It is late Sunday evening in the small town of Negaunee on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
The snowbound streets are silent, but a few people pass the time in the Iron Inn, a wood-paneled bar more than a century old that once provided shelter and libations to the loggers and miners who harvested the raw materials that built the country’s great cities.
I am in the state with the nation’s highest unemployment, but most attention has focused on the lower part of Michigan and its struggling auto industry. But in the UP, things are also tough.
Construction and rehabbing has nearly ground to a halt, contractors say, and tourism has flagged. The iron mines which ship taconite pellets for the steel industry around the world have also been laying people off. But Yoopers have a stoic attitude in good times and bad, a frontier mentality and pride perhaps born of the long and frigid winters and relative isolation. They seem to take the economic downturn in stride.
“It doesn’t take as much money to live here as most other places,” says Tim Bertucci, 50, a union steelworker employed at the nearby hospital, who previously worked for six years at the regionally famous Ropes Gold Mine.
Bertucci figures the Steelworkers organized the hospital since so many of their patients are Steelworkers from the nearby Tilden and Empire iron mines. He says hospital management would never dare try to break the union, since the miners would take their side.
A union carpenter who declined to give his name has less sense of solidarity, but rather the individualistic spirit also characteristic of the region. He said he resents union brass from lower Michigan telling UP members what to do, and he said a union carpenter from outside the region would not be welcome here.
A yellow banner on the wall celebrates the Negaunee High School Miners, paying homage to the industry which formed the bedrock of this region and which may be making a comeback. It is a wild and woolly history. Union or not, going back more than a century the mines were dangerous and grueling places to work but also a source of good pay and benefits and much pride.
Bertucci reminisces about his six years – from about 1985 to 1991 – at the Ropes Gold Mine. After serving as night watchman he plunged into an underground job with little training, and felt he barely escaped with his life numerous times, including his first night when a blast sent a flying timber past his head. They practiced “retreat mining,” dynamiting ore to rubble and then letting it tumble out of holes blasted in the rock walls. Underground rooms would regularly cave in, and the air was thick with diesel fumes.
“It was hard. You were walking knee deep in mud underground carrying a hundred-pound drill. The diesel fumes were so bad sometimes you would pass out,” he said.
When inspectors came, Bertucci said, they would wall off dangerous parts of the mine and shut down all the equipment for a few hours to clear the air and avoid violations. “Just keep your mouth shut is what they told you,” Bertucci said.
There was no union, workers would be fired on the spot for any infraction. But it was good money.
But Bertucci was working “12 hours a day, seven days a week, and when I had a day off I’d buy steaks and beers for the crew.” The miners would pan for gold while on the job, filling snuff cans with gold flakes from the pools that accumulated around pumps. The bosses didn’t care as long as they kept the drills running.
And despite all the close calls, he loved it. “It was like being on the moon. Everything looked green in the halogen lights, you could watch the ore going by and see the big chunks of gold in it. When you were in a room by yourself you could turn the light off, it was real peaceful.”
“It was scary,” says Bertucci’s wife Cheryl, who would wait anxiously for him to come home from the midnight shift, never sure he would make it safely. On New Year’s Eve in 1987, he was at the bar an hour after finishing his shift, when they heard what sounded like an earthquake. It turned out the road they drove over in and out of the mine every day had disappeared, caving in to an abandoned 1930s mine shaft directly underneath. Miraculously, no one was killed.
Losing one’s life in the mine was not uncommon in the old days. Cheryl reminds Tim of another nearby mine which caved in to an underground lake, flooding and killing all but one of the miners inside. Cheryl’s grandfather avoided death by calling in sick that day, thanks to a hangover.
Metallic mining nearly halted in past decades, as prices fell. But there is much gold, nickel, copper, uranium and other metals still in the earth of the Upper Peninsula, including much of the gold in the mine where Bertucci used to work. Now the region seems poised on the brink of a mining resurgence.
Many welcome the promise of new jobs. But they’ve seen first-hand how mines ran in the past. And despite the memories of glory days, they know it was a hardscrabble industry. They know the companies will probably dip in and out quickly, shifting between subsidiaries, trying to take their money and run. Any new jobs will likely not be union.
The carpenter said he will never work at a mine, though his cousin convinced him to take a mine safety class. He isn’t concerned about the potentially disastrous environmental effects of mining or the nature of the job. He just doesn’t want a company based in London or Australia telling him what to do.
“I like to work my ass off but for myself,” he said. “I don’t want a ‘job.’ I like my freedom.”