Steven Mitchell holds a copy of his new book
Photo by Stephen Kenny

Q&A with Steven T. Mitchell, author of The Riches of Our Universe

We spoke with Mitchell about his new book, which tells the story of how the Homestake Mine became an underground laboratory

The story of the gold mine transformed into an underground science laboratory—that is the subject of The Riches of Our Universe: The Homestake Legacy at the Sanford Underground Research Facility, written by Steven T. Mitchell and published this year by the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority (SDSTA).

Filled with vibrant photographs, maps, and diagrams, this coffee-table book traces the story of the Homestake Gold Mine in Lead, South Dakota, through the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, 125 years of mining, the mine’s closure in 2001, and the creation of an underground science facility in its place. The book, which has been lauded by mining history enthusiasts and particle physicists alike, is accessible to readers of all backgrounds.

“Elegantly written and detailed enough to reflect the depth of research required to produce it,” said Jack E. Thompson, former chairman and CEO of Homestake Mining Company. “I was particularly impressed by the way complex technical details are explained so that readers can understand the topics being discussed.”

“Steve’s exhaustive research accurately captures the events leading up to the creation of the Sanford Underground Research Facility in Lead, South Dakota, while highlighting the multidisciplinary experiments that have already yielded world-leading physics results,” said Kevin Lesko, senior physicist with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Mitchell is a native and life-long resident of the Black Hills of South Dakota. He is a graduate of South Dakota Mines with BS and MS degrees in mining engineering. Mitchell spent his mining career with Homestake Mining Company at the Homestake Mine in Lead, South Dakota, now the home of the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF).

In 2009, Mitchell published Nuggets to Neutrinos: The Homestake Story, a detailed and authoritative historical account of the mine. Fourteen years later, The Riches of Our Universe offers an extended story, describing the world-leading physics, biology, and geology research now taking place in the facility’s depths.

We spoke with Mitchell about his motivation for creating this book, his partnership with the SDSTA, and his personal connection to Homestake. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


SURF: It’s been 14 years since the publication of Nuggets to Neutrinos. What inspired the creation of this new book, The Riches of Our Universe?

Mitchell: I decided to write the book for three main reasons. First, the Homestake legacy continues to evolve. Readers deserve a book that enables them to better understand and appreciate the tremendous amount of work that has been accomplished at the Homestake Mine and SURF for the last 146 years or so. In fact, the book is dedicated to all the people who have helped perpetuate the Homestake legacy. That’s a very large number that continues to increase. The fruits of their labor are great.

Second, many people don’t fully understand how U.S. history—particularly the territorial and federal legislative acts during the last half of the 19th century—led to development of the western United States, including the Black Hills. The Black Hills were a part of the Great Sioux Reservation when the Homestake lode was discovered in April 1876. Collectively, the Great Reconnaissance, Fort Laramie Treaties, Organic Act of 1861, Homestead Act of 1862, Railway Act of 1862, General Mining Act of 1872, Panic of 1873, Custer Expedition of 1874, Newton-Jenney Expedition of 1875, Great Sioux War of 1876, and the Manypenny Agreement of 1876 had a great force and effect on the entire nation and the Native American people. All this history needs to be understood and appreciated. The Riches of Our Universe captures and presents this history in just a few chapters.

Third, a large amount of infrastructure improvements and world-leading research has been accomplished at SURF since the publication of Nuggets to Neutrinos. In view of this, I envisioned that a contemporary companion book was needed. The new book would be highly illustrated, professionally designed in large book format, and printed in color on high-quality paper on a sheet-fed, offset press.


SURF: You worked with the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority (SDSTA), which manages the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF), to publish this book. Why did you propose this partnership?

Mitchell: A partnership with the SDSTA made perfect sense to me simply because we could meld our expertise and resources and produce a very professional and more contemporary book that would satisfy the reasons for creating the book. I wrote the manuscript, selected and edited photos, obtained related use permissions, prepared new color illustrations, donated my time, and assigned the copyright to SDSTA. SDSTA, as publisher, provided the editing, interior design, indexing, printing, marketing, and will receive all profits for the benefit of the Sanford Lab Homestake Visitor Center (Visitor Center).

Similarly, I donated the copyright to Nuggets to Neutrinos to SDSTA. This enables Visitor Center to purchase books at author’s rates, which is beneficial since some of the book wholesalers in the Black Hills have discontinued their businesses. Profits and royalties, although minor, will support the education and outreach work of SDSTA, SURF, and Visitor Center.


SURF​​​​​​​: What can readers expect from The Riches of Our Universe?

Mitchell: The first chapter describes the conditions and decisions that led to mine closure, the decommissioning and closure plan that was developed and implemented by Homestake Mining Company, and the tremendous amount of work that was concurrently undertaken by many people to make an underground research facility a reality.

Today, SURF is the deepest research facility in the United States and one of the deepest in the world. Chapter two presents the neutrino research that led to Dr. Ray Davis Jr.’s Nobel Prize in Physics. The Homestake Mine was in full production when management agreed to house the experiment and use some of its best miners and maintenance people to create room for the experiment. Chapter Three informs the reader about the wide array of science, education, and outreach work that is being conducted at SURF.

The content presented in subsequent chapters includes an overview of the early inhabitants of Dakota Territory and the Black Hills, the development of the Black Hills, and the discovery and development of the Homestake Mine. These chapters inform the reader about important aspects of national and local history that are unlearned or have been forgotten. Approximately 330 photos, illustrations, and tables sourced from 37 different people and institutions supplement the text. Almost one-half of the photos and illustrations are newly sourced or newly created.

Nuggets to Neutrinos continues to serve as a resource for those readers desiring additional information about a subject, including its large number of end-note references.


SURF​​​​​​​: What, to you, is the Homestake legacy?

Mitchell: The Homestake legacy represents all the lasting imprints that have been created and shaped for some 147 years now. They are a product of the blood, sweat, and tears of thousands of people who have had some direct or indirect affiliation with the former mine, much like a plantation that has grown and matured and continues to bear fruit because of the work of countless numbers of people over many generations.

Most of these lasting imprints continue to evolve. The obvious imprints are tangible assets such as real property, plant, and equipment. More significant, however, are the intangible and longer-lasting imprints, which include the cultures, memories, values, love, hope, joy, respect, and work ethic that people have acquired because of their affiliation with the former mine and now the science lab. Collectively, these imprints have instilled a desire and passion in people to help make things better than how they were received and to reach for new milestones. This synergy permeated the entire community long ago and is still present today.


SURF​​​​​​​: Did your family have a connection to Homestake prior to your employment there?

Mitchell: My maternal great-grandfather immigrated from Finland in 1889 and immediately went to work at the Homestake Mine. After a short while, he transferred to the surface works and worked with the logging and sawmill crews at the Elk Creek and Este camps along the Black Hills and Fort Pierre Railroad. Both of my grandfathers worked at the Homestake Mine, as did my father and maternal grandmother. She worked at the Employment Office for 35 years. My father had 37 years of employment service. He was chief mine surveyor underground until his untimely death in 1976. One of my great uncles and his partner were killed in a blasting-related accident at the Highland Mine in 1904. All of my uncles worked at the mine early in their careers.


SURF​​​​​​​: Your job titles with Homestake range from Parking Lot Attendant at the Homestake Visitor Center in 1970 to Mine Superintendent in 1987. Can you describe just a few of those jobs?*

Mitchell: Except for time spent as a contract administrator for Homestake on an exploration project at Jardine, Montana, my entire career was with the Homestake Mine in Lead. My first summer job related to Homestake was in 1970. I was the parking lot attendant at the Homestake Visitor Center, which at that time was located between Bleeker and Mill Streets and south of Main Street. The parking lot was surfaced with gravel. My job was to answer questions about the surface tour and mine and ensure that the first few rows of vehicles were lined up properly each morning. Otherwise, the parking lot was a disaster for the remainder of the day. The busiest day of the week for surface tours was on Tuesdays when as many as 1,600 people would partake in one of the long walking tours, which were conducted by other high school and college students every 20-30 minutes.

Upon graduating from college, I received several good job offers from mining companies and a leading explosives supplier. However, because the Homestake legacy had already been imprinted on me and was probably a part of my DNA, I felt compelled to work full time at the Homestake Mine. Unfortunately, there weren’t any openings for a mining engineer at the time. Fortunately, however, General Manager Don Delicate was gracious enough to create an opening for me and I was hired as a research and planning engineer under Dave McDowall and Al Gilles. At a foreman’s meeting on my first day, Foreman John Lipp put forward to me that, “If you turn out to be half as good as your dad was—just half—you’ll be all right.”

Part of my initial responsibilities was to accompany Dr. Ray Davis Jr. underground and learn how to change out the magnetic recording tapes weekly at his chlorine experiment on the 4850 Level. Dr. Davis was a fascinating and most cordial individual who could communicate with most anyone at their level of understanding. He was on site for about one week every four to six weeks in the mid-to-late 1970s.

Much later, in 1987, I was promoted to Mine Superintendent with the Production Superintendent and Shaft and Services Superintendent reporting to me. I held this job until 1995, at which time I assumed the job of Open Cut Superintendent. After Open Cut operations were completed in 1998, I was assigned to Manager of Capital Projects and began assisting others in evaluating options to upgrade to mine and mill infrastructure and equipment to optimize production and reduce operating costs in the low-gold-price environment.

*A description Steven T. Mitchell’s full employment with Homestake is available upon request.


SURF​​​​​​​: As we know, the mine closed in the early 2000s. How did that impact your career?

Mitchell: When the closure announcement was made in September 2000, I was offered the job of Operations Manager reporting to a Closure Manager—initially for Homestake and later Barrick Gold Corporation. In this capacity, I primarily worked as a project manager helping oversee underground decommissioning work and surface reclamation projects. The latter involved reclamation of the Yates, East, and Sawpit Waste Rock Facilities, City Dump, Mill Complex, abandoned mine lands, and construction of the Blacktail Water Treatment Facility.

Concurrently, I was actively involved in meetings and discussions relative to the possibility of converting the mine to a National Underground Science Laboratory (NUSEL), and later, a Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory (DUSEL).

In 2003, I formerly retired from Homestake Mining Company. I formed S. Mitchell and Associates, Inc. and resumed full-time project management work for Homestake and Barrick as a consultant. After the reclamation projects work was largely completed and the Blacktail Water Treatment Plant was commissioned in 2007, I decided to semi-retire but continued to consult for the SDSTA on an as-needed basis during early development of SURF.