The entrance to the Winston Tunnel, covered with iron bars like a gatehouse in a medieval dungeon, sits deep in the woods several miles southwest of Galena, Illinois, just off Blackjack Road, near the tiny community of Rice. It has sat empty since 1971, and nothing but a few intrepid explorers and the rattlesnakes that make their nests in the damp and murky interior have ventured inside. Carefully navigating the slippery and steep slope off to the side of the entrance, it is easy to wonder what it must have been like for the engineers roaring through the dark tunnel in their steam locomotives.
At 2,493 feet, the Winston Tunnel was the longest railroad tunnel in Illinois. It was built in 1888 for the Minnesota and Northwestern Railroad, a line that ran from Chicago to Minneapolis, Omaha, and Kansas City. It took 350 workmen (and $600,000) more than nine months to complete the tunnel. Shortly after, the Minnesota and Northwestern became known as the “Chicago Great Western Railway.” At least one worker is known to have been killed during construction of the tunnel, which was so long a pump house had to be built to ventilate it. In fact, it is said that the ghost of this Finnish laborer still haunts the site to this day. Two engineers, one stationed at the east entrance and one at the west entrance, stood watch.
Greed and obsession collide in Gold (2016), a gritty morality tale set in 1980s Nevada, Wall Street, and Indonesia. Matthew McConaughey plays Kenny Wells, a prospector desperate for a lucky break. He teams up with geologist Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramírez), and together they descend into the uncharted jungles of Indonesia hoping to find one big score. This poorly-advertised film almost escaped my notice, until I saw it playing at my local theater. I’m glad I took a chance on it. Gold is a solid film and surprisingly entertaining. Matthew McConaughey disappears into the role, achieving absolute rock bottom in body and spirit.
Gold is loosely based on a true story. In 1995, a small Canadian mining company called Bre-X, owned by David Walsh, claimed to find a massive gold deposit deep in the Indonesian jungle on the Island of Borneo, near the Busang River. Filipino geologist Michael de Guzman and John Felderhof convinced Walsh to invest $80,000 to purchase and develop the gold mine.
In 1997, Bre-X collapsed and its shares became worthless in one of the biggest stock scandals in Canadian history. On March 19, 1997, de Guzman committed suicide by jumping from a helicopter in Busang, Indonesia. An independent investigation of core samples from the mine determined de Guzman had been “salting” the samples with gold flakes, some from his own wedding ring. Walsh died of a brain aneurysm in the Bahamas in 1998, and in 2007, Felderhof was acquitted of securities charges. The scandal cost investors an estimated $3 billion.
Gold follows Nevada prospector Kenny Wells, who inherited his father’s company, Washoe Mining, in the early 1980s. Stress-induced alcoholism caused by the economic downturn leads him to sell the last of his jewelry and fly to Indonesia to meet geologist Michael Acosta. There he endures hardship and survives malaria. When he emerges from the illness, Acosta tells him he made what might be the largest gold discovery in history.