For 125 years, the Homestake Mine in Lead, South Dakota, founded by the mining magnate George Hearst, was the largest and deepest mine in the Western Hemisphere, and the most productive gold mine in recorded history. In the end, more than 40 million ounces of gold were extracted from the massive underground complex. The mine ceased operations in 2002, but in recent years its deep underground chambers have become home the Sanford Underground Research Facility and some of the most sophisticated physics experiments in the world.
C&G Partners was tasked with creating a wide suite of exhibits, media programs and environmental graphics for the new Sanford Lab Homestake Visitor Center. The Visitor Center serves a number of roles. It is a social center for the City of Lead, serving as the departure point for public tours of the former mine’s aboveground sites; it is the City’s Chamber of Commerce office; and, most importantly, it’s an interpretive and cultural center, with a dual focus on the Homestake Mine’s history as a center of early industrial innovation and economic might, and the constantly-evolving particle detection experiments that occur today, nearly a mile below ground.
The exhibits cover a wide range of subjects: the Black Hills’ rich geologic timeline, the evolution of the mining from stream-bed panning to massive, highly coordinated earth removal; the rich history of the Black Hills Gold Rush and the growth of Lead, Deadwood and the surrounding communities; and the visionary physics experiments deep within the mine, beginning with the neutrino detection experiments of Nobel Prize winner Dr. Ray Davis in the 1960s.
These exhibits are anchored by four centerpiece displays. A former elevator cage from the Homestake Mine, embedded into the Visitor Center Floor, contains a multi-screen audiovisual experience that simulates a descent to Sanford Lab’s 4850 Level, rounded out with conversations between mining engineers, employees and physicists as they share the ride. The Visitor Center itself is built on the edge of an Open Cut, a ridged, one-mile across, half-mile wide remnant of the mine’s surface operations and one of the most iconic geographical features in the Northern Black Hills. A 30-ft. window faces out onto this view shed, augmented by large interpretive panels that call out various aspects of the view. The Visitor Center’s elements are also united by a continuous, 330-ft.-long mural of historic and contemporary photographs that runs like an architrave around the space.
But the most distinctive “anchor” in the space is the display called THE WORLD BELOW: a highly-detailed, 1500:1 scale model suspended between the ceiling and floor that depicts every manmade feature of the former Homestake Mine. After more than 125 years of continuous operations, the mine comprised 370 miles of tunnels (drifts), shafts and chambers, constructed on a colossal scale and reaching more than 8,000 ft. underground. THE WORLD BELOW also contains a scale mapping of Lead’s contemporary surface topography – along with the mine’s iconic surviving buildings (as well as the Visitor Center itself),– to give a visceral sense of the vastness that was the Homestake Mine. To stare out the window at the Open Cut—which itself is so large that one’s eyes feel tricked—while realizing that that same cavity, within the scale of the model, is a scooped-out surface feature barely two inches across, forces a staggering visualization of just how vast, deep and productive the mine was. To us, THE WORLD BELOW represents what might be the very definition of creative peacemaking.
The C&G team’s major challenge in creating THE WORLD BELOW was mining more than 100 years of blueprints, mining records and existing CADD documentation to ensure that the model reflected every underground feature with pinpoint accuracy. In a community still filled with families who’d worked at Homestake for as long as four generations, who knew every inch of the underground space, accuracy was a key consideration.
Determining the material approach to the model was also vital: To maximize its effect, visitors need to be able to see it from above and below and to truly appreciate the fine level of detail, they needed to see through it. This ethereal physicality needed to be close enough to see, and see through, so it needed to be carefully protected as well.
In the end, THE WORLD BELOW is anchored around its networks of tunnels, a filigree of CNC-milled 3/16-in. aluminum flats, anchored into place, and then to the ceiling and floor mounts, with narrow gauge stainless wire. Ramps, caverns and other connective features were made with more than 3,500 unique, 3D printed pieces. Large elliptical mirrors were created for both the floor and ceiling mounts, allowing for a far fuller view of the mine’s stunning scale and complexity, while the surface topology was accurately rendered using contemporary satellite data in high-density foam, placed in direct alignment with the Open Cut viewing window.
Equally important is the model’s interpretation: A wide, freestanding elliptical ring both protects the delicately suspended model and provides more than 30 self-contained stories that examine the historic mine and the contemporary laboratories from an engineering perspective, explaining features such as earth removal, stabilization, ventilation, mineral extraction, water treatment and other crucial concerns in the vast underground.
The contract included collaborating with scientific team on-site at SURF, local and national historians, and universities to write and research content. A broad international search for relevant artifacts was combined with intensive photographic research in local museums and archives. The design encompassed both the interior interpretation and environmental graphics programs, along with suggestions for exterior programming and treatments, the Center’s retail operations, and the creation of graphic identities and standards for the website and public outreach.
The Visitor Center has had only one season of full operations (summer 2015), so the metrics for visitation, spending, and other factors are yet to be fully established. That said, the effect of the Visitor Center on the City of Lead, population 3,500, has already been profound. The former center had only one year-round employee and one part-time employee in summer. The new center, with its more robust tours and calendar of public events, now requires two full-time employees, three part-time employees and a team of guides from May through September. Retail sales increased from Summer 2014 to Summer 2015, and are expected to increase yet again in 2016 due to the Visitor Center being added to many tour providers’ itineraries and brochures.
Outside of measurable economic factors, the effects are nevertheless permeating the community. This small city, robbed of much of its economic drive with the closing of the Homestake Mine nearly 15 years ago, now has a major community center for events, lectures and tours. The Sanford Underground Research Facility, operating for more than five years in the mine’s underground caverns, has a very public face at ground level, with exhibits that interpret these highly complex operations to locals, tourists and science enthusiasts alike. And at the center of that is our rendering of the incredible Homestake Mine itself, which can now be seen in its entirety, rather than pieced together from the scattered existing surface ruins and the Open Cut.
Keith Helmetag (project principal); Brandon Downing (project manager, senior designer, writer, content developer); Amy Siegel, Fabio Gherardi, Anne Zhou (graphic designers); Sarah Rhoads (3D modeling)
8,400 sq ft
Dangermond Keane Architecture (architects), RBH Media (AV programming and hardware specification)
Formations (exhibit fabrication), Situ Studios (mine model and interpretive ring fabrication)