May 2, 1972, is a chilly clear day in the mountains of northern Idaho. It is 6:00 A.M. and good daylight at the Sunshine silver mine in Big Creek Canyon. Robert McCoy, a timber repairman, turns his pickup truck into the mine parking lot and heads for the dryhouse to change clothes. It will be an hour before the day shift crew starts down, but he likes to get to the mine early. If a man doesn't like to rush, and McCoy doesn't, it can take half an hour to pull on his T-shirt, overalls, wool socks and steel-toed rubber boots, his helmet and belt and light and battery pack, and maybe a denim jacket to wear in the breezy shaft air going down.
After McCoy finishes changing, he walks up to the portal and pours himself half a cup of coffee from his lunch bucket -- his "emblem of ignorance," he calls it. Gaunt-faced and slender at fifty--six, he's been mining for thirty years, almost fifteen of them at Sunshine. He looks across the canyon to the ridge above the Crescent mine. In the early morning in spring you can see elk there, just below the snow line, some days as many as ten or twelve head. Yesterday he spotted three, today there are none.
By seven o'clock 173 men are assembled at the Jewel shaft, ready to go down. The "cage" or elevator can carry forty-eight men at a time, and it takes twenty minutes to lower the whole crew to the 3700-foot level, where they board a train that carries them back through a mile--long "drift" or tunnel to the No. 10 shaft. Morning starts out easy. The men are relaxed, no one's hurrying. At No. 10 shaft they have time to talk while the skip tender finishes his coffee. Then they board the skip, or cage, for the final descent-4200 feet, 5000, 5200, 5600, their helmet lights flashing against the blurred rock sides of the shaft as they hurtle through the black, thirty feet per second. There are two hoists in No. 10 shaft, the "chippy hoist" on the 3700-foot level which hauls the men, and the double-drum hoist on 3100, a thousand-horsepower monster machine, newly installed, tricky to operate. It is used to haul muck-ore and rock-though it is also equipped with a twelve-man cage.