Monday, January 16, 2017

Geologist, Mining Engineer, and State Mine Inspector Robert Bell [otd 01/16]

Inspector Bell. J. H. Hawley photo.
On January 16, 1864, mining engineer Robert N. Bell was born in Yorkshire, England. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1877-1880 and worked first on a farm in Wisconsin. After a year or two there, he moved to Montana and joined a railroad construction crew near Bozeman, Montana. When that was completed, Bell found work in a nearby coal mine.

He moved to Salmon, Idaho in 1884 and began prospecting in the surrounding mountains. Two years later, he and a partner made a valuable find near Shoup, Idaho, 20-25 miles northwest of Salmon. Hawley’s History of Idaho said that, “During this period he completed a course in geology and mineralogy through the International Correspondence School of Scranton, Pennsylvania.”

Bell soon combined his studies with personal observations and began to publish authoritative articles in a wide variety of industry and scientific journals. His knowledge of Central Idaho geology and mineral potential attracted the attention of key mining companies and investors. He spent fifteen years working at various mines and acting as a consultant in the industry.

During that period, the office of State Mine Inspector was elective. He first ran for that position in 1900 and missed election “by less than two hundred votes.” He ran again in 1902 and was handily elected. Voters re-elected him for the next two terms, each time with larger and larger majorities. He decided not to run again in 1908, apparently because he wanted time to develop a fruit ranch he had purchased in the Weiser area.

Bell ran again in 1910 and won by a wide margin. He held the position through 1920, then chose not to run after that. Besides his annual reports as Mine Inspector, Bell authored several monographs on Idaho mining resources and on the state industry. Mine safety was first among the Inspector’s responsibilities, but he was also expected to be a spokesman for the mining industry.
North Idaho Mine. Historic Wallace.

In 1917-1918, most Coeur d’Alene mines had cut lead-silver production and laid off many workers. The Spokane Chronicle asked Bell (January 15, 1918) to assess the situation. He briefly explained the market forces involved and asserted that a turnaround should come soon. The newspaper headlined its item: “Lead is Coming Back to Normal.”

Bell took an active role in national and regional professional organizations, including the Mine Inspectors Association of America, the Idaho Mining Association, the Utah Society of Engineers, and the American Institute of Mining Engineers. He was also a member of the National Geological Society and the Boise Commercial Club.

During his second long stretch as Mine Inspector, Bell moved to Boise and invested in considerable real estate. That included a ten-acre estate four miles from downtown, where he built an elaborate home and installed “many modern improvements.” He chose not to run for re-election in 1920, citing “small remuneration” as his reason. The Idaho Statesman article that announced (July 18, 1920) his decision to retire praised Bell’s work to promote mine safety and better underground working conditions.

He lived near Boise until his death in December 1935.
                                                                                 
References: [Blue], [French], [Hawley]
“Shoup and Ulysses,” Reference Series No. 386, Idaho State Historical Society (1980).

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