When your lab class is 100 feet underground

Oct 8, 2013

Montana Tech mining engineering junior Krystal Martin and the eight other students in her lab class were taking turns using a heavy, pneumatic, jack-leg drill to bore six foot holes into a solid rock wall last Friday. It’s definitely louder than the average college lab course, and rather than crisp, white lab coats, students wear mud-soaked work boots, dust streaked faces and hard hats.

About 22,000 men worked the underground mines of Butte at the city’s peak, hauling 20,000 tons of ore back to the surface every day.

But, that was almost 100 years ago.

Today, Montana Tech students are the only underground miners working in town. The university worked to re-open a number of old mine shafts for an underground training lab back in 2004. The project has been expanding ever since, with engineering students learning the practical, hands-on skills of mining.

Martin and most of her classmates don’t really see themselves ending up as mining laborers.

As an engineer though, she appreciates getting her hands dirty.

"A lot of engineer to worker is misunderstanding and actually having the opportunity to come down and do this you get a little more understanding and respect for the people who do have to do it," she said.

The lab is now operating in the Orphan Boy mine, a network of shafts where miners have been digging since the late 1800s. The entrance to the mine is literally on the Montana Tech campus--part of a 70-acre land grant from petroleum company Arco, which used to own many of the mines in town.

Dean of Tech’s School of Mines and Engineering Peter Knudsen said no other mining school in the country has a similar facility closer than an hour from campus.