Women Find Plenty of Gold in Montana Mines

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The Drumlummon Gold Mine, Marysville, Montana in the early 1900’s.

The treasure is still there, lots of it–but you have to dig deep to get it. Men and women alike. And they have been digging for 137 years, out in Montana. By the men, mostly, but for the past few years quite a few women, too.

My great-grandfather, Richard O’Connell, brought his family to America from Ireland in 1878, and settled in Marysville, Montana, to work at the famous Drumlummon Mine, discovered by fellow Irishman Thomas “Tommy” Cruse in 1876. The project is located in the Marysville mining district, approximately 20 road miles northwest of the city of Helena.

Initially, using the mining methods of the time, the gold-finding was a great success. After producing nearly $350,000 in gold, Cruse sold the mine to the Montana Mining Company, owned by the Rothschild family of London, in 1882 for $1,600,000. After losing an 11-year, bitter lawsuit concerning underground property-line infringement to the nearby Nine Hour Mine, in 1901 the Rothschilds flooded the lower levels of the mine and the St. Louis Mining Company took over operations.

Richard O’Connell worked at the Drumlummon/Nine Hour mine until 1914 and my grandfather, Rob O’Connell, was first an underground miner, then, delivered freight to the Drumlummon until he was elected County Commissioner in 1935. After World War II, my dad, Bob O’Connell, worked at the mine, which was by this time owned by the Montana Rainbow Mining Company. He hauled the last load of ore out in 1958. Was this the mine’s end? Not yet!

Drumlummon remained mostly closed and deteriorating for 50 years, until RX Exploration re-opened it in 2008. With new geological and analytical methods at their command, the new owners believed—correctly—that huge reserves of gold and silver still existed in the deepest levels of the mine, and that the Rothschild’s flooded it simply to prevent the St. Louis Mining Company from recovering them.

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Deb O’Connell Peterson, first woman ever certified for under-ground work at the Drumlummon mine

I was hired in April of 2008, first as head core-cutter; then I was promoted to the Fire Assay lab. I am thus the fourth generation of my family to work at the Drumlummon, and my extensive research seems to verify that I am the first woman ever certified for underground work at the Drumlummon mine. But I am not the first woman miner!

Mining has always been considered a masculine occupation, and one that has traditionally prevented women from entering it. The British Parliament made it illegal for a woman to work underground in 1842, and pre-Colonial Andes mines considered it bad luck for a woman to work in the mines.

In the gold-strike era of American history, the jobs for women in the gold fields were restricted to cooking, washing, or most often, working as girls of the night…or, delicately, “soiled doves.” There were more women gamblers than women prospectors.

Until the 1940’s, women were excluded from working underground. But the Second World War presented a labor shortage, one that forced companies and unions to hire women to fill mining positions. When the men returned at the end of the war, once again underground mining jobs for women became non-existent.

Montana’s war-manpower director explained that the state needed “men for the hard, heavy and unpleasant jobs” in mines and mills “where women cannot be used.” Anaconda Copper Mining Company and Mine Mill union officials agreed that mines, mills, and smelters could not employ women because they did not have the strength that the work required.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s the few underground women miners were called “Iron Girls.” Finally, with the passage of Equal Employment Opportunity Legislation in the 1970’s, women won the legal right to enter mining workplaces. Unfortunately, this was just as the industry began to move operations out of the country and lay off workers, but the times are changing, again.

Today, no one knows for sure how many underground women miners there are in the United States and Canada. Estimates range from 1.9 to 3 percent of all miners. In 2012, RX Gold merged with US Silver to become US Silver and Gold Corporation. Our present corporation has consistently offered women the same opportunities and benefits as men. Besides me, we have women geologists, haul-truck drivers, and equipment operators, as well as support staff.

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The Drumlummon Gold Mine, Marysville, Montana in the early 1900’s.

There are very few restrictions for women with motivation, good work ethics, and positive attitude from obtaining any position. I am the only woman on the Drumlummon Mine Rescue team, a position that would have been unheard of for a female 20 years ago. The men on the team treat me as a respected, valuable member.

Bottom line: The Drumlummon Mine produced over 20,000 ounces of gold and 315,000 ounces of silver in 2012—so, it seems the old timers that swore that there was more gold still in the mountain, than ever came out, were dead right. I believe that my women co-workers Anh Sam, Amber, Sarah, Anna, Kendall, Mary, Karen, Janeen, Lisa and I will continue to receive great wages, health insurance, 401K benefits and paid leave in a welcoming work environment for many years to come. Gold has its benefits!