Alleghany, Calif.-To hear some tell it, Michael Meister Miller’s fight is the Mother Lode’s last stand.
Since 1896, his mine, the Sixteen to One, has yielded some of the stat’s densest gold concentrations. Mined today much as it was a century ago by mud-caked men with picks, drills and dynamite, it is a living link to California’s God Rush era.
For some, the Sixteen to One evokes the gritty pageantry of the ‘49ers. To others, it is a throwback to a reckless time of needless injuries to people and environment.
Today, after the death of a miner, that way of life is on trial – not just in the court of public opinion, but in the Sierra County Courthouse where Miller and his mine manager face manslaughter and other felony charges.
The indictments of Miller, 60, and 32-year-old Jonathan Farrell mark only the third time that felony charges have been brought against individuals under a 2-year-old labor law for “willful violation of a safety standard” that results in death.
The case has divided a county that still clings to its mining roots despite the industry’s decline and a steady trickle of newcomers who don’t rely on the region’s traditional sources of income-logging and mining- or profess much nostalgia for its fading way of life.
Hard Times for a Relic of the Old West
These days, local businesses in the county seat of Downieville, about and hour and a half northeast of Nevada City, are more dependent on mountain bikers and other recreational tourists. Expatriates from Truckee, Tahoe and Reno drive up property values. The shift is aligning the county more closely with a modern California- one defined by tough environmental and work place protections.
“Miller was born 70 years too late,” said Brian Van Camp, a Sacramento County Superior Court judge and former Sixteen to One board member. “If you’re going to extract minerals in the regulated civilized community, you’re going to have to abide by a whole lot of rules. Yes, they didn’t have them back then and it was easier, but things have changed.”
The Sixteen to One is among about a half-dozen underground hard-rock mines still operating in California, and the only commercial gold mine left in a county that owes its origins to mining.
While low gold prices, industry consolidation and cumbersome regulations have driven off most small subsurface operators, Miller thumbs his nose at the odds and the regulators. He and his men dig for gold the old-fashioned way – in 27 miles of dank tunnels braced by wooden beams erected nearly 100 years ago. These days, profits are so meager the neither Miller nor his skeleton crew are drawing salaries.
State and federal regulators have cited the mine more than 180 times over the last decade for faulty escape routes, broken ladders, improper storage of explosives. State water quality officials have fined the company for allowing arsenic-laden water to flow into nearby Kanaka Creek, polluting the downstream drinking supply.
The manslaughter charges stem from the death two years ago of miner Mark Fussell, 36.
Fussell was operating a locomotive deep in the mine and had put it in reverse to retrieve some lumber. His head was crushed between the locomotive’s battery and an ore chute that investigators say protruded lower than others in the mine and was unmarked. They also allege that the gears malfunctioned and that the locomotive had been placed on the track backward.
The mine had been cited previously for not marking a similar ore chute on a different level of the mine. That opened the door for prosecutors to file felony charges against Miller and Farrell.
An arraignment is scheduled for Nov. 20.
The prosecutor, Gale Filter, explained the decision to charge Miller and Farrell and not just the company that controls the mine.
“The bottom line is corporations don’t make decisions, individuals do,” said Filter, who heads the California District Attorneys Assn.’s worker safety project. “We prosecute only the most egregious type of conduct,” Filter added.
Miller called the case “merit less,” saying it was Fussell’s job to mark hazards, like the one that killed him, and blamed the miner’s death on his own negligence.
“Mark had a lapse of what I call the fool killer,” Miller said.
Neither Miller nor Farrell was present during the incident. Moreover, a state inspector had stood beneath the same chute a week earlier and failed to notice a hazard, Miller said.
If he can be charged with killing his worker under those circumstances, said Miller, the industry is headed for trouble.
“There are people who feel that California will be a better place without the ability to produce gold, and they’ll use any means to try to accomplish that,” Miller said.
Here in Sierra County, part-time prospectors still dredge the rivers for gold and work small, private claims. A sign in the office of the county’s weekly newspaper declares: “We Support the Mother Lode Miners and the American Mining Industry and they Support us.”
Many remain convinced that a spike in gold prices is all that’s needed to revive the Mother Lode.
“All you need is one more 9/11 scare to send gold sky high,” said David O’Donnell, a third-generations miner who works an underground claim on evenings and weekends and heads the nearly defunct Northern Mining Council.
“My dad used to tell me, ‘You’ve got to be honest, you’ve got to have money and you’ve got to have patience.’ You put those ingredients together and we’ll have gold mining in this area again.”
Miller’s supporters point out that Fussell’s death was the mine’s first fatality in more than 50 years. This year alone, 56 people have died in mines around the country.
“No one believed that anything but an accident had happened,” said Bill Copren, the county assessor. “As tragic as it might be, it’s the nature of the business. You can be a computer assistant manager if you don’t want your job to kill you.”
“Mike is a lot of things. Willfully negligent is not one of them,” said Don Russell, the bearded, barrel-bellied owner of the weekly Mountain Messenger in Downieville.
The Sixteen to One was carved out of the granite bedrock of the central Sierra Nevada in 1896 by a local resident who named it in honor of populist William Jennings Bryan’s presidential campaign proposal for a fixed silver-to-gold price ratio.
Known as a pocket mine for its jewel-like concentrations of high-grade ore, the mine prospered on and off until 1965 when it was effectively closed, then mined only sporadically by locals who leased the claims.
Miller was running a bar in Santa Barbara when he first visited the mine in 1974. It was the same year that the federal government allowed gold, long fixed at $35 a troy ounce, to trade on the open market. The price soared, exceeding $800 and ounce by 1980.
He seized control of the company that owned the Sixteen to One in 1983 after a spirited six-year proxy battle, becoming its chief executive. At first, Miller leased the mining claims to a series of exploration companies. When they pulled out in 1991, Miller took over day-to-day operations.
A series of multimillion-dollar finds followed. The company rolled much of its profits back into mine improvements, Miller said, and began acquiring other mining properties. But in recent years, the Sixteen to One has fallen on hard times.
The company’s prized collection of gold specimens and carved gold-laced quartz is up for sale. Last month, its stock was delisted from the Pacific Stock Exchange for consistently trading below a dollar.
Compounding Miller’s financial troubles has been a growing pile of safety and environmental citations.
Last spring, he was ordered to monitor an arsenic discharge, and ultimately reduce it to required drinking water standards. After he failed to turn in an arsenic reduction plan or pay more that $27,000 in overdue fines and permit fees, his case was referred to the state attorney general’s office, a deputy attorney general said.
Meanwhile, the mine is struggling.
Miller’s workforce, reduced now to a crew of six, makes its daily trek a half-mile into the earth beneath Kanaka Creek Canyon. There, the men use metal detectors and dynamite in their quest for another payload.
The men check pumps that suck water from the mine’s lower levels, exposing what they hope will be another rich vein.
By midafternoon, they emerge squinting from the portal, the day’s take of gold-laced quartz stuffed inside one dirty tube sock.
They split the proceeds from the communal haul. Recently that has come to little more than $3 an hour per man.
Today, even people sympathetic to Miller’s cause suggest it may be time to let go of a way of life that is more trouble than it is worth.
“In the underground small operation that was popular from 1850 right up until five or six years ago, there are just few hardheaded people left,” said Donald Dickey, who shut down his own gold mine here earlier this year.
“There will always be people beating their heads against rock. That’s gone on since biblical times. But it won’t be a viable industry as such.”
The county’s economy once depended almost exclusively on mining and logging, but it has been decades since mining was a significant economic force here. Logging too, is a shadow of its former self, with the last sawmill recently shuttered. Government now employs more that 40% in this county of 3,100.
“As a resource-based economy, it’s completely dead,” and Sierra County Sheriff Lee Adams, an amateur local historian. “Mike is just an artifact.”
Miller is undaunted. Gold mining allows him to wrest a commodity from the earth and create wealth, he said. The experience is a “dream for a lot of boy-men,” he said. Today, he defends what’s left of the dream with Old West bluster and an ivory-handled .38 pistol tucked in his waistband.
He says he’s been targeted as part of a “rural cleansing” campaign against miners, loggers, ranchers and other old-fashioned country folk.
“The Sixteen to One miners face extinction, and they represent the last of the deep hard rock guys,” Miller said. “It’s a symbol to a lot of people, and I don’t want it to die.”