Talk about deplorable classroom conditions.
The lighting is terrible, the air stagnant, it’s dank and dirty and there’s hardly room to move around. Oh, and it’s about 100 feet underground.
But Montana Tech freshman Austin Davis says this is his favorite classroom on the whole campus.
“This is the highlight of my week,” Davis said.
The classroom is actually a 1,500-foot long tunnel (or “drift” in mining jargon) in which students will learn the basics of underground mining. About half a dozen students geared up in hardhats and headlamps recently for a lesson in “drilling and blasting.”
This freshman-level lab is held once a week and lasts for about four hours. The tunnel was started last summer and is built on the site of the Orphan Boy mine on the western edge of the campus. Pete Knudsen, who is Tech’s dean of the school of mining and engineering, said Tech is the only school that has a working underground mine lab on its campus.
One point of the class is to show that mining engineering doesn’t always involve an air-conditioned office with a drafting board and pocket protectors. It sometimes involves jackleg drills, blasting caps and tons upon tons of rock.
“The class is to teach students how to be a miner – not a mining engineer, but a miner,” Knudsen said.
Knudsen certainly knows the difference. He’s cut his teeth in underground mining in the Kelley Mine in Butte.
The class isn’t designed just to give college kids a swift kick-in-the-pants of hard knocks learning. Knudsen said there’s a much more practical side to teaching the class in an actual underground mining environment.
“There is a lot of underground mining starting worldwide, and our engineers need to learn how to do it,” he said.
It’s a messy lesson.
The students arrive dressed in Carhartt pants, work gloves and protective gear latched on to work belts. They’ll spend the next few hours handling torches, 120-pound jackleg drills and other heavy equipment.
Arthur Kukowski’s day started out with a splash — literally.
The 19-year-old second-year man at Tech was sawing a rubber hose that directs water to the jackleg drills. But someone forgot to shut off the valve.
“Yeah, I got a little drenched,” the Shepherd native said as he brushed water off of his soggy jacket.
Getting sprayed with a little water didn’t dampen Kukowski’s day one bit. He said he enjoys working in this underground lab.
Besides, there are far worse things that can happen in a mine than getting splashed with a little water. A rock falling out your head is one.
This is why Auva Speiser was busy “barring down” some loose rock on the ceiling of the tunnel. Speiser, 18, who is the only female student in this class, was using a long, metal rod to chip away at the loose rock. Knudsen said barring down is one of many necessary procedures miners have to learn.
“It’s all about safety in the modern mining industry,” he said.
Speiser said she enjoys the physical labor involved in underground mining, especially using the jackleg.
Course instructor and long-time miner Larry Hoffman said Speiser can hold her own with the rest of the students.
“When they started drilling, she was the best one with the jackleg,” Hoffman said.
The 67-year-old Hoffman didn’t seem to have any problem keeping up with the young students that day. It didn’t even matter that he just had both his knees replaced in major surgery 23 days prior.
“The doctor said most people have three or four months of recovery where I am now. I guess I’m a quick healer,” Hoffman chuckled.
The superhuman toughness of Butte’s underground mining heritage appeals to these students. Learning what it’s like to work an actual mine is important to Davis, because underground mining is a deep and rich vein in his family’s history.
Davis said his grandfather was an underground miner, and his exploits made for epic story-telling at family gathers.
“My family always tells me my grandfather could hold a cup of coffee in one hand, a Louis L’Amour novel in the other hand and operate a drill at the same time,” Davis said.
It’s not all drilling and blasting. Students learn how to ventilate the shafts, get heat and water deep into the mines and other maintenance that goes into underground mining.
“They’ve got to put all the utilities in the mine,” Knudsen said. “You can’t get a plumber to come down here.”