This article features recollections of Gary Forbes of Mocksville, NC, the son of Paul and Elsie Burleson Forbes. He was born in 1948 in Spruce Pine at Williams Clinic.
My earliest memories are of living in the Hamme Tungsten Queen Mine Camp in Vance County, NC, beginning around 1950-51. The mine was in the community of Townsville, NC, about 15 miles outside Henderson, NC. I was 2 or 3 years old when Daddy moved us down there so he could work in the mine to provide a better living for his family. He had mined feldspar around Spruce Pine and was experienced in mining work. It was a migration of sorts as many people from the Spruce Pine area left to work in the Hamme tungsten mine. They included my daddy’s brothers Blaine, Guy, and Nelson Forbes, Knox Geouge, Hobert Burleson, Lloyd Beam, Geter and Jim Thomas, Richard Geouge, Charles (Hig) Pittman, Ted Ledford, Fred and J.R. Willis, Ray McKinney, Vernon Silvers, Olin Burleson, Howard Williams, Carl Buchanan, and many more; I can’t remember all the names.
The Hamme Tungsten Queen Mine opened in 1942. Tungsten was used in incandescent lights and added to superalloys to improve performance of metals. Tungsten is called the strongest metal on earth by some geologists. The mine in Townsville had two shafts through which the miners accessed the ore veins. At shift changes, miners would be lowered and raised in the shafts in a metal cage via a hoist, and the ore would be extracted through the shaft via a skip belt.
The mine also had a camp where the miners and their families lived and a store at which to trade. On the main road coming from Townsville, as soon as you got to the mine property, there was a row of houses with running water and bathrooms. The mine foremen and their families lived in those houses. Past Mine Shaft #1 sat office buildings and the company store. Across from the store ran a gravel road called Pine Ridge for the abundance of black pine on the property. The rest of the mine camp was located here: some nice homes where the mine supervisors lived and, further down the road, 3-room row houses where the miners’ families lived. They were simply nailed together boards with no framing timbers and consisted of a living room, a kitchen/dining room, and a bedroom.
The outside of the houses was covered with black felt paper called tar paper to keep the wind, rain, and snow from blowing through the cracks in the boards. To keep the nails from tearing through the tar paper, they were driven through bottle caps from soft drinks sold at the company store. As I remember, all these homes were occupied by mountain folk who had migrated to seek work. At the bottom of the road, the houses were in a circle or cul-de-sac, and the people living there were practically one big family. A trail led down to a creek with a small beach where a rope swung over the water, and on Sundays during the summers, families would pack a picnic lunch and spend most of the day there. It was like a family reunion every Sunday!
I remember that Dad’s younger brothers, Nelson and Guy, lived with us then, and one time Nelson gave me a hammer and a paint bucket full of old nails. I thought driving nails over the lower part of Pine Ridge was a good thing, but people all over the ridge had flat tires for some time. Neither Nelson nor I was greeted nicely afterwards!
Another memory was when the first helicopter flew over the camp. The men were at the mine, but women and children ran outside to see. Adelaide Beam, called “Ade,” couldn’t come up with the name “helicopter,” but when reminded, said “Well, I knew it was a hell of a something!”
Lloyd and Ade Beam’s house was a popular spot on the lower part of Pine Ridge. Ade was always cooking and baking, and there was no shortage of kids to share the treats. Ade and Lloyd had the first refrigerator in the camp, and many of us kept our milk in it. Lloyd had a truck, and when people would get homesick or just not like it in Townsville, they had Lloyd move them back to the mountains. On his return trip he would often bring another family from Spruce Pine to the mining camp to take their place.
In late 1953 or 1954, Daddy got promoted, and our family moved up the hill to one of the supervisors’ houses. I recall when Hurricane Hazel came through the area in October 1954. All of us watched as heavy rains and winds blew things around and downed trees. Mrs. Pittman, who lived next door, was scared and cooked the whole time the storm was raging; we had plenty to eat afterwards. Daddy went out to his new 1954 Dodge to listen to the hurricane update on the radio because the power was out. Just as he was heading back inside, a tall black pine fell and crushed his new car!
As time passed, families began bettering themselves, moving out of the mine camp, and getting homes of their own. Demand for tungsten declined, and the mine shut down in 1957 or 1958. My family moved back to the mountains, as did many other families who lived in the mine camp, although some stayed and found other work.
In late 1960 or early 1961, Daddy got a call the mine was reopening, so we returned to Vance County, as did his brother Blaine’s family and many others, too. In late 1962, however, Daddy’s physical revealed spots on his lungs from years of mine work and smoking, so he was denied the health card required for mine work. We moved back to Spruce Pine in 1964.
The Hamme Mine in Vance County was the largest tungsten mine in the United States in the 1950s; its success was thanks in large part to hardworking, experienced people from the Spruce Pine area. Mining mica and feldspar in Mitchell County gave them the skills which they took to Townsville or other places for better pay and opportunity. The Hamme Mine operated again briefly in 1970 but closed for good in 1971. Considerable reserves of tungsten remain at the site.