just east of the town.

When her brother told her several years ago that a mine was slated to re-open in Superior, she was shocked. She thought those days were long over. But Rio Tinto, one of the world’s largest mining companies, had discovered what the company says is the world’s third largest copper ore body in the mountains just east of town, and plans to mine it in a 55-45 percent partnership with another mining giant, BHP Billiton.

The wholly-owned subsidiary running the project, Resolution Copper, says 1,400 permanent jobs would be created by the mine, which is largely contingent on Congress passing a bill that would allow the exchange of private land for federal land, including a parcel designated in 1955 as off-limits to mining. The bill passed the House this fall, as I reported in October, but prospects in the Senate are more uncertain.

Some in the town are thrilled about the promise of jobs and economic stimulation. About 500 contractors, most of them from the surrounding area, have already been hired to clean out an old mine shaft and build a new one. And owners of the town’s few restaurants say business is up notably since the contractors were hired.

Other current and former residents, like Delgado-Barrett, don’t think Superior can turn back the clock and worry a resurgence of mining will do more harm than good. Delgado-Barrett is especially concerned about likely subsidence of the land caused by the mining method, known as block-cave,” the company plans to use.

Leaning on the pool table at Los Hermanos after the meeting, Chavez — a former mayor who now feels like a pariah because of his opposition to the mine — said he wishes the town residents would break their psychological dependence on mining and set their sights on a future defined by outdoors recreation, the arts, highway tourism or other diverse pursuits. He notes that a century of mining left the town with little to show for it except a massive pile of tailings (rock stripped of valuable minerals) and a lot of memories.

Everyone was waiting for the mine to reopen,” Chavez said of that day when all the bars were packed and all the people still hopeful. Thirty years later, we’re still waiting.”

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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