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Good On Ya, Robert Hopper

By: David Bond

-- Posted 24 March, 2007 | |

The Wallace Street Journal


By David Bond, Editor

The Silver Valley Mining Journal


Wallace, Idaho – Robert Hopper, president of the New Bunker Hill Mining Co. since 1992 “when I was still a child,” and for more years than he would care to remember our closest friend and confidant, may finally be seeing light at the end of the tunnel that isn't the bright beam of an oncoming runaway freight. Tonight, as we type this, it is still difficult to comprehend: the mighty Bunker Hill, the industrial anchor of the Coeur d'Alene Mining District, the Silver Valley and of this tourism-obsessed burgh in which we dwell, may finally rise again to her full glory and splendour.


This is a very easy time to get emotional. At 1300 hours local time, Azteca Gold Corporation, TSX:AZG headquartered in Spokane and traded in Vancouver, announced that it had reached certain agreements with New Bunker Hill whereby Azteca would purchase the Bunker Hill mine. No numbers and few specifics were given, but a major player (read Rio Tinto-sized) player is back in the bushes. There are conditions: a bankable feasibility study and resolution of a few matters with the U.S. EPA, which agency has hounded Mr. Hopper like a recurring rash ever since he had the audacity to snatch Bunker Hill from their “put-all-these-mines-out-of-business” juggernaut back in '92 and dared them to come get him. He was, after all, just Mining His Own Business.


While outfits like Coeur d'Alene Mines and General Electric tried to make peace with the EPA Monster and its Greenie lobbyists (see how far it got CDE in Alaska, or GE in the Hudson, just recently), Hopper chose to fight over every square inch of intellectual earth, and if he hasn't quite whipped them, he is the closest ever to having done so. He has certainly triumphed where intellect and will and integrity are counted.


(We interrupt this program to go over the statistics of Bunker Hill:  Between its 1887 discovery by prospector Noah Kellogg and its closure by Gulf Resources in 1982, Bunker Hill produced 195-mil oz of silver, 3.156-mil tons of lead, and 1.345-mil tons of zinc on ores grading 8.76% lead, 3.67% zinc and 4.52 o.p.t. silver. That's some serious stuff. And we are talking 600 mining jobs.)


It is instructive to know about Robert Hopper that when the rustlers from Stillwater Mining Co. came to the Silver Valley to high-grade its miners during the depths of the recession a decade ago – and they nettted many – not a single guy from Bunker Hill even bothered to apply. Not that Bob paid the highest wages in the District; just that the guys trusted him, and believed in his vision for Bunker Hill, that it one day would return to its rightful place as, in his words, “The shining city on the hill.”


I will tell you a story about Robert Hopper that has never been told before. When Shauna and I organised the first Silver Summit back in 2003, amidst much chaos and deadline, Dennis Wheeler, the President, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Coeur d'Alene Mines Corporation, graciously offered to host a sumptuous dinner for the speakers and presenters we had coaxed out of thin air to participate in this seminal event. Invitations were sent out, and reservations at a fancy venue (per Wheeler's wishes) were made. One day before the inaugural Silver Summit dinner, to which we had all been looking forward, Wheeler informed us, through a clerk, that he'd decided after all not to host the dinner. We were screwed. No budget, a bunch of promises made.


Hopper, who at the time was driving a late 1970s-model Ford pickup truck (a terrifying thing to ride in with him at freeway speeds) and selling pyromorphite crystals out of the odd vug his miners turned up at Bunker Hill, in order to make payroll and keep the lights turned on at Bunker Hill, got wind of this treachery, and he telephoned us. “You will have that dinner. And I will pay for it. My sole condition is this: that you do not have this dinner at any of the restaurants owned by Dennis Wheeler's friends. Now get down here and pick up a blank cheque. You will have a Silver Summit!”


And we did, and probably without anyone at that dinner at the Cedars Restaurant in Coeur d'Alene any the wiser. Because that's just the kind of guy Robert Hopper is. Many more times than once we have showed up unannounced at the office of the New Bunker Hill Mining Company with some drop-in out-of-town visitor in tow. “Bob, just a couple of minutes of your time, please. This guy would like to know a little bit about mining.” And next thing you know, Hopper is in his diggers, lashed up a motor to a man-coach, and this unsuspecting soul is being whisked a mile underground on the ride of his life to the labyrinthine tunnels and drifts and hoist rooms, the latter of which are cleaned up nicer than a hound's tooth, their machinery just begging to be run.


Hopper has kept a dozen guys and gals on the payroll, just to eke out a little production from the Bunker Hill every day, every week, every month, stockpiling when necessary the rich silver-, zinc-. and lead-laden ores from this magnificent underground creation of 200 miles of workings and a mile of depth, just to keep the ore cars coming out of the K-T Tunnel. He is a student of Nietzsche, of the Dali Lama, of Dostoevsky, of Gogol and  Hegel and Pirsig and Christ, and he was the first man, in 2001, to alert us to the current Paradigm Shift. There is not a quote that we, a formally-educated major in classic English and Russian Literature can start that Robert Hopper, child of the bad side of the tracks of Flint, Michigan, who has driven drift and truck and carried hod from Alaska to Nevada, and is self-educated in the tradition of The True Believer author Eric Hoffer, cannot finish.


And we have more than once asked ourselves, How in the hell can a guy read that many books and keep the biggest mine in the Coeur d'Alene Mining District off life support for 15 bloody years? And the only answer we get back is, There are miracles in your life.


If you think we are alone in our assessment of this remarkable individual, consider what Matt Russell, himself no slouch in the mining trades and a Wallace native to boot and just to put it in your pipe and smoke it, son of Robert Russell, who has managed more mines from Africa to Kellogg, including Bunker Hill, than pikers like Wheeler could steal from his uncle, has to say:


“Who else but Robert Hopper would have had the guts to hang in there this long and not have it all buttoned-up by the federal government? There is a tie for me here, and that is the Bunker Hill old guard.”




Camus said that a son isn't really born until his father dies. He said this in the figurative sense. The son has to go out on his own and create his own reality. Bob Hopper saw that the life at a GM plant his father embraced was not for him, so he went off to Nevada, to Alaska, and thence to Idaho to create his own. From memory, we recall his account of turning up at a post-Gulf Resources salvage sale, intent on picking up a Bobcat or two, and asking himself, “What is going to happen to this beautiful mine?”


Robert Hopper is what happened to that beautiful mine. And now, another son has come along, in Matt Russell. Matt will guide this thing through, because that is the family honour. He has gained Robert Hopper's trust and he has gained the trust of one of this planet's mining giants, to whom EPA's annual PR harassment grants-to-the-greenies budget is chump change. And, if we can draw conclusions from EPA's conciliatory attitude towards the boys at the Crescent, maybe EPA in its own special psyche has discovered the errors of its ways, that is has learned that you can push people too far. That despite what EPA's geniuses learned as college boys, men are going to dig into the earth for the metals humans need, because that is human nature.


Matt Russell, again: “This old girl's got lots of life in her, and not just at current prices. We will do a bankable feasibility study that is not sensitive to (current) prices. One big thing that people don't realise is how much silver is down there. What we're after is something that is long-lasting. The miners won't like the speed at which we're working. It is going to take some time to do this right. They're just going to have to relax. When we put it back on line it will mean real jobs for a lot of people.”


We can't for a moment imagine Robert Hopper retiring, or even shedding his bulldog role. But, he says, he was inspired by something Harry Cougher, who used to run the Sunshine Mine and now is involved in some Coeur d'Alene Mines perfidy and is now looking forward to retiring, said:


“I'm going to find me a nice warm park bench, put my feet up, and anyone who walks by, I'm going to tell them how important I used to be.”

-- Posted 24 March, 2007 | |

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