KELLOGG, Idaho -- The Sunshine Mine, the nation's largest silver mine, has been a mainstay in this community for more than a century, providing jobs, driving the economy and helping the region earn the name Silver Valley.
But the area's economy was dealt a serious blow last week when the mine closed, after years of low prices and foreign competition. Four days after the announcement, 130 miners were out of work.
"There's a lot of depression and uncertainty about where we're going next," said Ken Poulson, a Sunshine mechanic. "Most people are wandering around. They knew it was coming, but it's still a shock."
General Manager Harry F. Cougher shook hands with the mechanics and contract miners as they left the mine Friday -- perhaps for the last time. The mine's owners will keep a skeleton crew to run massive pumps and fans so the mine can be reopened if silver prices rise in the future.
Silver has sold for $5 or less an ounce for several years and recently dipped as low as $4.50 an ounce. Silver prices thrived two decades ago, trading in the teens in the early 1980s.
Discovered on a hillside above east of Kellogg in 1884 by brothers True and Dennis Blake, the Sunshine Mine became the nation's largest and most productive underground silver mine. In its heyday, it employed nearly 600 workers and had yielded more than 300 million ounces of silver by its 100th anniversary.
The mine, with shafts plunging 6,000 feet beneath the surface, was the scene of one of the nation's worst mining catastrophes, when an underground fire killed 91 miners on May 2, 1972.
The mine's owners have fallen on hard times in recent years, coming through two bankruptcies in the past decade.
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