The life of a miner: Tom Hendricks

    Monica LaSalle | July 2, 2019 | The Mountain Ear

    Sitting on top of a mountain, digging in the dirt. That is how Tom Hendricks has spent most of his life, playing in a giant sand box, looking for treasure. Some people only dream of spending their life continuing their childhood passions. As I drive up Caribou Road, I feel right at home amongst the potholes, rock outcroppings and slow speed limit, having spent many an evening driving all the way to the top in an effort to de-stress. My son comments that he can’t imagine living so high up on this rough road, deeming it impossible to just run to town for eggs. 

    For a person like Tom, however, he could not get up here fast enough. He grew up in Colorado Springs, going on camping trips with his family all over Colorado to places like Cripple Creek and Ouray where he would pick up rocks looking for gold at the tender age of four. Later, all his reports in school were about Colorado gold mining. When he got to high school he began working for Golden Cycle Corp in Cripple Creek’s famous Ajax Mine as well as for his father in his limestone operation. 

    Something about being underground and seeing metal come up out of veins captivated him. He felt drawn to the hard physical labor, fighting weather conditions and working with likeminded people. While attending the University of Colorado in Boulder, Tom worked in seven different mines, and started the Caribou Mining District while finishing his senior year at just 21 years old, making him the president, CEO and general manager of the Hendricks Mining Company. He had already started working the Comstock Mine putting a shaft down for a friend in Boulder. He moved an old cabin from there to Caribou and set up camp, carrying water from the creek to heat on the wood stove and bathing in a tin wash tub. For Tom, this was paradise. 

    Tom has worked hard to achieve an elevated status in the mining industry. By 1980 he had 55 employees after starting by himself, but it’s been ups and downs ever since due to gold prices, government permitting costs, and a lack of viable milling operations.

    The mine tailings have always been problematic and damaging to the environment, however Tom is in the process of patenting a new method for dealing with them that eliminates pollution as well as abandoned mine safety concerns. Using some of the most high tech equipment in the world, some of which is remote controlled, they no longer remove the ore. Rather, they put it straight into a mill where it gets crushed and ground to make a concentrate, removing all the water from the tailing sand and finally adding Portland cement to it. This eliminates any water coming from the vein and pooling into a tailing pond. Any waste rock generated is high quality granite that will be passed on to Boulder County and the Forest Service to be used on local roads for maintenance and improvements. This will also limit their trips to Denver that burn up fossil fuels to pick up aggregate. 

    His dedication to best practices has won him multiple awards over the years, such as receiving the St. Barbara’s Award for Recognition of Outstanding contributions to Colorado mining, given by the American Bar Association, the Colorado Bar Association and the Colorado Mining Association in 1991; the Pride of Boulder County Certificate from the Boulder County Commissioners in 1997; a Certificate of Accomplishment from Governor Roy Romer and the Mined Land Reclamation Board for designing and building a mine water treatment system; and he won the 2000 Golden Burro Award for Efforts in Furthering the Cause of Mining in the professional and political arena from Clear Creek County Metal Mining Association. He has also received the Historic Boulder 2000 Award of merit for continuous operation of the Cross Gold Mine. 

    It has not only been about mining for Tom, as he has always been a very active member in the community. He has been recognized by the Town of Nederland and the Nederland Historical Society multiple times for his efforts. In 1988, he received the Golden Nugget Award for Public Service and assisting the town in numerous ways. That same year, he received the Duke Rudman Heroism Award for outstanding “Work for Humanity” associated with a dangerous five-hour underground mine rescue that involved hanging from climbing ropes to perform a confined space rescue, saving the life of a worker trapped 1,200 feet below. In 1996, the Town of Nederland Board of Trustees passed a resolution honoring him by naming July 27 and 28, “Tom S. Hendricks Days”. The Nederland Chamber of Commerce gave him an Honor Award for Community Contributions in December of 2003 through January 2004. All of these awards basically spell out to say that Tom Hendricks has been an active and reliable community member since his arrival back in 1969. He has been participating in celebrations as well as catastrophic events, next to his neighbors and friends, helping out whenever and where ever he could and often at personal expense. 

    Tom met his wife Serah at Annie’s Bakery 22 years ago, but she moved away and they both got married and divorced over time. Five years ago, they reconnected after Serah relocated to Boulder and began visiting Nederland again. In his 60’s, Tom became a father to their son, Thomas, who was “born right at the end of our bed in our home on Caribou” he tells me with beaming delight. 

    He began taking Thomas to the mines as soon as possible, and at age three he enjoys riding the train in and out of the mine and has even started learning to operate the loader on their property while sitting on his father’s lap. Tom cherishes being a father, saying “…there are times that are challenging but you teach him things and watch him progress from dependence to independence, dressing himself and helping with chores. Watching the transition is amazing. A hug from him after a rough day… nothing can replace that.” He chuckles as he tells me of a conversation they had recently – “Thomas, how was school today…Dad, it was just fantastic!” 

    Tom had always wanted to be a father, adopting his 21 year old daughter, Maggi Hendricks when she was just a baby. An extremely talented painter, Maggi resides in Tucson with her mother’s family and is already doing commission work for portraits. She participated in a work program in Europe, taking her from Finland to Italy working on farms so she could visit all the museums and meet artists. His pride in her accomplishments is obvious as he tells me how she started painting when she was just four years old and says they keep up with each other every week in between visits.

    Earlier in the week, I met up with Tom and his son, Thomas at Eagle’s Nest Early Learning Center where Thomas was being dropped off at school. Little Thomas jumped out of the car as soon as his doting father could free him from his ultra-deluxe car seat and proceeded to hop around excitedly until Tom began making his way down the sidewalk to usher him in. At that point he stopped and ran to his father’s side to “help him walk” into the school. 

    Last February 9, Tom and his son were driving down the canyon and had just reached the area around the old Red Lion Inn when suddenly they found themselves upside down sliding towards a tree off the side of the road. Thomas, dangling from his car seat calling to his dad asking if he was ok, came out of the accident without a scratch. It took emergency responders two hours to cut Tom out of the truck, an accident that very well could have taken their lives. For this tough mountain miner, he emerged from the wreckage with only a broken femur that has left him now walking with a considerable limp and a cane for the final stage of healing. His first accident ever, he says proudly, and further comments that they still do not know what happened to cause it. 

    This is not the only event that has tried to take him down. He recently had been diagnosed with throat cancer that he eventually fought off with a mixture of chemotherapy and radiation after trying Vitamin C and mistletoe. He sought help at the UCHealth University of Colorado Cancer Center, Anshutz Medical Campus and eventually was treated by Dr. Jimeno, an excellent cancer doctor from Spain. He is in full recovery, although all the radiation treatment left his throat damaged and raw with a raspy voice.

    One would think that in dealing with these health issues, Tom would not be getting much mining accomplished. To the contrary, he has been planning an expansion that involves creating a new vein using advanced technology for breaking up rock that utilizes pressure rather than blasting. He tells me that operating an environmentally friendly mine has always been top priority, right along with a safe and happy work environment with content workers. 

    He has a really good crew right now, and training people to be miners has long been a favorite of his. He is training four people right now that he thinks will stay with him to help with the expansion. The expansion is anticipated to take the next 3-5 years, which will result in what will be a public company (his first) using new technology to create and maintain the vein with the hope of finding gold. Environmental protection, safety, happy employees, economics. That’s what they are really into. This year marks 49 years that Tom has been working the Cross Gold Mine on Caribou Mountain. 

    My son and I wait at the gate to meet up with Tom and Thomas, following them in to get a look at the Cross Gold Mine. As the storm clouds gather, they show us the rail line that leads down into the mine. Lightning and thunder begin rocking the mountain side, chasing us back to our vehicles with promises of another visit that would enable us to stay longer. In such a magical world, I certainly intend to hold Tom to that promise. 

    (Originally published in the June 13, 2019, print edition of The Mountain-Ear.)