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article imageDollar's Birthplace Struggles With Dark Image

By Eric Johnson     Mar 26, 2002 in Business
JACHYMOV, Czech Republic (dpa) - The birthplace of one of the world's mightiest currencies - the U.S. dollar - is a rundown town in a lonely corner of the Czech Republic.

Once rich and busy, Jachymov has fallen on hard times.

Today visitors would have to search hard for evidence that the world's first "thaler" or "tolar" coins were minted from locally mined silver about 500 years ago. Tolars were the model for Spanish "peseta" coins minted in the New World in the 16th century, and later the "dolera" or "dollar", the U.S. monetary unit since the 1780s.

Most tourists in Jachymov tend to convalesce for a few days at one of the mineral spas in the town's quiet valley. They have little reason to trek up the mountain for a tour of the medieval mint, a museum inside the mint building, and an old mine.

Neither does Jachymov's unique place in history draw the summertime motorists or winter sports enthusiasts who travel to this part of the Ore Mountains near the Czech-German border.

And Jachymov is likely to remain in the shadows for some time. Despite its colourful heritage and the scheduled opening of a new mint museum this summer, the town struggles under dark clouds of a communist past and an economically depressed present.

Crumbling buildings line the town's main road, which runs from the mine-shaft tower at the top of the mountain to the spas at the bottom.

Silver mining ended long ago, when the mountain's valuable ore veins ran dry. In the 16th century, Jachymov enjoyed a "silver rush" that drew thousands of fortune-seekers from across Europe. At one time, the town boasted about 20,000 inhabitants, making it the Bohemia kingdom's second-largest city after Prague.

Likewise the local uranium mines - the town's other claim to international fame - have been closed for about 30 years.

The world's first uranium was discovered and mined in Jachymov about 150 years ago, and the mines hummed during the years of World War II, when the region was occupied by the Nazis and uranium extracted for German industry.

Later, after the Russian-backed communists took control of the country in 1948, the mines provided trainloads of uranium for the Soviet military and civilian uses.

Also closed - but not forgotten - are the communist labour camps whose memory severely damaged Jachymov's reputation. Tens of thousands of people in the 1950s and 1960s were forced to work without adequate radiation protection in what became known as "Jachymov Hell".

"My mother always used to say: 'Behave, or they'll send you to Jachymov,'" said Robert Bohat, a Prague teacher who grew up in communist Czechoslovakia and remembers when people who fell out with the Soviet-backed regime where interred, tortured and sometimes killed in the camps.

The camps have been closed as long as the uranium mines, but not even the restoration of democracy after the country's 1989 Velvet Revolution could erase the frightening image that the word Jachymov evokes among Czechs and Slovaks.

Jachymov also appears in a negative light in the annals of world medical history.

According to records dating as far back as the late 1400s, silver miners in Jachymov and nearby Schneeberg, Germany, often contracted a deadly yet unexplainable lung disease. For centuries, the miners blamed demonic dwarfs.

About 100 years ago, doctors identified the disease as lung cancer. But not until several decades later did health experts definitively link the cancer to radioactive gases and ore dust from the uranium mines.

Fortunately for the town, radiation also has positive medical uses. A dozen spa facilities offer the sick and disabled - most of them well-to-do foreigners - special treatment centered around large "radon baths", which are filled with mildly radioactive water that's piped from nearby mines. In addition, some patients are treated with radium exposure while inside a so-called "Jachymov box".

Jan Hlousek, a mineralologist who runs the new museum, which will tell the story of mining and minting at the 500-year-old mint building, hopes it will draw more visitors to Jachymov and boost the local economy.

He admits though that the dollar's popularity worldwide has done little to help his town - at least in modern times. Living in the birthplace of the almighty dollar "doesn't mean much to me," he said.
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