Students at the nation's only hard-rock mining school have found more than just hope for a new profession in northern Idaho's Silver Valley.
Breaking rock recently in their "underground classroom" at the Atlas Mine near Mullan, they also found silver."Take a look at this. That's good ore," beamed Lovon Fausett Sr., president of Fausett International.
He helped organize the course through North Idaho College.
"Mining companies have spent millions trying to find ore in this mine, and then these kids come along and do it," said Fausett, a handful of galena ore samples glistening in the light of his mine lamp.
The find was small, a few "stringers" of lead and silver ore peeking through an otherwise barren quartz vein just a short distance from the main tunnel. But the lesson for the 30 young men learning to mine was real: Ore can sneak up on you in the strangest places.
It was enough to pique the interest of the students, who told their instructor and shift boss, Al Wattula, that they wanted to skip lunch, stay underground and drill another round that day.
Instructors are miners like Wattula, who supervised construction of the No. 12 Shaft at the Sunshine Mine before being laid off in 1982. They have an average of 25 years mining experience.
Bernie Knapp, North Idaho College vocational instructor and director of the new mining school, said more applicants were turned away than were accepted for the 30 openings in the class.
Applicants were given intelligence tests, then screened by a panel of mine supervisors from the Silver Valley.
"We want people that want to work. This isn't a welfare program," Knapp said. "It's three months of hard work, 40 hours a week, with no pay."
The first session of the three-month course began in early November; Knapp said he has obtained enough state vocational grant money to run the school for 18 months.
Wallace High School closed its mining class when the mining recession rolled through northern Idaho in 1981. There seemed little point in training new miners when 1,000 experienced rock breakers were out of work, and the Sunshine, Bunker Hill, Star and Lucky Friday mines closed.
Most of the Silver Valley's big mines now have reopened, thanks to an upturn in lead and zinc prices and in anticipation of a rise in silver prices next year.
"We've come full circle," Knapp said. "I've spent the last 10 years retraining miners to do something else. Now we're training miners again."
Even with reopenings at the Bunker Hill, Lucky Friday and Sunshine mines, companies have not flung their doors wide to new hires. Most employees at the mines now have been former workers with experience and union recall rights.
As a result, the work force is both graying and green. The industry went through an eight-year recession without training new workers, and many skilled miners found new lines of work.
Bunker Hill Mining Co. President Jack Kendrick said about one-fourth of the rock breakers hired at Bunker Hill since its reopening in May had no previous underground experience.
Bunker Hill, Sunshine Mining Co., Atlas Mine and Mill Supply and Fausett International have donated about $80,000 worth of used equipment and new material to give the students hands-on mining experience. Also participating is the United Steelworkers of America union, which represents most of the West's hard-rock miners.
While some of the students' hours are spent above-ground in a small classroom where they learn the paperwork of mining, most of the course's 480 hours are spent in the shafts.
Miners advance headings in the rock - drilling a pattern of holes in the rock's face, blasting, removing the blasted rock, shoring up the excavation and preparing the area for another round.
"Rock breakers" need a variety of skills ranging from a knowledge of rock mechanics to carpentry as well as a good grasp of safety to perform their daily chores, Fausett said. "Day's pay" workers, on the other hand, operate trains or perform more conventional tasks underground.
"People think of mining as pick-and-shovel work," Knapp said. "It's not. It's a highly mechanized, highly specialized business. It's changed a lot over the years."
Fausett said graduates will be able hold their own with an experienced partner. "Every kid in here will have drilled and blasted a round before he's through," he said. "This is run right."
Many of the students, all males, mostly in their early 20s for the first session, are learning how to mine for the same reason.
"I like it here. I don't want to leave," said Mike Koenig of Wallace.
Others, like Ed Hocking, said they are carrying on a tradition of mining in the family - learning to mine because it's what their fathers did.
Hocking's father was killed in an accident at the Sunshine Mine just last March.
"He liked the work," Hocking said. "He was happy when he died."