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February 3, 2013

Cooking at Summitville

By Theodore W. Palmer


I have already written about working as the Mining Engineer at Summitville Mine in the summer of 1956.  The big old boarding house we reopened was next to the Reynolds tunnel at 11,300 feet elevation.  When I arrived in mid-June there were 12 miners, a female cook and me. 


The cook must have been a flatlander.  She had set out to boil some potatoes when she arrived.  At 11,300 feet elevation water boils at about 190 degrees Fahrenheit rather than 212 degrees at sea level.  When I arrived, the potatoes were hard as a rock inside but covered with a thin black slimy coat.  She quit in disgust.


Cooking a potato is a complex chemical/physical process involving starch grains, proteins, sugars and other components.  The rates of these reactions have a factor involving an exponential term with Kelvin temperature (temperature above absolute zero) in the denominator of a negative exponent.  For the first two reactions the numerator is quite large.  Thus the time it takes to cook a potato by boiling is very dependent on the boiling temperature of water.


My friend Dr. Richard V. Gaines, who had hired me as Mining Engineer happened to know that I was a pretty good cook (back then).  Except for Colorado law one could have 12 miners in a camp a day’s round trip from the nearest human habitation without a Mining Engineer, but definitely not without a Cook.  So I filled both jobs for about a week before another cook arrived.


It was an education for me.  The huge kitchen had big cast iron wood burning stoves along one long side.  (It had served over 500 miners when last used.)  It turned out that the stovepipes on the first two (the only ones I ever used) were in good shape and drew well so that starting a fire in the morning was not very hard.  There was plenty of wood of all sizes that had been drying for a decade.  Breakfast was simple: coffee, toast, eggs and bacon or ham, sometimes with fried potatoes or pancakes or even French toast.  (When the ovens were hot it was easy to bake the potatoes before frying them the next day.)


The first day I was not prepared for how MUCH breakfast was needed.  At 11,300 feet air pressure is usually a bit less than 10 pounds per square inch versus 14.7 pounds per square inch at sea level.  Thus a person doing hard physical work at over 11,000 feet uses almost as much energy breathing the thin air as for the work itself.  The human body produces energy by burning food.  I learned that breakfast consisted of about a half a loaf of bread, half a dozen eggs, and half a pound of bacon for each miner!  The previous cook had told me that they liked a dozen full sized sandwiches a piece for lunch (which they ate underground).  144 sandwiches ready by eight o’clock was a job, but easy since I always waked early.


I unfortunately do not remember suppers as well as the earlier meals.  I am sure meat was obligatory and I know I served pork chops, steaks and probably stew.  I liked spaghetti so that was probably common with tomato sauce and probably meat-balls.  I am sure I did not have fresh or frozen vegetables or salad makings, so I probably used canned vegetables and I am sure I served fruit when ever I could.


During most days the temperature probably reached 60 degrees in the sun but it froze almost every night.  An underground chamber maintains at the average year-long temperature which would have been about freezing, so the lack of refrigerators was not a problem.  EXCEPT the boarding house was full of huge packrats as big as an average cat.  They must have scurried all around while we were sleeping because if you left anything shiny out, it was sure to be gone by morning.  Rodent teeth can cut through almost anything in a night’s work, so food had to be carefully protected.


I only had to go to town once to buy food.  There were two jeep roads that connected Summitville to the outside world.  I most commonly came and went through the town of Del Norte almost directly north of Summitville.  Some one told me I would do better to buy groceries at Monte Vista which was about the same distance to the north east.  Both roads were primitive and the only people one saw until very near town were occasional Basque sheep herders.


I know I served pork chops because I remember buying 150 pounds of them.  I must have had a big shopping list but I don’t remember anything else specifically.  I suppose the company had given me unlimited credit at the store, because I just signed a paper for the jeep full of food.  I remember leaving for the store as soon as I had cleaned up after breakfast and worrying that I would not get back in time to cook supper.  I evidently did get back in time because I never had any fight with the miners, and they certainly would not have wanted to wait for supper.


I got along very well with all the miners.  I think they were all over 40, but hard rock miners age faster than most of the people I have known.   Several had “rock”, silicosis, where the lungs are excessively scarred by tiny razor sharp chips of silica (quartz) that they had inhaled.  The disease is a lot like tuberculosis and it shortens the life of most hard rock miners.  (One of my heroes, Agricola, wrote about it in De re metallica in 1556 but the ancients were also aware of it.)


Good miners have to be smart because it is an inherently dangerous occupation.  One has to think about every step.  These were all good miners.  I believe some but less than half had finished high school.  I knew from their evening stories that most had played around some before marriage but had started mining as teenagers.  Many had been to other hard rock mining camps in the west but none had been to the eastern United States. 


Thus as a college student from the east who knew how to survey and do other things beyond their understanding I was a strange fish.  I think my extreme youth kept me from being any kind of threat, and I was quite friendly with most, particularly the older ones.  I was amazed at the deep knowledge of mining history that most of them had.  Going back to ancient mining three or even four thousand years ago to the beginning of mining engineering less than a hundred years ago and to bloody strikes both in the west and even in the otherwise despised coal mines of the east.


This summer enriched my life immeasurably.


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One Comment
  1. Barb Kenney permalink

    Wonderful & interesting historic stories Theodore…thanks for sharing your interesting life.

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