Camping out in the Merry Widow Mine

  • Health seekers in the Merry Widow Mine in Montana

    Merry Widow Mine

BOULDER, Mont. - Most people hear the word radon and think of an odorless, colorless gas that seeps into homes and can cause cancer. But some, like Denise Palmer, think of radon as a miracle drug.

Crippled with psoriatic arthritis, her hands had become so painful she could no longer pull her clothes on or make dinner.

"They had to carry me out of the house and put me in the camper to get me here," the 45-year-old Canadian woman says. "That's how bad I was."

"Here" is the Merry Widow Health Mine in southwestern Montana. Four days after she and her mother motored out of Edmonton, Alberta, and into Montana, Palmer slowly shuffles through the dampness of the old gold and silver mine in sneakers and a pink jogging suit. She looks happy. For the first time in five months, Palmer says, she can walk unaided, dress herself and enjoy her life.

The cure? Four hours a day for 10 days in the damp mine, inhaling radon gas, drinking and washing with radon-laced water and smearing radon-contaminated mud and moss scraped from the mine's dank walls onto her aching joints.

People come from around the world and pay good money to breathe naturally occurring high levels of the same gas the Environmental Protection Agency calls a leading threat to the nation's health. Believers claim this product of the disintegration of uranium is a miracle cure, and they make pilgrimages here for everything from diabetes to cataracts, bone spurs to hemorrhoids, warts to corns. Most come to treat the crippling disease of arthritis.

Experts say radon has no effect on arthritis. They say the only relief comes from exercising, applying heat and cold, reducing stress and taking anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin.

But all the cautionary tales in the world have not kept people away from folk remedies. Few are as unusual as the health mines of southwestern Montana.

In the late 1800s the rugged, pine-blanketed country between Boulder and Basin, Mont., some 30 miles south of Helena, the capital, was a booming gold and silver mining region. Many of the mines operated until the 1940s and 1950s. During the Atomic Age uranium mines opened and operated here as well.

The first of the health mines was the Free Enterprise, whose symbol is a man throwing away his crutches and jumping in the air to click his heels; its slogan: "The Unmedical Approach to Arthritis." The mine, which sits on a sagebrush-studded hill overlooking the picturesque town of Boulder, opened in 1951.

The supposed curative effects of the Free Enterprise were discovered when a woman who suffered from arthritis descended into the uranium mine every day to join her miner-husband for lunch. A couple of weeks after these underground lunches began she noticed her arthritis was nearly gone. Was it something in the baloney sandwiches? Further testing was carried out. An arthritic aunt visited and was brought into the mine for a series of therapeutic victuals. Her arthritis was said to clear up, too.

Soon so many ailing people were clamoring to be lowered into the mine that uranium mining stopped and a new kind of gold mine was born.

Now, a half dozen or so "health mines" dot the mountains, including the Lonetree, the Earth Angel and the Sunshine.

The Merry Widow is one of Montana's most popular health mines, located along Interstate 15 just outside of Basin. Several thousand people each year make a pilgrimage to this former gold mine, and thousands more to the other mines. One of the most celebrated regular Merry Widow visitors was General Omar Bradley, who led the U.S. invasion of Normandy in World War II.

The faithful who flock to the Merry Widow are mostly retired people who come from all over the United States and Canada. Many stay in trailers or recreational vehicles in a campground a short walk from the mine along the tree-lined Boulder River.

On a typical day mine-goers begin to wander up from the Merry Widow campground in the morning with towels draped over their necks and a styrofoam cup or a plastic squeeze bottle. They sign in with mine owner Helen O'Neill, who bought the place with her husband, Don, four years ago.

State health officials have limited how long people can be exposed - the maximum is 40 hours per year, about one-tenth the federal limit for uranium miners. So the full treatment is an hour, four times a day each day for 10 days. Each hour-long session costs $2.50.

Helen, who with her beehive hair and carefully plucked eyebrows looks like a country western singer, is down-home friendly to the folks who come here. She operates out of a homey little office, with a small kitchen and living room. A tiny teacup poodle snoozes in a recliner. Helen makes no wild claims about radon gas. Her customers do that for her. She pulls out a photo album full of letters and a video filled with testimony, all paeans to the relief that believers say emanates from the mine at Basin, Mont.

"Some people get relief right away," she says. "Most don't. It can happen in a few days, three months or five months."

As people enter the mine for the first time, Helen gets out the Geiger counter she keeps under the counter with her purse. She holds the detector - which looks like a small microphone - up to the visitor's nose. The black needle doesn't move. When the mine-sitters leave, she gets out her counter again. This time the instrument ticks frenetically, like a mad watch. "Because when they leave they're full of gas," Helen chirps, matter-of-factly.

Nearly tame chipmunks scamper outside the entrance to the Merry Widow, which is through a big wooden door with a sign that says "Positively no spitting." The adit is about eight feet wide and six feet high and goes 500 feet straight back into the mountain. The floor is poured concrete, and the passage is well lighted.

Just inside the mine is a small chamber with red vinyl benches, called the Poodle Parlor, where people can bring their ailing, blanket-wrapped dogs to take the cure.

At the back of the mine is the section for humans. Orange, glowing space heaters hang from the ceiling to ward off the underground chill, which hovers at about 55 degrees. In a small chamber to the left, two elderly couples are laughing and telling stories as they play cribbage on a table covered with a red-and-white checkered tablecloth. A half dozen other people, wrapped in sweaters and jackets, sit on green bus seats bolted to the floor, reading old magazines and suspense novels.

Claustrophobia strikes some who walk into the bowels of the Earth. The Free Enterprise mine has solved that little problem. Air is pumped up from the mine into an "inhalatorium' - a small, windowless, paneled room with lawn chairs, books, tables and decks of cards.

Gas isn't the only reason people travel to the Merry Widow. The water here has healing power, some say. The clear, cold liquid trickles from an underground spring through a red rubber garden hose and into a trough that runs along the cavern wall. An elderly woman, her head festooned with curlers, is toweling her gnarled feet after bathing them in a plastic pan. A couple and their grown son from Alberta come, peel off their clothes to reveal bathing suits, and get down into the cold water for a radioactive baptism.

Nearly everyone hauls away plastic jugs filled with the tonic to drink and wash with at home. There is no charge for water to go.

"It sounds fantastic when someone tells you about these mines," says silver-haired Muriel Hepple, 63, a grade-school teacher from Vancouver and a 10-year veteran of the Merry Widow, as she knits and purls her way toward a sweater in the cave.

"When I told my doctor about it he slammed the receiver down. But even for people who don't think it works, it works." Hepple says the effects of the gas last about a year. When she begins to feel the twinges of arthritis, she says, it's time to make another trip to the Merry Widow and gas up.

Those who make the sojourn to the health mines are well aware these visits are frowned on by science. But they don't care. "At first I thought it was a bunch of hooey," says Wally Harris, a stocky, red-faced, retired security guard from Tyler, Texas, who suffered from arthritis for several years. "But one morning I woke up and I wasn't hurting anymore. I threw away my pain pills.

"People say it's all in your head," he continues, "but there was a man camped behind us one time with a big old boxer bulldog. That dog couldn't walk and he even had to carry it outside to do its business. He carried it up to the mine for four mornings straight. By the fifth morning that dog was trotting around like a pup." One ancient poodle that took the cure here supposedly began frolicking so much it died of a heart attack.

Critics say the stress-free, relaxing "Camp Radon" atmosphere is really what soothes those in pain. Stress affects the severity of the disease, says Bill Jarvis, a professor of public health and preventive medicine at Loma Linda University School of Medicine, and anything that lessens stress can make people feel better.

"I don't know of any evidence that the gas in the mines works," says Jarvis. "It's the act of traveling to special places. A week off the job, away from home and rest and travel can make it work."

"Pain, stress and depression are a spiral down," adds Dr. Floyd Pennington, former medical director for the Atlanta, Ga.-based Arthritis Foundation. "More pain causes more stress, which causes more depression and so on. If you break the cycle by reducing stress, the depression and the pain can lift."

Health-miners pooh-pooh those ideas. They believe radon stimulates the pituitary gland, a small, cherry-sized gland attached to the base of the brain which emits chemicals that control metabolism. Radon gas, they hold, causes the pituitary gland to boost its production of natural ACTH and cortisone, two steroids that are used to treat arthritis, but which, in their synthetic form, can have serious side effects.

The EPA and the Surgeon General say radon gas is the second leading cause (after smoking) of lung cancer in the United States, but both Pennington and health officials in Montana say there is no health threat at the level of exposure mine-sitters experience. "Levels are so low people won't be hurt by going into the mines," says Pennington. Radon only becomes a serious health problem, experts say, when it seeps into a home and people are exposed to it round the clock for long periods of time.

Jim Robbins writes in Helena, Montana.

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