The stories Russ told always ended with a big chunk of uranium ore being dumped on the table, its yellow dust collecting as a thin film on top of my coffee. And they always began with the phrase: "There used to be 10,000 men with boots on in this town."
It was Silverton, Colo., 1996. I was a rookie reporter for the Silverton Standard & the Miner. And Russ was a fixture at the Drive-In, which carried with it a smell of well-used grease and cheesy burgers - a divine aroma on a cold winter's night when nothing else was open for dinner. Mining, and the men with the boots on, had left Silverton just five years earlier. But there were still plenty of folks like Russ around who liked to reminisce about the days when the industry was strong.
The late Dolores LaChapelle, powder-skiing guru and leader of the Deep Ecology movement, lamented the loss of the mining culture. Lorenzo, the Italian who owned the liquor store, sadly told me that the tight-knit community built over a century and a half by mining had been replaced by a town that resembled a Third World flea market, where everyone competed viciously for a handful of tourist dollars.
A decade and change later, Russ, Lorenzo and Dolores are gone. People have cleaned up their yards and fixed their old houses. Places you could pick up for tens of thousands of dollars in the early '90s now sell for hundreds of thousands more. The more distant the memory of mining becomes, the more the town seems to appeal to tourists, second-home owners and a steady stream of self-proclaimed town saviors.
And as the town "evolved" from extractive economy to amenity economy, my point of view evolved as well. I began to yearn for the good ol' days, not only out of nostalgia for the culture, but also because I saw mining as a way to slow the town's gentrification. A bunch of miners roaming the streets, I figured, would keep it real. My feelings were complex, because, by starting a tiny artisan bakery and a groovy literary newspaper, I also contributed to and benefited from the gentrification. Superior, Ariz., the subject of this issue's cover story, is going through a similarly complex range of emotions. It's an old mining town that's trying to develop an amenity economy, with mixed success. Now, a mining company wants to return, and the community's torn on whether to welcome it, or try to run it off - over the hill into one of the towns where mining never really left.
Even in Silverton, there's a possibility that hardrock mining will rise again, as a small company gears up to reopen a mill and some of the county's empty portals. The situation, like Superior's, is likely to be complex. Silverton could use the jobs, and maybe some of that old-time blue-collar culture. But most of the skilled miners have left, and it's probably too late to slow gentrification: Housing prices are far out of reach of the average miner these days.
Silverton may still wear the moniker of the Mining Town that Wouldn't Die. But I suspect the only "men with boots on" it's likely to welcome anytime soon will be ski bums and well-off tourists.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at email@example.com.