By John Hernandez
When we were children most of us if not all of us were afraid of the dark. As little ones, we would only go to sleep with a night light on or after one of our parents checked the closet and underneath the bed for those imaginary phantoms that may be hiding there. It probably did not help when our parents reminded us of the “Boogeyman” or the Mexican version El Cucuy. Our grandmothers or mother uttering the words, “The Cucuy is going to get you,” kept most of us in line. There are versions of El Cucuy or the Boogeyman in nearly every culture with the legends going back centuries.
As adults we grow out of our fear of the darkness and no longer believe in the Boogeyman although we continue to remind our kids and grandchildren when they won’t go to sleep or get out of line that the Boogeyman is going to get them. I never could understand how kids could be expected to sleep after you have told them something unearthly is going to take them away. Even as adults there are times when being alone in the dark can make our minds wander to that state of fear, where we bring up bad or scary memories or imagine something that is not there or is something there we only feel and cannot see, perhaps a ghost.
Recent surveys have shown that 45 percent of Americans believe in ghosts or that the spirits of the deceased can come back in certain locations and situations. There has been a growing number of television shows about hauntings and paranormal research groups such as Ghost Hunters, A Haunting, Most Haunted USA, and Ghost Adventures. There is even a show about a paranormal research group that looks for ghosts in old mines that premiered this year, Ghost Mine.
There is a local ghost story that comes out of the San Manuel Magma Copper Mine that has been around since the early days of the mine and probably longer. It is the tale or legend of White Boots. I have a faded childhood memory of my father mentioning something about White Boots wandering underground at the San Manuel mine. It was when I first went to work underground for Magma Copper that I began to hear more about this mythical spirit.
The version that I heard was that a miner while working was involved in a bad accident where he was cut in half. The upper half of his body was found but his legs were never recovered. Shortly after this, it was said that a pair of white boots had been seen walking (some said floating) along the tracks and drifts on all the levels of what was then the largest underground mine in the United States. White Boots was said to be searching for his body.
When I first heard the story, I thought nothing of it. As a new employee working as a chute tapper on the 2015 level, I believed it was a story told by the older mine workers and supervisors to instill some fear in us to make us work safer and adhere to safety regulations. When you are over 2,000 feet below the surface of the earth it is a scary place to begin with. Add to that the possibilities of being run over by a train or ore cars, crushed by falling rock, blown up by dynamite, falling down a shaft, electrocuted, or poisoned by carbon monoxide from underground fires and you can understand the concern for safety.
Underground mines are a dangerous place to work. The San Manuel mine had its share of tragic accidents. According to the Miners Memorial in Mammoth, 55 men were killed in mining accidents in the St. Anthony, Tiger, and San Manuel Copper mine, mill, smelter, and refinery. One of these accidents even involved a man being cut in half by three runaway loaded ore cars in 1956. There was no shortage of the spirits of dead miners to give rise to a tale of ghosts. With Halloween coming soon and the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), I decided to research and write a story about White Boots and how the legend came to be.
A few years ago, I happened upon a painting of a dark foreboding figure with glowing eyes and wearing a pair of white boots in the lobby of Huntington Chiropractic in Oracle. The painting was titled “White Boots” and the artist was James G. Davis of Rancho Linda Vista in Oracle. I had wondered if by some chance it was a rendering about the ghost of the San Manuel mine. I decided to start my search there.
At Dr. John Huntington’s office, the receptionist told me that the picture used to hang in the lobby but it was scaring the children so they moved it into one of the other rooms. I was allowed to take photographs of the White Boots painting. Dr. Huntington told me that his dad Jim had experienced an eerie feeling while underground one day that he attributed to a spirit of some kind. John also told me about a poem that had been written entitled “White Boots” by William Pitt Root, a well known poet who had worked underground at the Magma mine.
William Pitt Root is a freelance writer living in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. While living in Arizona he commuted between Tucson and Manhattan where he taught at Hunter College for nearly a decade. He was the poet laureate in Tucson from 1997 to 2001. He is a friend of James Davis whom he knew from the University of Arizona and the Tucson art scene. William also has spent time at Rancho Linda Vista in Oracle. Root went to work underground in the San Manuel Magma mine as a chute tapper in 1972 where he stayed just long enough to save some money to move to California.
He says that he did not hear much about the ghost while working underground but learned about the legend from James Davis, not so much in words but in images. After working in San Manuel, William could not find a way to write about his time spent in the mine. It was not until he saw a black and white painting of White Boots by Jim that he was able to get a foothold on the whole experience that was needed.
William believes that, “various kinds of people or events can serve as messages or messengers if you are open to it.” He refers to them as “strange angels” and said that Jim Davis and White Boots served as his strange and liberating angels allowing him to write White Boots and several other poems about his mine experiences. His newest collection of poems is entitled “Strange Angels” and is about those messengers and messages that have touched him. His poem “White Boots: Ghost of the San Manuel Mine” is in his book WHITE BOOTS: New and Selected Poems of the West. The cover of the book is a painting of White Boots by James G. Davis. William says he has learned over the years that many mines in the United States have their own ghost known as White Boots.
It seems that ghost stories are common in mines in the United States as well as other parts of the world. Mining is an ancient profession dating back to prehistoric times. The oldest mine on archaeological record was found in Africa and believed to be 43,000 years old. It was the Romans that developed large scale mining methods and used them in the countries throughout Europe that they conquered. In England the Romans mined gold, silver, tin and lead often using underground mining techniques. It is in England that a legend of spirits or mythical creatures living underground known as “Knockers” grew and would spread to America.
The county of Cornwall in England has a long history of mining. The Cornish people had a legend about the Knockers who were small gnome-like men similar to Ireland’s leprechauns. They were small impish creatures who lived underground and committed random acts of mischief like stealing a miner’s food or tools. They were also known to warn miners of cave-ins by making knocking sounds. The knockers were also known in Welsh folklore. In the 1820s Welsh miners brought their stories about the Knockers to the coal mines of Pennsylvania. During the California gold rush in the 1840s the miners of Cornwall known as “Cousin Jacks” brought their legends and culture to the goldfields. After the gold rush they were sought after by mines all over the United States including Arizona. In Arizona many of the silver, gold and copper mines were owned by British investors.
According to some Cornish folklore the Knockers were helpful spirits of miners that had died in previous accidents in the many tin mines in Cornwall. They would warn the miners of pending disasters. The superstitious miners would cast the last bite of their lunch onto the ground for the Knockers as a sign of gratitude. They were also known to be bad and miners that doubted their power or mocked them often met with illness, an accident or even death. Another tale in England was that they were the souls of the Jews that killed Jesus and were enslaved by the Romans and forced to work in the mines of Britain. They were known never to knock on Saturday or during Jewish holidays.
They would be known as Tommyknockers in the western United States. The “Tommy” was probably added as a reference to a person from Britain. Tommy was a common nickname for a British soldier. Belief in the Tommyknockers lasted well into the 20th century. There is a story of a mine in California that closed down and the company sealed the mine entrance in 1956. So strong was their belief that fifth and sixth generations of the descendants of the Cousin Jacks that worked there took up a petition to have the entrance reopened to let the Tommyknockers out so they could travel to other mines. The mine management is said to have actually agreed to do it.
The Cousin Jacks were not the only immigrants to come and work in the mines in Arizona. Mexicans, Slavs (mostly Croats and Serbs), Italians, Irish and other ethnic groups were found in the copper mines of Bisbee, Clifton-Morenci, Ray, Globe-Miami, Superior and Jerome. They brought their customs, superstitions, legends and ghost stories with them. Perhaps one of their tales was about White Boots or maybe he was a blend of all their spirits and legends.
Author Sam Negri in his article “White Boots and Other Mine Shaft Ghosts” says the ghost started out in the Miami mine and then traveled to Superior and San Manuel. In the 1950s when the San Manuel mine first opened, many of the miners that ended up there had worked in Arizona mines such as Miami, Superior, Bisbee, Jerome, Clifton-Morenci as well as other mines around the country and Mexico. Negri first heard of White Boots after seeing the Davis painting in the lodge at Linda Vista Ranch. After inquiring about the painting, Marilyn Nelson, a resident of the ranch told him it was some kind of ghost that wanders underground.
Mike Herndon a long time miner says he heard the story in Bisbee and is currently writing a book about his mine experiences. One of his mining stories talks about White Boots and involves a cruel joke a miner was going to play on an old miner that believed in White Boots. The story involved the jokester putting on a skeleton mask and hands, turning off his head lamp and hiding in an unexpected place. It’s a good story with a twist. You will have to read the book to find out what happened.
Hector Lovemore worked at the mine from 1970 to 1999. His recollections about White Boots were that the miners and bosses seemed to blame old White Boots whenever something went wrong such as equipment failing to operate or breaking down.
A few paranormal websites have told of some ghost stories reported in the Magma mine. One story talks about a worker being helped by a man who worked with him for about half an hour. Later the worker found out he was the only one that was working in that area. He never saw the man that had worked with him again. Another story reported that miners had spotted lights and heard sounds in the distance from the area they were working at only to find out that they were the only crew assigned to that level.
There is supposedly a ghost called “White Boots” in the Climax molybdenum mine near Leadville, Colo. Someone even wrote a song about him.
A story which took place in 1985 says a worker in England at the Goldthorpe Yorkshire – Colliery (a coal mine and the buildings next to it) fled the coal fields after seeing a pair of disembodied boots moving toward him as he was working deep underground. There they called the ghost “Walking Boots”. The miner never came back to work.
It appears that the legend of White Boots did not begin at the mine in San Manuel which did not come into existence until 1954. Throughout history mines around the world have had their own ghost stories and legends. Now that the San Manuel mine no longer exists, does that mean the legend of White Boots will fade away? I think as long as miners continue to labor deep within the bowels of the earth, digging for the precious metals that make our lives easier, the story will continue. Perhaps new legends of ghosts will emerge from the deaths of a miner’s carelessness, a company’s negligence or a simple thing as fate.
There is another legend of a ghost that wanders along the railroad tracks between the mine and the area where once two tall smokestacks greeted travelers from miles away as they headed home. It is a benevolent female spirit that is known to sometimes wander the streets of San Manuel. Her legend has grown over the years. She was known to take care of her children and help the sick and those in need although she called for a sacrifice of blood now and then. They say she has been seen sitting by the Kalamazoo ore body yelling down to old White Boots through the earth into the drifts now flooded and caved in, lifeless in the deep darkness. “Don’t worry Bootsy,” she says, “they will be back one day and maybe we can live again, maybe it will be like it used to be, or never was.” They call this old ghost “Mother Magma”.
WILLIAM PITT ROOT
White Boots: Ghost of the San Manuel Mine
~for James G. Davis
As, you know, Jim, I did not work underground
In the same mine you’ve imagined
in your studio: half a mile down, taking
wages enough to make it to California
and fool’s gold enough to remind me
I don’t know much after all.
New guys like myself—still thrilled
by the dangers of fire or falling
through the dark into a hole followed
by twenty tons of dusty rumbling ore –,
we all tried to stay alert
each minute of the eight – hour shift.
And for a week or two, alert we were,
then habit made us careless as the rest
so we’d pocket our safety glasses,
let dust masks dangle from our necks
and sometimes catch each other
stepping out across open shafts
without first snapping our lanyards
to the rusty cables overhead.
The buddy system wasn’t much observed,
so like the rest come break time
I’d kick back alone against the stone wall
And light up, flicking my headlamp off
so the dark expanded, flooding gently
through my eyes. In the distance,
sometimes, a solitary hunched figure
projecting its small wedge of light
would glide by my lines entrance
tiny as a fly in a tear of amber
from where I watched, invisible
and isolate as a stone in outer space,
or inner space. Just some guy.
Never saw old White Boots in those days
but often thought how all those men
Just lost in the Sunshine Mine
must have felt—poor bastards
who lived long enough to feel,
long enough to lose everything
in their minds but hope
before their air was gone, long after
their light. You’d have to kill your light
to keep from igniting whatever gasses
might be seeping from walls,
so dark is where you’d be
whether by yourself or in the company of others.
In such a dark I had no need of White Boots, my friend,
but looking at this image, startling, almost comic,
you’ve drawn from the dark of blinding inks
and your own heart familiar with disaster
I’m reminded now of how it is
the living keep hold of the things
that bind them to those gone—
how gypsies, when a loved one’s dying,
will help the one failing stay just a little longer
by turning a wooden chair upside down
to hold between them. On one leg
a live hand, the dying on another,
until ready, it falls free. But
the thing is the clasp itself
across that final distance,
how it allows those last things
that need saying to be said.
That’s how it always seemed
to me, with art I mean. Whether
it’s paint on canvas or ink on a page,
It’s the chance for what knows it must die in us
to join what knows it will live forever.
And knowledge from such a common depth
only survives in the light as shadow,
as White Boots, imago, as a way, meanwhile
to stay in touch while the sun burns on.
Note: The Sunshine Mine mentioned in the poem is a large silver mine located in northern Idaho. On May 2, 1972 a fire broke out underground. Ninety one men died of smoke inhalation or carbon monoxide poisoning, 81 were rescued on May 2. It was one of the worst mining disasters in U.S. history. Two men were trapped underground on the 4800 level (4,800 feet below the earth’s surface) until May 9 when they were rescued. They were in total darkness, surviving on food and drink from their dead friend’s lunch boxes and air from a borehole. It had to be a frightening experience.