TOILERS UNDER THE SEA
II.—Cape Breton Folks
NORMAN REILLY RAINE
When this issue reaches our readers, January 15, it is anticipated that the Besco miners and mine-owners will be facing each other over a conference table in Glace Bay, debating vital issues in regard to wages and living conditions. The situation has interesting and, perhaps, dangerous possibilities. The miners include radicals like Jim McLachlan, and orthodox members of the United Mine Worker. This series of articles will interpret the vital and nationally important situation to MACLEAN’S readers.
"COME over to dinner with us on Sunday, bye, and spend the evening,” Donald John MacPherson said. Donald John was a shooter-and-loader in one of the Cape Breton undersea collieries, and his cottage lay across the creek and outside the town.
It was not a pretty locality; still, as I would be staying until after nightfall, it was better than Reserve, where the streets at night have no light at all save a vagrant beam from a miner’s cottage window, or the uncertain illumination provided by heaven. I knew the way to Donald John’s, for I had been over the area many times and had marvelled that women could live and children laugh in such surroundings.
The houses of the miners in Glace Bay, Caledonia, New Waterford, Reserve, Sydney Mines and the rest of the Cape Breton district, are ancient and weather-beaten, some with a coat of dull grey paint to hold their venerable boards together, the majority untouched by color for many years. Most of them are set in a fair-sized plot of ground, unkempt and weed-grown; many occupy the center of a bare cinder patch, flanked by makeshift lean-tos, and with unsightly back-yard closets; some are mere rows of ugly wooden houses built in blocks, with small pretense to beauty and less to utility.
There are few sidewalks. Open drains, filled with stagnant water, empty tins, refuse, waste paper and filth of every description run behind the lines of properties, and a few scrawny hens and hollow-flanked goats emphasize the effect of poverty and squalor. Many of the houses are out of plumb, due to the sinking of the ground into abandoned pit workings from which the pillars have been drawnemdash;although this is a condition common to, and inseparable from, every mining town, and cannot well be helped; foundations are cracked from the same cause; in several cases two families with numerous children occupy cottages that have not sufficient conveniences for one; a pool of water has formed beneath one house, defying every effort of the tenant to drain it, and so has saturated the interior that the walls and ceiling are stained and cracked and the paper hangs in shreds; in another cottage the cooking is done in the cellar because the kitchen is needed for sleeping space for the family; a miner, his wife and three children have to sleep in a single bedroom of their home, because the other bedroom, small, and'leaking in wet weather, is not fit for human occupation, and the only other room is utilized otherwise. As the miner quaintly put it: In the last room, if you sit on the sofa you’re in the livingroom, if you sit at the table you’re in the dining room and if you sit on the stove you’re in the kitchen. That expresses only part of it. If it rains you can’t sit in it at all because of the leaky condition of the roof. This house was built over sixty years ago. If a miner desires a sink or a bathtub installed in his rented house, he may have itemdash;if he pays for it.
The reader may ask why the miners stay in such places emdash;why they don’t move. The answer is simple. There is no place to go. Housesemdash;even such as theseemdash;are at a premium in the colliery districts. True, the rent is nominalemdash;in many eases but two or three dollars a month, but, as one miner put it, “They’d be dear at nothin’ a year, bye, when you think what they take out of us in health and spirit. Think of bringin’ up kids in an atmosphere like this, and the poor little devils lookin’ forward to the same thing when they’re old enough to go into the pit.”
Not all of the miners’ homes are like this. There are a number of newer houses, fairly well built, fairly roomy and kept in decent repair, presumably for selling purposes, but their rent is proportionate with their superiority and they do not constitute a standard. The tyre is as I have described. In many cases the fault for untidiness and filth surrounding some of the cottages is that of the occupant. In all communities may be found those who would make a pigsty of a palace, but to say that this was the case'with the generality of Cape Breton miners would be to insult an intrinsically cleanly people.
In the spring, if the occupants rake up the property and clean around their cottages and grounds, gather dead leaves, sticks and other rubbish which accumulates and
tue iciuöc ui an aoLCbbiuit: neap in the back yard it will be removed by the coal company free of charge. The other measure of sanitation is the removal of sewage from the back-yard latrines by the company. For this the miner’s pay is assessed twenty-five cents a month. But this is a long way from MacPherson and his Sunday dinner.
Donald John At Home
T~\ONALD JOHN’S house was a tidy little place of two stories, rather neater and better painted than the average and set back in a good-sized lot. There was something queer about it, nevertheless, like the faint squint in the eye of a well-dressed stranger, which, at first, you don’t quite identify. Then I saw. There was a sinking at the back of the house where the ground had settled, and the windows, instead of looking straight to their front, were peeping slightly skyward. The house, I learned later, was ten inches out of plumb. My .host waved to me through the curtain, so I had no time to note more.
Inside was an open coal fire in an imitation brick fireplace, in comfortable contrast with the keenness of the day. MacPherson made it clear that a stranger in his home was a welcome innovation.
“Have a cigar, bye?” he proffered, when we were seated. I accepted, but noticed that he clung to his own burnt corncob.
“You have a nice little place here,” I commented as he bent over a match. He glanced about with quiet pride.
“Yesemdash;not bad; I did it meself, mostly. The fireplaceemdash;I painted thatemdash;• and the outsideemdash;and the floorsemdash;and stained the woodwork. You should lave seen it when I iiist eenre in, bye.”
“Is it a company house?
“Partly. I’m buyin’ itemdash;ah, here’s Edith.”
His wife renteed, a pretty English girl whom he had married overseas. She had charm of manner, too, and the tidy thrift of the house was interpreted. Donald John gazed after her as she returned to the kitchen.
“She’s a good girl,” he said, simply, and puffed at his pipe for a moment in silence, his eyes on the fire. I brought him back.
“You were sayingemdash;”
“Oh, about the house! Yes, I’m buying itemdash;but I don’t know when I’ll ever get it paid for. The mine’s only workin’ two shifts a week; that’s all it’s done all summer, and it might close down altogether. Then, if I lapse in me payments I lose the house and the money I’ve paid on it too. Still, I’m hopin’not. That’s the most Cape Breton miners do, these days, is hope.”
“What are you paying for the place?”
“Seven hundred and fifty dollars for the house and lot. The lot’s fairly deep with a fifty-foot frontage, and the house has four rooms, and a kitchen that I built meself. It has a bit of a tilt due to the sinkin’ of the mine below, and the doors and windows don’t fit in consequence, but its not a bad little house as they go. I pay three dollars fifty-five cents a week for the first year, and two-fifty a week after that until the full amount, is paid off. The interest is six per cent, compounded half-yearly, and I get reductions if the total is paid off within certain times. So that’s not so bad, is it?”
“What are the terms of the contract?” I asked.
He hesitated for a moment. “Wait a minute and I’ll get it,” he said.
He returned, presently, with the contract and spread it out, his forefinger, grained and scarred with years of toil in the pit, indicating the various clauses as he enlarged upon them.
Bare of legal terminology the contract stated that MacPherson was buying his home on the terms he mentioned, but two things might happen before he had completed his payments.
If he failed to meet a payment, the company, ten days after notifying him of such lapse, could re-possess the place and sell it and MacPherson would have no claim'to the monies so obtained, regardless of how much he had paid in.
Continued on page 38
Continued, from page 20
If, before or after full payment had been made, the house fell into a sinking due to the collapse of the old mine workings beneath the property, or through any mining activity of the company, he could not claim one cent compensation.
Donald John smiled wryly as he refolded the paper.
“It’s the first clause that worries me,” he said. “What guarantee has a man of steady work in the mines? None, bye! We’ve had to scrape every cent and do without a raft o’ things we needed to keep up the payments, and if the mines shut down I may lose me home.”
“But, except for the sinking clause, which wouldn’t apply outside of a mining district, there’s nothing there that isn’t contained in the usual contract, anywhere in Canada.” I said.
His brow wrinkled for a long minute.
“N-no—mebbe not,” he said, slowly, “except that anywhere else if I was foreclosed, I’d get the balance of the proceeds after me obligations had been paid.”
“But do you really think the company would foreclose if you lapsed in your payments?”
His face cleared.
“Well, bye, mebbe they wouldn’t. It wouldn’t be good policy, would it? For if they did no more o’ the byes would buy from them in the future.”
I was about to question him further when his wife appeared, smiling, at the door, and summoned us to dinner.
Bowed heads, grace and a simple miner’s meal; pot roast, mashed potatoes, gravy, turnips, bread and butter, jelly, cake and tea, well cooked and set forth upon a speckless tablecloth. No outward sign, here, of penny-shaving and worrying calculation. Did they fare as well alone, upon two work shifts a week, or was it a special effort for the stranger?
As I walked home under the stars that crisp.October night, with the heels of an occasional passer-by ringing on the hard road and the black skeleton of a deserted pit head stark upon the sky I tried to grasp the basic factor against which the MacPhersons and their kind have to strive. It is Uncertainty; instability due to lack of definite permanent employment, and an unspoken but ever present dread of the future.
Influence of the Reds
T N RECENT strikes in the coal fields the A issue has not been a demand for more wages by the miners, but whether the prevailing wage scale shall be cut. This is not to say that the miner is content with the wages he receives. He is not, for he feels that the hazards of his occupation
should be more liberally rewarded; but a cut in wages, while it might not be serious if he was working full time, is severely felt when, as during the past summer and part of the autumn, the mines were operating only one, two and three days a week.
I had heard the term “intimidation tactics” about the collieries and the streets of Glace Bay.
“What do you mean by that?” I asked one old miner as we sat one afternoon in the sun near the fan room of Dominion Number Two. He shifted his quid and deluged a bug on a plank.
“Intimidation tactics, bye?” said he. “Well, it’s hard to say. Maybe bluff’d be a better word. There’s a rumor in town that the company’s goin’ to close down the pits until after the new year. The wage arbitration comes up then, an’ if the rumor’s true the miners’ll be in no shape to say what they want after a winter o’ starvation. They’ll be glad to take what they can get, eh? Still, I don’t think there’s anythin’ in it, meself.”
“But where did the rumor start?”
‘“Nobody knows. Some says with the company, others says not. There’s always talk o’ one kind an’ another goin’ round. It’s pretty hard to place the origin o’ these things, but they do a lot o’ harm, sometimes, an’ people oughtn’t to repeat ’em.”
He sat for a moment in silence, then went .on with a sudden access of feeling.
“This thing o’ long distance control is bad, bye! It prevents the company an’ us gettin’ together on things. Some of the chiefs of Besco aren’t minin’ men, an’ so these directors don’t really know what we are, or how we live, down here in Cape Breton. In the old*days, when coal was mined by small compan.es, fights between miners an’ owners was almost family affairs. We used each other’s Christian names in our exchange of kicks an’ curses, an’ we settled things rough an’ tumble—• but we settled them, because, in spite of our differences, we understood and respected each other because we were all practical mining men. In disputes to-day we quarrel with the shadow o’ Mr. Wolvim in his Montreal office a thousand miles away, bye! It’s a pity, because we’re not such a bad lot when you gets to know us, an’ if the owners would try to understand us, things might be different.”
The Cape Breton miner is not a bolshevik nor a blackguard bent on having his will through sabotage. He is sane and hard-working with an inherent Scottish faculty of thinking along logical lines, and an understandable longing for some of the amenities of life when he is on the surface. He is slow to act. but hard to halt when momentum is gained. In common with most men who live by their hands he likes
to settle issues the same way. Deep down he feels keenly and knows what he wants, but becomes inarticulate when he has to express that want—and behind his impotency lies the reason why so many are supporters of radical movements.
The radicals have the gift of expression. They can say, acidulously and at length, what the miner has been struggling to say. During the strikes large numbers of miners gave their support to the radical movement, without real belief in all of its tenets, in the hope that out of the melee would emerge something of benefit to themselves. In the pages of labor and radical periodicals each miner becomes a unit. He feels that he has been singled out from the ruck and given individuality as a valued member of the community. When he reads fiery articles denouncing capital and lauding the working man, he projects his personality into the page and reads himself, his wrongs and ambitions. It is this trick of emphasizing the individua which gains for such publications the considerable support which many of them enjoy. In return for recognition the miners show their gratitude by outward loyalty to the movement. This, broadly, defines the attitude of a great portion of the miner body in its past relation to the reds.
The situation is complicated, somewhat, by the fact that many of the miners regard their union, the United Mine Workers of America, with marked hostility. During the last strike the union issued orders upon the merchants of the colliery district, to supply needy families with food and clothing. Later, the union refused to honor these chits on the ground that the strike was an outlaw affair. After the miners returned to work the matter was adjusted through an arrangement between officers of the union and the company, whereby the pay of each miner was assessed fifty cents per week for twenty weeks, and the money turned over to the union to pay the merchants. “And in the face o’ that,” the miners complain bitterly, “the union claims it financed the strike and was behind us to the last dollar!”
“But why do you remain in the union if you think it exploits you?” I asked a man who had spent a lifetime in the pit.
“Because, bye, what else can we do?” he replied. “We’ve got to have some sort of organization—and if we line up with Jim MacLaehlan and his crowd the country calls us reds. Even the U.M.W. is better than that—although not a whole hell of a lot!”
Company Safety Measures
WHERE ill feeling exists between workmen and their employers _ it sometimes is difficult to get either side to admit what is good in its opponents’ case, but there is a phase of the operation of the Nova Scotia coal mines by the Dominion Coal Company for which full credit unhesitatingly is given by the miners to the company. This is the activity of the company in providing safety appliances and safety-first measures for the 12,000 miners in its employ far in excess of what the mining laws of the province demand.
Pit heads, shafts, underground workings and all the machinery and equipment in connection with them have been made as nearly fool-proof as money and ingenuity can devise. It is additionally creditable that most of the safeguards have to do with the guarding of life rather than property, and that many of them were in actual operation by the company long before provincial mining law took cognizance of them and incorporated them into the Mining Act.
It was in this connection that I met Alex. S. MacNeil, the general superintendent of mines, who, previously, had facilitated my visits to the undersea collieries. MacNeil is known among the miners as a man who spares neither himself nor his men when there is work to do. He is known too, as a man of his word, who understands the Cape Breton miner psychology as do few of the higher companyofficials. He is liked by most of the men and those who don’t like him respect him.
Born in Ingonish, Nova Scotia, of Seottish-Canadian stock, he entered the pit as a boy and worked himself up through successive stages from the dirt and labor of the working face to his present position of responsibility over more than thirtycollieries. Early in his career he took a correspondence course with a well-known
school in the technical work of mining, and from the start adopted the principle that he would always make himself ready for the job ahead.
Scarred across the forehead by a cruel blue line—souvenir of a pit accident of years ago—he shows in his heavy, rugged features the marks of struggle in his early years. A born fighter, he does his fighting above-board, and is foremost among rescue parties in every mining disaster. The red element in Glace Bay doesn’t like him, but it, too, respects him; this on the authority of Jim MacLachlan, leader of the reds. MacNeil, if given the chance, would be a powerful influence in the bringing of contentment to the miners.
Here are some of the safety measures enforced by the company, as I saw them, and as they were demonstrated by John Moffatt, assistant chief of the safety first department, and an authoritative writer on Canadian mining.
“No matter how perfect a precautionary system may be,” said he, “it can always be upset by the foolhardy act of the individual. Miners, because of their long familiarity with danger, constantly take needless chances, and seldom think that they are endangering their butties as well as themselves.
“Some years ago one of the mine inspectors, whose duty was to go through his area testing for gas and pending roof falls, neglected to tap a certain stretch of roof which always had seemed sound. Later in the shift the rumble of a loaded trip on the main haulage way brought it down on the heads of two miners coming from the working face. They were not killed, fortunately, but since that time the company has maintained a special corps of inspectors whose job is to check up the work of the inspectors required by law, thus making safety doubly sure.”
“I noticed a number of long, metal cylinders at various points in the mine,” I commented. “What are they for?”
“They contain stretchers, bandages and other first-aid equipment. They’re put at all strategic places in the workings. The company conducts free first-aid courses during the winter, and in this way an efficient first aid staff has been trained so that no matter when or how a man is hurt underground some one of his mates will know how to help him. We’d a case not so long ago when a huge roof slab fell, through an explosion of defective powder, pinning three men underneath. One man had a compound fracture of the thigh. One of the rescue party set and splinted it perfectly. Another fellow had a cut artery. A tourniquet was applied which served until the man was in his bed in hospital, and the doctor complimented the work.”
“What are permissible explosives?”
“They are explosives approved by the province for use in the mines. They are of a certain composition and power and no others are allowed. Even with explosives the men play fool tricks sometimes, so we make continual experiments to reduce hazard and determine the degree of danger in all conceivable conditions of damp, bust and gas. The danger of fire and explosions has been lessened tremendously dy the recent installation of twelve
thousand Edison safety electric lamps instead of the old type where an open flame was only protected by wire gauze. It cost the company about two hundred thousand dollars to make the change and to build the new lamp room, but is worth it in the feeling of greater security and convenience. By the way, did you see the new bath house at No. 2?”
I had seen it—a huge brick building containing shower baths, unlimited hot water and the most modern equipment for the bathing of large numbers of men.
“It’s fine for a miner when he comes out of the pit,” Moffatt went on, “to be able to get a quick hot bath at the mine instead of having it in a tub in the kitchen as in the old days. And that system of hoisting his change of clothing near the roof by a pulley system, lets fresh hot air circulate around it so that it’s dry and sweet when he puts it on. That’s better than stuffy lockers where his working clothes never have a chance to dry out.”
“Does the law require that Draeger mine rescue equipment be maintained in a colliery?”
“No—but we have it because it’s the best we can get. We have a corps of men trained in its use. It requires men of a special type; they must be cool, levelheaded fellows,.strong physically and with a high standard of courage—excuse me a moment!”—as the telephone rang.
He returned to the subject.
“It’s a nasty business that of going into a mine after an explosion. Death generally is instantaneous within the actual range of the explosion, but fire and gas follow the blast, and two hours at a stretch is usually all a rescuer can stand. You can picture a rescue crew picking their steps in the blackness of the mine, with only the feeble light of their lamps to guide them over hundreds of yards of fallen rock and debris, pushing through smoke and gas and flame, with the roof spitting shale on the dead bodies of their butties—and they’ll carry on indefinitely if there’s a chance of coming on a survivor. That’s why the equipment has to be of the best. A rescue man forgets self and exerts himself to a dangerous degree, but the Draeger apparatus automatically feeds him enough oxygen for his maximum needs of the moment.” “How do you get the rescued men out when they haven’t protection against gas ?” “Oh, it’s better, sometimes, to leave them in the spot where they have survived the explosion rather than to lead them through the explosive zone until the place has been cleared of gas.” “How are men revived who have been overcome with fumes?” I asked.
“We take them for long, fast motor-car rides, usually, to force air into the lungs. That generally does the trick if they haven’t sucked in too much gas.”
There are a number of additional precautions taken, some of which we discussed, and others which I had witnessed in the mines, but sufficient have been instanced to show that in this vital matter of securing the lives and limbs of its workers the company does not spare time, trouble nor expense.
Occasionally men become lost in the mine. When this happens all work is
stopped and every man joins in a systematic search. Some time ago a miner who had spent over twenty years in the pit lost his way, and wandered into some old, abandoned workings which ranged for miles in a tangled skein of slopes, drifts, cross-cuts and traveling roads. In places the roof had fallen in. In others great pools of water had gathered. The walls dripped moisture and the place was swarming with rats. His light went out. He had no food—and he spent three days in the dark before being rescued.
The Leader of the Reds
TN QUEST of Jim MacLachlan, the 1 stormy petrel of Nova Scotia industry, I climbed, one sunny morning, the unswept stairs of a dingy building opposite the railway station of Glace Bay. I was not looking for a declaration of opinion or policy from the Cape Breton reds, for after the debacle of the last strike they had gone into retirement and little was heard of them in the streets and towns of the district. I was curious to meet MacLachlan, though, for he was the acknowledged leader of the radicals and had served part of a two-year sentence in Dorchester penitentiary for seditious libel.
As I entered the room to which I was directed I was met by a short, bowlegged little man, with a face lined and pitted with years of struggle, keen eyes beneath shaggy brows, ■ a straggly red moustache, a soiled collar much too large for him and a wrinkled suit rather the worse for wear.
“What do ye want?” he asked.
“Jim MacLachlan. Is he here?”
“I’m him. Whut do ye want?”
I explained that I would appreciate a few minutes’ chat.
“Humph! Sit doon an’ hev a smoke. Ah’ll be back in a jiffy.”
His jiffy extended to nearly fifteen minutes, during which I observed my surroundings. The floor was “L” shaped and about thirty feet long by twenty at its widest end. The bare boards held an assortment of old newspapers, pipe dottle, cigarette ends and match sticks. There were tables, rough wooden forms and a few chairs, two or three of which were occupied by men of the miner type, who nodded to me with a sociable “How are ye, bye!”
The walls were dull red and held pictures; one of Karl Marx, three of Lenin, and a large colored lithograph from an Italian radical magazine. This picture, called La Rivoluzione, featured a long-haired, wild-eyed girl in scarlet, flanked by waving red flags, leading armed and frenzied workers along a road, against a lurid background of burningfactories.
Men came and went in the little room with no apparent errand; just peered in, looked about, then disappeared without speaking. MacLachlan returned and took a chair opposite, and for all of his bruskness of manner there was something decidedly likeable about him. Perhaps it was his utter lack of pretense and pose. One could credit now, his peaceful hobby, for this flaming little industrial agitator is an ardent poultry fancier.
A few minutes served to thaw partially through his natural Scottish reserve and he talked fairly affably, passing his palm across his stubbled chin at intervals and holding a canny gleam in his canny eye which told me that, say what he might, he did not expect to be quoted accurately, anyway, in any “capitalist” magazine.
The coal company does not make the mistake of under-estimating MacLachlan. He is a man with plenty of hard, common logic beneath his communistic nonsense, and he is a clever and resourceful fighter. “No matter how many crimps you put in his schemes,” a mine official confided to me, “he’ll turn up in the morning with a brand new one—and he never knows when he is licked.”
On this day, however, he was not out to dogmatise or trick, and I left him with one strong impression: regardless of his views, MacLachlan is basically sincere in his concern for the welfare of the working man. Here are his final words, called after me as I left the room.
“The company’s goin’ for tae try another wage cut in the spring, but mark ye, bye—the miners of Cape Breton’ll be flat on their backs afore they’ll tak’ it! Mind that!”
(A third, and concluding, article will appear in the February 1 issue.)