Tough box, tougher miner |

Tough box, tougher miner

Tim Willoughby
An indestructible wooden dynamite box. (Courtesy an eBay seller)

You can dig under piles of miscellaneous and dusty bookshelves for mining memorabilia in antique shops in rarely visited ghost towns. You can also scour the websites of conscientious collectors listed on eBay. Miners’ lamps are favored, and there is a fascination for dynamite boxes representing a popular connection to the underground past. The boxes offer utilitarian traits. Sometimes they can control clutter, sometimes they contribute to it. I gave away my last box, but I retained a few dynamite box stories.

While other families stored their treasures in shoe boxes, my family stored ours in the used dynamite boxes that Dad brought home from the mine. After the Midnight Mine closed, dynamite boxes filled with gears, drilling bits, nuts, washers and bolts, silver ore samples and odd parts were stored in a shed behind our residence. A cardboard box filled with those heavy items would fall apart the first time you tried to lift it. Even a fruit crate would have shattered. Sturdy dynamite boxes, with their dovetailed sides, were designed for toughness and rarely were discarded.

My father turned two dynamite boxes into picnic storage containers. He placed them, side down, on a table so the top opened down, revealing cooking utensils held by strips of elastic. He added loops of rope as carrying handles. He lined the insides with shelf paper to add color and to make them easy to clean.

One box held sauce pans, a cast-iron frying pan, a coffeepot, and dishes to serve eight. The other stashed heavy cans of beans, a canister of coffee, condiments, paper goods and the item I most relished ” marshmallows. We picnicked most summer weekends; the boxes lasted a generation.

There were more empty boxes than we needed for storage and picnic boxes. Extras were used for fire kindling. The split pieces were the perfect length and dryness to start campfires, even on a rainy day.

Miners refer to dynamite as “powder” or use a trade name like “gelex.” Many people see only the danger in it. One visitor to the Midnight Mine, upon seeing an open box, said to my father, “I wouldn’t work around here. That stuff can explode.”

My father answered, “It had better explode or it would be worthless around here.” Then he pointed out the hazard of driving around with a tank of gasoline.

Father’s first lesson about powder and dynamite boxes came when he was a teenager working with a veteran explosives expert. After carrying a box to the end of a tunnel, he was instructed to open it. Since he did not bring a hammer, father was at a loss as to how to pry open the nailed lid of the tightly sealed box.

Impatient with his youthful helper, the veteran demonstrated his own opening technique: He lifted the box as high as he could and then threw it with all his might against the wall of the tunnel. The box split open exposing its explosive contents. He provided a lasting lesson about safety of powder alone ” an explosion requires a blasting cap. The lesson initiated one more miner into the club of dynamite box collectors.