PAST Journal

Volume 32, 2009

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Book Review

Idaho’s Bunker Hill: The Rise and Fall of a Great Mining Company, 1885-1981

by Katherine G. Aiken

Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005

296 pages

Illustrations and bibliographical references

$29.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8061-3682-0

In the search for ways to describe, explain, and give the significance of locations, the history of business enterprises is often marginalized. Idaho’s Bunker Hill by Katherine G. Aiken is a dynamic piece of scholarship. As the title states, it is a history of a mining conglomerate’s life—from reputed discovery as a function of a rather boastfully braying donkey and its stubborn owner to its corporate death in a slurry of business decisions of the late 1970s and 80s.

Dr. Aiken demonstrates her talent as an historian and storyteller throughout the six-chapter study. As an historical study, this book provides the reader with thorough acknowledgements, succinctly written introductory and conclusion sections, and a plethora of notes and bibliographic references. In fact, Aiken’s notes and references occupy over 60 pages of the whole text. The only shortcoming I care to mention is the perennial question of maps. Only one map is shown, yet numerous related communities are mentioned throughout the book and it might have presented a little better with additional mapping.

The book’s chapters present an historical line from Bunker Hill’s initial discovery in 1885 to its closure by Gulf Resources and the federal government’s EPA Superfund recovery effort from 1981. While true to the linear style of many historical works, Aiken blends not only the actual business progression as a management story and its violent labor struggles but also aptly describes the Bunker Hill Company as a major player in the nation’s metallurgical industry, a legislative powerhouse, historically large environmental degrader, and a community developer.

Chapter One sets the location in northern Idaho’s Silver Valley. Aiken factors in the relevance of the dangers inherent in hard rock mining in the 1880s, low working wages for miners, discrimination between management and labor as well as attitudes towards various national origins, all resulting in a sense of spirit and separateness in a rather isolated part of the West. Thus, location underlay many of the operational dynamics which developed, erupted, and bonded the Couer d’Alene mining region, and continues to have an influence today through EPA Superfund cleaning activities.

The chapter introduces management/labor conflict, strategies developed and attempted by both sides, the company’s relationship with State and Federal government, and the two men who shepherded the company into a twentieth-century giant, Frederick Bradley and Stanley Easton. Both of these men were examples of college-trained engineers who were less “hands-on” in their management style than previous ownership and weathered the violence-prone period begun in 1885.

Chapter Two, covering the period 1903-1917, discusses the nature of the Bradley-Easton relationship, their remarkable ability to harness technology, politics, labor laws, mining claims, and to protect Bunker Hill as a physical asset and national investment. Aiken skillfully recounts the development of the Smelter and its component integration into the Bunker Hill operation.

This chapter expands upon the nature of Bunker Hill’s political clout on both the Idaho State Legislature and federal labor law. As an example, the struggle between union and corporate-supported legislation regarding worker’s compensation and safety programs demonstrated the nature of the differences between labor and management philosophies and needs. Additionally, the company’s efforts to consolidate mining claims and wrest control of the real estate involved in mining are well written and stimulate the “further research needed” questions which erupt as a natural result of this book.

The third chapter depicts the Bradley-Easton years following the opening of the Smelter in 1917 to the years of the Great Depression. Here, the success of both external economies and the company’s ability to integrate technology as well as management practices is examined from the perspectives of community development and support from Bunker Hill, the union, and extant management practices. The leadership provided by Bradley and Easton during this phase benefited the capital growth and profitability of the company and kept both Kellogg and its worker base employed throughout this period of economic disaster.

Chapter Four covers the time period of 1928-1949. The management/labor relationship between Bunker Hill and the various unions supporting workers or being supported, sub-rosa, by Bunker Hill—an on-going struggle often involving federal interventions—is discussed in depth and with considerable skill by Aiken. The personal sense of miners’ masculinity and the company’s perception of miners’ worth is well documented and adds greatly to the human experience of which she writes.

This chapter introduces the working woman in the mine and the impact of such decisions by employers. Those decisions reflect a lot of the tension introduced by World War II’s labor shortages and outcomes impacting the region directly. Differences between labor and management are clearly reflected in direct and tangible interpretations of law. As an example, Aiken addresses the cooperation which was supposed to be demonstrated by a “Labor Management Committee.”

Bunker Hill labeled these committees as “Management-Labor Committees” while they were usually referred to as “labor-management committees” (p.124).

The fifth chapter introduces what Aiken refers to as “New Realities, 1949-1968,” a period which significantly altered the company’s situation and its relationship to the community itself. The 1950s were a transitional decade for Bunker Hill in terms of operations and personnel. The reins of management were handed to Frederick Bradley’s son John who married Stanley Easton’s daughter, with Frederick becoming the honorary chairman of the Board of Directors and John becoming the company’s seventh president.

The Cold War’s influence on the relationship between union members’ organizing efforts and management is discussed as a function of the threat of communism. The realities underlying the efforts by both union and management, often resulting in physical violence, are pursued in detail by Aiken.

Additional pressures on Bunker Hill’s ability to maintain production levels, bridge the several cost issues which accompanied management of resources, and the inevitable forces of declining demand and price for mining products resulted in worsening labor relations. The metal market and labor market had formed a darkening cloud of financial problems for Bunker Hill. These forces were brought to a head in the contract negotiations of June, 1959 and were exaggerated by the unexpected accidental death of the Bradleys in a car accident in the Bay Area.

In 1965 Bunker Hill was publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange and by 1968 Gulf Resources & Chemical Corporation of Texas had emerged as the owner through a hostile takeover of Bunker Hill. Bunker Hill was now a wholly owned subsidiary of a company with no real connection with the local community. This action changed the face of the community, the company, and even the State of Idaho. These changes, accompanied by changes in union negotiations through the merger of Northwest Metal Workers and the Steelworkers, signaled the shift from local to national and international scales.

Chapter Six analyzes the impact of Gulf Resources, the impact of OSHA, EPA and state environmental agencies upon the operation of the mining complex. The strains placed upon both the workers and management from health issues of pollution, degradation of water quality, ambient lead poisoning issues, and financial issues resulting from Gulf Resources decision-making set the stage for the closure of Bunker Hill in 1981.

Dr. Aiken presents a well-developed concluding chapter which succinctly recaps the Bunker Hill story and the continued community struggle with environmental factors (Silver Valley Superfund) and its future. This is a remarkable book for not only its clarity, but also the depiction of the personal, community, and corporate drama which still reaches from an origin over one hundred years ago. An excellent resource for scholars as well as people interested in regional history, the impact of mining management, unionization and community response, this book is a true vein of pure historical gold.


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