Coming to America – Karsten Rist

Coming to America
Karsten Rist

In the summer of 1955 I worked at a tungsten mine in the town of Yxsjoeberg in Sweden, an experience which broadened my outlook and motivated me to want to see more of the world. What better place to go than America, the leader in the mechanization of mining work, where equipment and methods were in use which were only being talked about in Germany? Through the help of a friend who was studying at the Colorado School of Mines I obtained the addresses of ten of the major mining companies in the United States. My letters of inquiry received one positive response: The Climax Molybdenum Company in Climax, Colorado was willing to give me employment in their mining operation as long as I was able to pass their physical exam. Only much later did I learn that they were desperate for workers and willing to give anybody a job who could pass their physical.
I received my degree in mining engineering on Nov. 29, 1956 from the Technical University Berlin Charlottenburg. I was able to book passage on the freighter “Franziska Hendrik Fisser” which offered a student rate and left Bremen on February 9, 1957. After a stormy passage with a captain who was drunk more time than he was sober we arrived in Newport News on February 28. I traveled by Trailways bus to Colorado which was an adventure in itself Everything was new and interesting: meeting different people, seeing Stone Mountain near Atlanta, visiting Carlsbad Caverns and discovering Santa Fe. On March 13, 1957 I arrived at the mine in Climax. Together with a group of Oklahoma farm workers, who had arrived in a big recruiting bus. I passed the physical exam and was employed as “general laborer”.
Following German etiquette I made an appointment to see the mine manager, put on my gray suit and my only tie and went to introduce myself.   Bob Henderson, the mine manager, was a slightly built man. He sat in a large, sparsely furnished office behind his desk in an open neck, red checkered sport shirt. He regarded me, peering over his glasses, with wonderment and amusement. “Don’t be so formal” was his advice. The following conversation was brief and friendly. While my approach was unconventional in American terms it had the great advantage that, from that day on, Bob Henderson knew who I was.
I lived initially in the large boarding house which was operated by the mine. There was no entertainment available in Climax which made it particularly easy to become acquainted with my fellow workers. Bob Johnson, David Bauer, Bob Brown, Gene Grossman and Vic Jackson are all good friends from those early days. The work in the mine was not much different from what I was used to in Germany and it seemed not particularly difficult to me. My fellow mine workers from Oklahoma felt very differently. After two months the group of men who had been hired the same day as I was had shrunk to just two of us. The pay of $20.00 a day was absolutely fantastic. Some of the engineers at the mine also lived in the boarding house and I got to meet them. When they learned that I had completed a degree in mining engineering they helped me to apply for an engineering job and within a couple of months I worked in the engineering department. By the time summer arrived I was surveying in the mountains surrounding the mine. We were locating old claims in the Kokomo area using mining maps almost a hundred years old. At times we might retrace the side of an old claim ultimately arriving at the point where a comer should be marked. At first glance nothing unusual could be seen but then, upon closer examination there might be a rock and, scratched into the rock half covered with moss there was the cross indicating the exact location of the comer and, beneath, the old claim number. Who could guess the untold stories which lay buried in those old rocks ?
The Climax Molybdenum mine was a very successful enterprise. The use of molybdenum as an alloy to improve the qualities of steel had been developed and promoted by American Metals Climax in the years following World War I. In the fifties American Metals controlled the world market in molybdenum including the significant quantities of the metal which were generated as a byproduct of copper mining. The end of mining at the Climax deposit, where the largest underground mining operation in the world produced 30,000 tons of ore every day, was just a matter of time. The geologists of the company were examining every likely prospect to find additional deposits. They found Red Mountain in the Sawatch range near the continental divide about miles south of Independence pass. The gently curving slopes of Red Mountain had weathered in broad streaks of red, brown and yellow colors which bore an eerie resemblance to Bartlett mountain above the Climax mine. There were also some promising assays from a tunnel in the mountain which had been dug at least half a century ago. The Climax Molybdenum Company decided to invest in a thorough exploration of Red Mountain starting with establishing legal rights by covering the mountain with mining claims. I had the good fortune to participate in this project.
Our survey party, consisting of about ten people, ended up living in a temporary cabin halfway up Red Mountain. For two months, which was all the time the mountain was free of snow, we worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week. All of the mineralized areas were covered with a grid pattern of mining claims, each one 300 ft by 1500 feet. Each comer was marked with a cairn and a four by four stake which had nailed to it lead tags with the claim’s name and number. While we were at work another party appeared on the mountain. They were doing their own surveying, hoping to catch a mistake of ours where there might be a sliver of unclaimed land. Their plan was to establish their own claim and to sell it for a fortune once a mining operation was about to start. We were working under the provisions of the U.S. mining law of 1872. I saw the project, living in a cabin like a genuine prospector and getting paid to clamber up and down Red Mountain as a grand adventure. I also acquired what I considered to be a small fortune, working copious hours of overtime and having no living expenses.
Later in 1957 I began to think of how I might best use my newly acquired riches. I felt that my best investment would be some additional education and I made an appointment to see Bob Henderson to seek his advice. Mr. Henderson explained to me that an advanced degree in mining would be useful only if I planned a teaching career in mining. We discussed the future of mining in the United States and the rest of the world and then Mr. Henderson allowed that, if he stood in my shoes he would invest in a Master’s degree in Business Administration. He expanded on this idea and it made a great deal of sense to me. Bob Brown, who had an advanced degree from Columbia University, suggested that the University of Michigan would be a good school to go to. This idea was heartily endorsed by my colleagues in the engineering department who were impressed by the outstanding record of the football team of University of Michigan.
I started my studies in Ann Arbor in the first semester of 1958. There is little doubt in my mind that Bob Henderson’s advice has been of great and lasting value to me. Attending the university forced me to read and write a great deal in English and brought me a lot closer to the mainstream of American society. It also gave me the opportunity to attend the only class in computer technology then available which directed my professional career for many years to come.
Most importantly it is the University of Michigan where I met Carol. David Bauer, one of my Leadville friends, had suggested that I should look up one of his high school classmates who was a graduate student in the sociology department in Michigan. She was a lovely young lady who had little use for me but felt some social obligation and invited me to a party of other students in her department. As luck will have it Carol Byrd attended the same party. For the merriment of the guests there was a Hoola Hoop contest. Carol, always a good sport, participated and in my opinion was the hands down winner of the contest. It is only an unkind and unfounded rumor that Carol’s Hoola Hoop performance had any significant impact on our future relationship. It is true, however, that Carol’s escort, Ernst Mueller, had to visit the bathroom which gave me the opportunity to chat a little. A few days later I saw Carol again. This time I was taking an 8mm movie of the campus for some friends from South America. They wanted to include an “American girl” in the pictures if it could somehow be accomplished. Carol, good sport that she is, played along. Somewhere in South America there is an old 8mm movie showing Carol walking down the steps of the library. On this occasion Carol was unescorted and I had the opportunity to walk home with her.

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