‘Oak Flat: A Fight for Sacred Land in the American West,’ by Lauren Redniss: An Excerpt

Chapter 6

On Main Street in Superior, Arizona, on an afternoon in August, you can hear the hum of a solitary air conditioner. Cicadas buzz, birds chirp. It’s very hot. If you park your car and return to it later, every object inside will be nearly untouchable. A book left on the seat is cooked like a slab of meat on a grill. The sidewalks are empty, the buildings mostly boarded up. The 300-foot smokestack of the defunct Magma Copper smelter stands on a hill overlooking town. A sign hangs on the door of the Superior Sun newspaper office: “Closed until further notice.”

Main Street climbs uphill until it dead-ends into the pink stucco arches of the Pinal County Administrative Building. Cypress trees jut into the sky; behind them, red cliffs loom. The setting is cinematic. Superior appears in The Gauntlet with Clint Eastwood and How the West Was Won with Gregory Peck and Henry Fonda. In Oliver Stone’s 1997 Wild West noir U Turn, Sean Penn’s car breaks down in Superior, where he gets sucked into a deadly love triangle with Jennifer Lopez and Nick Nolte.

Your cell phone vibrates: Dust storm warning until 4 p.m. You look up and see a man with pale blue eyes and a cowboy hat on a wooden bench in front of the Superior Chamber of Commerce. Next to him sits a tiny woman with white hair. She leans back and laughs. You don’t live around here, and when you walk by, you are conspicuous.

[ Return to the review of “Oak Flat.” ]

“Where you from?”

“Have a seat.”

The blue-eyed man is Michael McKee. Everyone in Superior knows that on Thursdays, Mike works at the Chamber, and people come by to reminisce, catch up on community news, and gossip. The woman by his side, Patricia Brown, is his aunt. The two are close.

MICHAEL MCKEE: “The only people in town we don’t know is if they moved here yesterday.”

PATRICIA BROWN: “But then, we’re starting to know them.”

A blue Dodge Ram pickup pulls up and a man in his eighties gets out of the driver’s side. Jackie Gorham. A woman wearing a turquoise cross on a chain shuts the passenger-side door. Jackie’s wife, Evelyn. Jackie Gorham is Patricia Brown’s older brother and Mike McKee’s uncle. A few minutes later, Mike’s wife Deb arrives.

The family has deep roots in Superior. Patricia and Jackie’s maternal grandfather was George Westfall, a miner and a prospector, and later a judge, born in Galena, Illinois, in 1850. As a young man Westfall made his way to California, and, in 1874, drove a 16-mule team across the desert from Los Angeles to Mineral Park, Arizona. He followed the Klondike gold rush to Alaska, with little luck.

JACKIE GORHAM: “It was too late when he got there.”

Westfall returned to the Arizona Territory, became manager of a copper mine in Casa Grande, moved on to the Reymert mine nine miles from Superior, and, through the government’s Homestead Act, acquired 160 acres of land, where he raised chickens and hogs and grew alfalfa. While working at the Reymert coke ovens, he met a Mexican woman named Maria Concepcion Yepiz.

Maria was 25, George was 40. He spoke no Spanish, she spoke no English. They married in 1890 and had seven children. The second was a little girl with dark eyes and dark hair named Mollie. A brother, Frank, was bitten by a rattlesnake at age nine.

JACKIE GORHAM: “They couldn’t do anything but just sit there and watch him die.”

Patricia and Jackie’s paternal grandfather, Peter Gorham, was also a miner. He and his wife, Ann, had come separately from Ireland. Ann’s ship was called the Odyssey. Peter sailed on the SS Kangaroo.

Peter made his way to Pennsylvania where he worked in a coal mine. He and Ann raised five children, including a son named Patrick.

PATRICIA BROWN: “Something happened in the mine—a cave-in? I don’t know—but Peter Gorham got killed in that mine. The company pulled him up and threw his body on the doorstep.”

For Peter’s son Patrick, it was a turning point.

PATRICIA BROWN: “Daddy said, ‘That’s it.’”

JACKIE GORHAM: “He packed up and went west.”

But mining was hard to escape. A gold-mining job brought Patrick Gorham first to Lead, near Deadwood, South Dakota, and then around 1900 to Bisbee, Arizona, where he worked at the Copper Queen mine before becoming a guard at the state prison in the town of Florence. When Gorham was 42, he met Mollie Westfall, 21, who had a job at the post office. They married in 1917 and had 11 children: Mary, Patrick, Peter, Barbara, James, Thomas, Loretta, John, Daniel, Phillip, and Patricia. The kids had nicknames. Phillip was Pinky, Patrick Jr. was Patsy. John was called Jackie.

JACKIE GORHAM: “Pinky died at two of diphtheria. Patsy was killed in France in the Battle of Saint Lô.”

Loretta’s nickname was Bebe, Patricia was Tinka. Tommy was Rattlesnake.

PATRICIA BROWN: “When we all ate at a dinner table, we could not talk. Dinner was to eat. Our dad was at one end, my mom at the other, and all of us around. It was silent. He just had to look at us and we walked a straight line. Mama was the one that carried the stick.”

MICHAEL MCKEE: “She was mean, but she was the type of woman that didn’t waste anything. When I was a kid, she’d tell me, ‘Go get that turkey out of the coop.’ I’d get it, and we’d hang it up and we’d kill it. We’d have boiling water, and we’d pluck it and gut it. Same thing when we had to kill a cow. She ate the brains, the tongue, the eyeballs, the milk glands, the stomach. I mean, she ate everything.”

PATRICIA BROWN: “She cooked cactus with green chili or scrambled eggs. Anytime we’d have leftover tongue, she would grind it and make cockles. Michael and his sisters would come over and say, ‘What is it, Grandma?’

“‘It’s meat.’

“‘Okay. We’ll eat it.’”

♦ ♦ ♦

In 1873, a soldier working on the construction of a road just north of Oak Flat discovered black lumps of silver. The area was part of the traditional homelands of various Native tribes, including the Hohokam, the Salado, the Yavapai, and the Apache. Fortune-seekers staked claims and two mines were built, the Silver King and the Silver Queen. By the turn of the century, the value of silver had plummeted, the mineral veins were nearly exhausted, and the silver mines closed. Prospectors in the area turned to copper. A Michigan firm called the Lake Superior & Arizona Mining Company invested, and the tent communities where silver miners had lived—Pinal, Hastings—were dismantled. By 1902, the place had a new name: Superior. The Magma Copper Company was established in 1910. Between 1912 and 1996, the Magma mine yielded 1.3 million tons of copper. The town of Superior grew up around the mine. Businesses were established, children born and raised. Superior existed to support the Magma Copper Mine, and the mine sustained the community.

Superior was often violent.

MICHAEL MCKEE: “There used to be 22 bars in this town.”

PATRICIA BROWN: “There was the ‘Bucket o’ Blood.’ You know why they called it Bucket o’ Blood? Because in the morning, before they opened up, they’d have buckets of water and clean the blood from the night before off the sidewalks. Fights.”

Which bar was the wildest?

MICHAEL MCKEE: “All of them.”

In 1918, Superior was looking for a sheriff and Patrick Gorham was offered the job. The work of a sheriff in Arizona in 1918 was improvisational. When Patrick Gorham became Superior’s sheriff, Arizona had been a state for just six years. There was no other elected official in town. Gorham made up the law and he enforced it.

[ Return to the review of “Oak Flat.” ]

PATRICIA BROWN: “There was no mayor, no police department. He ran the show here.”

MICHAEL MCKEE: “It was the rip-roaring days. If you didn’t say, ‘Yes sir, no sir’ to him, he’d knock the crap out of you.”

Jackie Gorham maintains the family photos and papers.

JACKIE GORHAM: “This here is my dad’s time book, okay? If you look at the thing, all these charges are women, fined for ‘Vagrancy.’ The fines were ten cents. They were whores, working the street. Then the fines stop suddenly, because the mining company told him to leave them alone. They were keeping the miners happy.”

PATRICIA BROWN: “If the miners got in trouble, Daddy would throw the guys in jail, but he’d get them out in time to go to work so they didn’t lose a shift. The county paid Daddy, and the mining company paid him, too, to make sure that there were no problems. And he was getting money from the Belmont Hotel. That used to get my mom so mad.”

DEB MCKEE: “Because the Belmont was the house of ill repute.”

The building that for decades housed the Belmont Hotel stands at 271 West Main Street.

PATRICIA BROWN: “My dad made things safe for the girls. The madam was Bessie O’Brien. Bessie O’Brien used to buy all my clothes. I had a beautiful white fur coat with a muff and little hat from her.”

JACKIE GORHAM: “First time I went up there, I was 14.”

PATRICIA BROWN: “He said it cost three dollars.”

JACKIE GORHAM: “Then they raised it up to five dollars. I was in high school. The girls were ordinary people, making a living. Just like the miners, going underground.”

Mila Besich-Lira is mayor of Superior.

MILA BESICH-LIRA: “I worked in the Belmont later, when they turned it into an office building. One day, this little old lady came and she starts pounding on the window, ‘You let me in. You let me in. I know he’s in there. You make him come out.’ We went and opened the side door. She’s like, ‘I know you have my husband in here.’ We showed her around, and we were like, ‘Ma’am, it’s an office building now.’”

PATRICIA BROWN: “I think the Belmont closed in the late ’50s.”

MILA BESICH-LIRA: “We could fix our budget problem, if we could just bring it back.”

♦ ♦ ♦

Arizona’s state seal depicts one human figure above a vast landscape: a miner, holding a pickaxe and a shovel. He looks disheveled and holds his tools awkwardly. A red sun burns on the horizon. Above the drawing of the miner and the sun is the Latin phrase DITAT DEUS, “God enriches.”

But Arizona’s mining towns are poor.

The towns close to Superior—Kearny, Winkelman, Hayden—are tiny enclaves full of abandoned buildings and “For Rent” signs. Kearny was created as a company town when the nearby Asarco Ray mine’s open pit expanded in the 1950s. Fewer than 400 people live in Winkelman, a quarter of them below the poverty line.

The movie theater in Hayden hasn’t screened a film since 1979. For years, people in town complained about “clouds of blue smoke” coming from the Hayden smelter, a refining facility for copper ore from the Ray mine. In 2007, an Environmental Protection Agency investigation found the Hayden smelter was emitting illegal levels of lead and arsenic. The area was later declared a Superfund site.

In Superior, residents remember pools of “blood red” water collecting on the hillside near the Magma mine smelter. The smell of sulfur permeated streets and backyards. Arsenic dust wafted over Superior and settled into the soil. Arsenic and lead accumulated in piles of mine waste, known as tailings. Fourteen million tons of tailings sat untreated for decades.

MICHAEL MCKEE: “When we walked to school as kids, you’d cough and your eyes would burn because of the sulfur. But we knew how to handle it. We didn’t play that hard when it was real thick and heavy. We went to an environmental meeting recently, and this one kid got up and said, ‘Arsenic causes cancer.’ I told him, ‘No, it doesn’t. It kills you, stupid!’”

Mike McKee worked for 24 years as a mechanic “in the pit” of the Ray mine. In 2002, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma.

MICHAEL MCKEE: “It’s kind of like leukemia. It’s in the blood and in the bones. Mine is caused by petroleum products, welding, painting, gasoline, oil—everything I did.”

McKee holds no grudge against the mining company.

MICHAEL MCKEE: “Everything in the world causes cancer. At the mine, you were making 21 dollars an hour. Good money. Plus the insurance. I don’t regret it one bit.”

JACKIE GORHAM: “We all worked for the mine. I worked in the smelter. Tommy worked in the smelter. Patsy worked in the smelter. Pete worked in the smelter. Danny worked in the smelter. I think it takes a certain person to enjoy working in the smelter. You’re breathing this nasty gas all day long. I was a welder, and then I ran the crew. It would be so gassy sometimes that your eyes would just burn.”

EVELYN GORHAM: “The heat is unbelievable.”

JACKIE GORHAM: “I went underground when I was first hired on.”

EVELYN GORHAM: “It’s pitch-black.”

Nine men at a time were lowered into the tunnels in a three-foot-by-three-foot metal cage. A hoist man controlled the speed.

Cheryl Lira-Castro, a cousin of Mayor Besich-Lira, got her first job with at the Magma mine at age 17. She worked in the framing shed, cutting timber. Her older sister shoveled ore at Magma’s mill. Her younger sister worked in human resources.

CHERYL LIRA-CASTRO: “If your parents worked for the mine, they’d help you get a job for the summer. You could work all summer, making 14 dollars an hour.”

At 21, Cheryl became a timekeeper at Magma’s No. 9 shaft. Each miner was assigned a number, which was engraved on a small brass plate. When a man began a shift, he would “brass in,” collecting his time card in exchange for handing over his brass ID. At the end of the shift, he would ascend to the surface, return his time card, and retrieve his brass.

CHERYL LIRA-CASTRO: “At the end of the day, they’re running through, you see their face, know their name, and give them their brass back. But if the brass was still there, Where’s that man? There were guys that would call me from underground, lost. Their lamp went out, they couldn’t see. They would be touching their face, screaming, crying, ‘I can’t see, I can’t see.’”

At lunchtime, miners would pull out a small plank of wood to sit on. Some would bring a thermos of agua de gallo—rooster water—a spicy fortified broth. Family recipes varied. You might start with chicken or beef stock, or tomato juice, then add beans, onions, garlic, chili peppers.

MICHAEL MCKEE: “Agua de gallo was hot. It lit you up.”

After lunch, the men would turn off their lights, lie back, and doze for 10, 15 minutes.

Water dripped from the tunnel walls and ceiling. When the men switched their lamps back on, dozens of cockroaches that had crept out in the darkness would skitter for cover.

Cheryl’s father, David Lira, worked at Magma for 48 years.

DAVID LIRA: “The mine makes noises. The ground heaves, it creaks. An experienced person learns to be down there by sound.”

Superior’s retired miners talk about “tommyknockers,” phantoms they encountered in the mine. Sometimes it was just a sensation—something you felt on your body, or a presence nearby. A Magma miner named John Sixsmith told friends he saw white boots, walking around without a body. To meet a tommyknocker was not frightening. These benevolent spirits might warn you about loose rocks or an imminent cave-in.

JACKIE GORHAM: “A load of steel fell on me. January the third, 1961. It busted my shinbone. There wasn’t a lot of safety then. Bone came out like this. The bone in back was broken in two places. The next morning, the doctor came in, Dr. Fenman, and he said, ‘Can you move your toes?’ ‘Yeah, I can move them.’ ‘Let me see.’ He stood there for a while, and finally he said, ‘Okay.’ He turned and walked off. The nurse was there. I said, ‘What was going on?’ And she said, ‘If you couldn’t move your toes, he was going to amputate.’”

♦ ♦ ♦

Every mine has an anticipated life span. It takes a certain amount of time to build the infrastructure of the mine, and then there is a period during which resources are extracted. Finally, there is the period called reclamation, during which affected lands are meant to be rehabilitated: contaminants neutralized, topsoil replaced, topography restored. Mining is, by definition, an enterprise with diminishing returns. According to historian Patricia Nelson Limerick, “Mining set a mood that has never disappeared from the West: the attitude of extractive industry—get in, get rich, get out.”

When Magma shut down in 1996, Superior changed. Half the town’s residents left.

MILA BESICH-LIRA: “You really started to see the community take its first major nosedive.”

PATRICIA BROWN: “There was no one on the streets, everyone left. The theater closed. The drugstores closed. The clothing stores closed.”

But families like the Gorhams did not consider leaving.

MICHAEL MCKEE: “The diehard people weathered the storm.”

With Magma closed, there were few options for employment. Some people got jobs at other mines in the area. Others found work in Florence, a half-hour drive away, at the Arizona State Prison complex or the detention center run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

PATRICIA BROWN: “My sister, Barbara, worked at the prison. I worked for the one lawyer in town.”

MICHAEL MCKEE: “Until they killed him.”

PATRICIA BROWN: “He raised gardens of roses. Rows and rows of roses. All different colors. One of the guys who worked in the garden robbed and murdered him. Cut his head off. They found the head—”

MICHAEL MCKEE: “—in the mineshaft.”

PATRICIA BROWN: “They found his car in Mexico.”

[ Return to the review of “Oak Flat.” ]

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