ELKO, Nev. (AP) Curiosity might have killed the cat, but for Lew Eklund, curiosity led to a 45-year career in gold exploration that landed him in the National Mining Hall of Fame.
“This is very humbling, I can tell you that,” said Eklund, founder of Eklund Drilling Co. in Elko. “To even be put in the same context as the people who have been inducted is a great honor. It’s been a lot of hard work, but also a lot of luck. This county, this country has been good to me and my family.”
It all began in 1963 when Eklund was heading home to Grand Junction, Colo., after setting up a drill job in Crescent Valley. He spotted a red pickup truck with a 10-ft. box parked in front of a service station as he drove through Carlin.
He recognized the truck, owned by Newmont Mining Corp., from when he was drilling in Utah a few years before. There was nothing on the vehicle to tell Eklund it belonged to Newmont, but Eklund found it to be too much of a coincidence.
Anxious to get home after two weeks away, Eklund drove east for a few miles before his curiosity got the best of him. He made a U-turn.
The service station owner, he said, didn’t know whose pickup it was.
“He said, ’They’re the most secretive bunch I’ve ever dealt with. They always pay in cash,’” Eklund recalled.
Eklund was convinced the truck belonged to Newmont, and waited two hours before a man showed up to pick up the truck after repairs were completed.
“He wouldn’t tell me anything,” Eklund said, “so I named off names of Newmont guys I worked with, including Mort White. The guy told me he didn’t know anything about mining, but a guy named Mort White was staying in room number six.”
Eklund contacted White, who put Eklund in touch with project manager Pete Loncar.
“That was it,” he said. “That was the beginning.”
The two men spent the better part of a day driving Newmont’s Carlin Trend property and looked at shallow holes drilled by road construction equipment.
Eklund told Loncar he could drill deeper holes and headed home. He arrived in Grand Junction sometime between 2 and 3 a.m. The phone rang at 6 a.m. Loncar was on the other end, telling him Newmont’s corporate office (then located in New York) offered a 10-day trial. Eklund said he would drive 600 mi. back to Carlin that afternoon.
There was only one problem. Eklund only had three drill rigs; two were on jobs in North Dakota and the other was in Crescent Valley.
He leased a rig and equipment, then called a friend to help him.
The 10-day trial turned into a 45-year, mutually profitable business venture with one of the world’s major mining corporations.
But it’s not the holes Eklund drilled in northeastern Nevada that earned him induction into the hall of fame. It was innovations he made in drilling equipment that revolutionized the mining industry and a concern for the environment that was ahead of its time.
Among Eklund’s inventions are the Gardner Denver 15 W, the Cyclo Blower and an assortment of devices still used to sample microscopic gold.
With no formal education, Eklund said the idea for the Cyclo Blower was “all in my head. We didn’t draft any papers.”
In the early days of drilling for gold, rigs took air from the atmosphere and pistons compressed it enough to make the drills circulate. The Cyclo Blower — basically a smaller compressor with a fan on it — increased output by more than 20 percent.
When word got out, nobody believed Eklund’s invention would work despite its success on the Carlin Trend.
Gardner Denver’s interest was piqued enough to send engineers to Carlin to see the machine operate.
“They didn’t believe what they saw and refused to build it,” Eklund said.
Not willing to throw in the towel, Eklund contacted Phil Cook, a friend at Gardner Denver who believed in the revolutionary blower.
“Phil transferred out here from the Midwest,” said Eklund. “This was after his company had turned us down two or three times. He wanted more information but I told him it would waste his time as well as mine.”
Cook asked if he could resubmit the plan. Eklund told him it wouldn’t do any good, but Cook had an ace in the hole — he was golfing buddies with the company’s vice president.
The vice president was impressed, and suddenly a bad idea was seen as a golden opportunity.
“The shop people weren’t very nice to me for several months,” said Eklund. “They told me, ’Don’t blame us when it doesn’t work. This is your baby.’”
He never asked for royalties on any drill rig he designed and his innovation remains an industry standard to this day.
Eklund also didn’t patent another invention that allowed drill rigs to be transported with minimal disturbance to the land. He was bothered by the dead-end roads scarring mountains between Elko and Reno so he built a truck-mounted rig with tires rather than tracks.
Eklund sold the business to his son, Lance, and daughter-in-law, Joanne, 20 years ago.
In the letter announcing his induction into the National Mining Hall of Fame, the nominating writer had this to say about the next generation of Eklund drillers: “They have continued the company’s core values of honesty, integrity, pride in one’s work and love for the mining industry.”
The Eklunds will attend the induction ceremony Sept. 13 in Leadville, Colo. For Lew Eklund, words can’t describe the feeling he expects to experience.
“I never thought I’d reach these heights. Nobody starts out with the hall of fame in mind,” he said. “You just want to make enough money to raise your family and do what’s right for the industry and the country.”