San Manuel, the burg to which I look for culture, groceries and all the amenities of civilization, is a sleepy little town of less than 3,500 souls, surrounded on all four sides by mountains. There is no Pizza Hut anymore, so the opportunities for fine dining are limited to Tia Maria’s, famous for their Friday night buffet, and Dinah’s Cafe, owned and run by Enid. There is a grocery store, and a hardware store. We boast an auto parts store where you can buy tires and spark plugs. The Health Clinic requests that you schedule your emergencies between 8:00 am and 5:00 pm, as everyone goes home then, with no forwarding number. They also serve as the only pharmacy.
San Manuel was built as a company town in the 1950’s to serve the needs of the local copper mine, owned by the Broken Hills Mining, a Company based Australia. In the picture, most of what you see is the mine. The actual town takes up the left one third of the shot. The city planners built a golf course, a public swimming pool, with a park, an airport, and it’s own rail line. Practically everyone in town worked at the mine, a huge affair which extended about a mile and a half underground. The tailings, the leftover slag from the refining process, resembled a mountain in it’s own right.
Average income for the town was well above the national average. I knew elevator operators who earned close to $4,000 per month. It was a union town. The mine employed over three thousand people, most of whom lived right there, in San Manuel.
Meanwhile, in 1995, a Japanese futures company, Sumitomo, had incurred some big losses through careless speculation on the stock market. In order to recoup their losses, they worked with several brokers in the U.S, to artificially drive up the price of copper. Sumitomo traded copper futures back and forth with these shell companies, each time at a slightly higher price, until the value of copper was wildly inflated beyond it’s proper value. Then Sumitomo divested all of it’s copper assets.
The bottom dropped out of the copper market.
Copper which had been running at $1.50 per pound plummeted to 80 cents a pound. The mine was losing millions of dollars every month. The bottom line for profit was $1 per pound of copper. The mine, which had been making money hand over fist, was now operating at a loss.
So they closed the doors. Three thousand employees showed up to work and were given pink slips. People who were just months away from 30 year full retirement received minimal pensions. The company did help some people receive job retraining. Most of these were people who planned on working at the mine for the rest of their lives and were utterly unsuited for any other work.
Many people just moved away, and left their houses standing empty, for the bank to reclaim. Sumitomo was called to account by the government, but no one ever said anything to the people who lost their homes and livelihood.
Broken Hills started dismantling the mine, removing it to Malaysia, where life is cheaper, and they can get people to do dangerous work for almost nothing.
Meanwhile, the price of copper has climbed back to record highs currently over $4 per pound. There’s still plenty of copper in the ground here, but no one is mining. The mine is gone. Instead, we hear reports of poverty stricken people in Tucson stealing copper tubing from street lights. Our little airport hasn’t had a flight in seven years.
AFTER THE DELUGE
Slowly, the town is rebuilding. Most of the people who move here are looking for cheap retirement homes. We certainly have those.
A lot of people have stayed here, though. There’s an interesting mix. Surprisingly, a lot of the engineers and geologists from the mining company stayed here. And many people drive to Tucson or Phoenix, the nearest large cities, every day commuting up to four hours. There’s also a population of drifters and “desert rats”, people who just sort of wind up here, without knowing how or why. They drift in, and drift out.
From my bedroom window, I can see two mountain ranges. In the afternoon, the mountains become dappled with sun and shadows. If you live near them long enough, they become living entities, dwarfing the mine, and it’s pretensions to greatness.
In the Bible, mountains are a symbol for God because nothing changes them. Nothing bothers a mountain. Stay around a mountain, and eventually you may absorb some of it’s deep calm. Mines come and go, but the mountains remain.
Life goes on here,in the shadow of the mountains, and we go on with it.