TOILERS UNDER THE SEA
NORMAN REILLY RAINE
The concluding article of a senes of three, by MacLeans own investigator.
No. 3: Miners at work and play.
"HELLO, Alex.” "Hello, Ross . . . goodnight, Don.”
“Goodnight, Alex. Comin' over to the dugout, bye?”
"Aye, lad. We’ll be over after a bit.”
The two miners passed on, their faces clean and shining from their Saturday night scrubbing after a day in the pit, and Alex. Cameron, machine runner in No. 1-A colliery leaned his heavy shoulders against the painted front of the Kioto Restaurant, nipped a corner off his plug and watched the slow milling of the crowd through shrewd, twinkling eyes.
“Eh, bye, look at it! As good as the Strand!” he said with a grin, as two girls with over-laden market baskets stepped from the curb and jumped back again with a ripple of laughter as a motor car swished around the corner and came within an ace of running them down. Lights gleamed in the stationery and notions store across the road, in the row of shops down Commercial street, at Senator’s Corners where Main street crossed and invited casual strollers to the busy post office.
It was a typical Saturday night in a mining town— with this exception, unique among mining communities on this continent—that eighty-five per cent, of the people in sight were not Poles, Lithuanians, Austrians, Italians or other immigrant Europeans, but were the sons and daughters of Canadians born, holding in their air or carriage that elusive characteristic which, during the war, enabled one unerringly to spot a Canadian in a crowd of khaki figures from the top of a London bus.
The essential Anglo-Saxonism of the community had been impressed upon me a few days before, when I had an opportunity to examine the names on a coal company pay sheet. I selected a column of twenty consecutive names at random and copied them. Here is what I got: Dan McNabb, Bob Rennie, Alex. Campbell, Neil Curry, John C. McNeil, Mick Martin, Allan McMullin, Alex. Mathewson, Angus P. McNeil, Jos. A. McNeil, Joe Finnell, Mick McPhee, Mick McPherson, Colin Marsh, Joe Wilson, Male. McIntyre, Art Bert, Mick Murphy, Noel Hohn, W. H. Burns.
Nearly one hundred per cent, of the men on the street, between twenty-five and forty-five years old, including Alex. Cameron, wore the overseas button. This is not to be wondered at, though, in Glace Bay, where the rush to volunteer during the war was so great that the Government forbade further recruiting
to prevent depopulation of the district, and where nearly five thousand miners to-day are war veterans.
“Look at ’em, bye!” Cameron said again, between greetings with his butties of the town and pit. “Look at the eyes of them, would you! As bright as pins, and
ready for fight or frolic. ’Tis a wonder it’s their eyes ye can notice instead o’ their lugs, for it’s ’their lugs that keeps ’em alive!” He smiled.
My curiosity was piqued.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“There’s too much racket here. Come over to the dugout with me, an’ I’ll tell ye,” said he.
We turned down a quiet street to a spot where the lights of a bungalow gleamed through shrubbery, swung open a wicket gate and up the steps, into the welllighted, cheery interior, with its fireplace and crackling flames, rows of book cases and comfortable leather easy chairs. It was the club house—known to the town as the “dugout,” of the Glace Bay Branch, Great War Veterans, one of the livest returned men’s associations in the Dominion. Comfortably settled in our chairs and with pipes going, Cameron picked up the thread of his remarks.
Hearing the Dominant Sense
“AYE, it’s a man’s ears that serves him best in the pit, bye,” he said. “From the moment a miner steps on the cage and it drops him into the shaft his eyes become secondary and his ears takes up the job o’ protection. It becomes second nature with him to listen intently, no matter what he is doing, and to pick out sounds o’ danger through the clatter o’ jack hammers and cutting machines, or the rumble and bang of trips o’ cars bumpin’ along the hauling road. It’s his ears tell him of overstrained roofs, crackin’ pit props, spits o’ rock that comes before a fall and the creak and strain of the overhead rock. The slightest change from normal, bye, might mean the difference between safety and death.”
“Were you ever caught in a fall?” I asked.
His calloused thumb crammed his pipe ash into the glowing bowl and he puffed heavily for a moment before he replied:
“I was, bye . . . and it was no so pleasant that I’d like to repeat it. ’Twas some years ago when I was working in the Allan shaft. Sometimes, after the coal has been won from under a roof, it creeps—that is, it moves down the natural slant o’ the seam. That’s what happened in this case. We could hear the roof crackin’ and bits o’ rock fell from it now and then—roof-spitting we call it. I tested the roof with me pick and a slab nearly a yard square came away. An old miner named Danny McGillivray, who was me butty at the time and whose ears was sharper than a lynx’s stuck his head to one side an’ then shouted to us to clear out. The fall was due in the room we was in.
“Well, we took a chance, instead o’ trustin’ the old
man’s experience, and stayed a little too long. Down came the roof, right enough. It caught one shooter an’ loader across the legs and pinned him there, and we worked for hours in the dark gettin’ him free. We might as well have left him there, for he died an hour or two after we did get him loose. The fall had cut us off from the rest o’ the mine and we didn’t know if five ton o’ rock or five thousand was between us an’ rescue.
“It was five of us there, without lights, breathin’ the foul gas let loose by the fall, and the air line blocked. I’ll never forget the horror o’ those hours, buried alive, in utter blackness, with the slow drip o’ mine water from the walls and roof, the squeak and scurry of a great pitrat that got caught with us an’ the cries o’ the poor lad before he passed out. Then we knew what our ears was for, bye, listenin’ an’ listenin’ for the first faint tappin’ o’ the rescue picks, or the whisper o’ the roof that’d tell of another fall to put us out o’ misery.”
“How long were you there before being rescued?”
“Forty-two hours, bye, and it seemed like that many years.’’
He filled his pipe and went on.
“It’s not only miners that has their hearin’ developed in the mine to take the place o’ their eyes. Ye should see a pit horse, when a roof fall is due. It hears earth movements far up through the rock—movements that the most experienced miner will not hear. It’ll stand stock-still with its eyes wild, twitchin’ ears, and snortin’ wi’ fright, an’ ye can beat it bloody but it won’t move beyond that spot until the roof movement stops. If a miner’s wise he’llheed the beast an’ get out o’ harm’sway. Pit horses have saved many a man’s life like that.”
Loading the Under-Cut
WHAT are the most dangerous parts of a mine?” I asked.
“The active workin’ faces. Here continual blasting is takin’ place to win the coal from the seam, and as new rooms are opened up it isn’t always possible to timber the roof to a definite degree of safety. When the bench or lower half of the machine-divided seam has been shot or blasted the coal is loaded into the boxes, before shootin’ the top. To load this bench coal the miner’s got to crawl under the overhangin’ block which is unsupported. His ears is stickin’ out then, bye, for
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sounds o’ crackin’ for if that mass came down he wouldn’t have a chance. After each shot the roo is tested with a pick an’ propped where necessary; but you know what men are when they’re under , constant danger. They gets careless and "" I takes chances that might kill the I ; butties as well as themselves, an’ all in
■ i the wink of an eye.”
' “But the company has installed exI i tensive safety precautions.” ■ “True enough, bye—but it can’t wash out the human element in safety—an’ E with that to make allowance for, no ■ system can be perfect.” He yawned and : stretched. “It’s time I was goin’, bye. I I’m for the early shift in the mornin’.” Particularly hazardous are the working
faces in the Springhill mine. The seam in this mine is of peculiar formation and accidents called “bumps” continually are taking place, often with fatal results. The seam is said to bump when the working face topples forward upon the miners without any discernible warning, and buries them under tons of coal and rock. This situation is the subject of constant study by mining engineers, but, so far, no effective means of improving it have been found. It is in this mine, too, that a fire has been raging for many years. It has been blocked off by concrete from the active parts of the workings, so con tinues in other directions, eating its way into the bowels of the earth.
The most up-to-date methods of
mining constantly are being introduced into the collieries of Cape Breton, and mine officials are sent abroad to study developments in other coal-producing countries. As a result of such a trip not long ago, the general superintendent of mines of the Dominion Coal Company reported that the Canadian mines, on the average, were superior in equipment and more ready to introduce improvements than the majority of collieries in the old world, although there was much to learn from them in the way of housing. Colliery superintendents are sent into the coal fields of the United States at frequent intervals, to study conditions and developments in that country, with a view to applying what is best of them to their own work.
One result of these excursions abroad is the introduction into Cape Breton of long wall mining. This method, now being used in increasingly greater measure where practicable has brought the winning of coal almost to the plane of an art. The method employed is so to utilize the tremendous overhead weight of earth and rock that, with the assistance of carefully calculated and adjusted pit props, the stress does the work of explosives and forces the coal from the seam. In other words, the coal is squeezed out as an ice-cream sandwich is squeezed by pressure of the fingers, and in some instances of long wall mining it is possible
to have a continuous working face of eighteen hundred feet. It will easily be understood why insurance companies and the Workmen’s Compensation Act list coal mining as one of the most hazardous of occupations.
The work of the miner is full of risk, but he has his reward; danger without recompense is the lot of hundreds of pit horses and ponies, who toil below ground for years upon end and never see the light of day except through injury, illness or a protracted strike. All of the collieries maintain large stables down in the workings, and to these the horses return at the end of their shift. The animals are used to haul the trips, or strings of coal cars, from the working faces to the various deeps and landings. Each box holds about one and one half tons of coal, and runs along a narrow gauge track, and some of the horses develop exceptional intelligence in their task. Most of the haul is up-hill, and pit horses are to be seen whose hoofs have turned up at the front as a result of years of pulling loaded trips up the grades.
Casualties Among Pit Horses
CASUALTIES are frequent among them, due to collisions with protruding corners of pillars, pieces of rock overhanging in the roof, trips of boxes getting beyond control on the grades and
numerous other causes, including contact with overhead trolley wires in the mines where electric haulage on the main haulage way has been installed. Used to working in the dark, the sense of direction of some of the beasts is developed to a degree that they are able to find their way back to the stables alone, from any part of the mine.
The policy of the company is that pit horses must be treated with kindness— but no very active measures are taken to see that this policy is carried out. Too often the beasts have been at the mercy of individual brutal drivers, and time and again they have been worked through two full shifts without water, and, sometimes without sufficient food, and, upon their return to the rat-infested stables, have been given water to drink so vile that nearby miners could not stand the stench of it. Such acts are the fault of the individual, however, and such are conditions below ground, it is difficult to put a check on them. Possibly improvement could be wrought if the mining laws of the province gave to the S.P.C.A. authority to make frequent and unheralded visits of inspection, with the power to place responsibility for abuse.
The coal company maintains a veterinary hospital in the Sterling yard at Glace Bay, which is a model of comfort, cleanliness and efficiency. The work is under Dr. J. L. Sullivan, who was a veterinary
surgeon with the Canadian forces overseas. Dr. Sullivan is a lover of horses, and when an animal is brought out of the pit for treatment of injury or illness it is treated with consideration and kindness. The hospital contains a completely equipped operating room, anesthetizer, foot baths for hoofs injured or made sore by the rough pavement of the hauling roads underground, and instruments for equine dentistry.
Tacked to each stall is a diagnosis and case card; there are special isolation stalls for contagious cases; and every compartment contains clear running water and a liberal supply of fodder, to make the animal’s brief holiday as pleasant as possible.
“No horse is sent back into the pit until it is completely recovered,” said Dr. Sullivan, smoothing the flank of a big pit horse which had been sent to the surface with a head wound that required twenty-eight stitches to close. “Take this horse for example. He was hurt by a runaway trip of boxes getting beyond his control on a grade and smashing him up against a pillar, but his nerves are good and he’ll soon be ready for work again. The nervous systems of horses seem more sensitive to shock than those of humans, and the effects are more lasting. Often, when an animal has met with accident in the mine it cannot be sent below again because it develops
trouble similar to shell-shock. If it goes back to the pit it may be a menace to men and animals below because of the excitability and terror which grip it. Such horses we sell or retain for surface work only.”
The doctor mentioned horses which had spent long years in the mines.
‘‘There was a horse in one of the local colleries—it is dead now—which worked in the pit for seventeen years, during fourteen of which it never saw daylight. They are faithful, patient beasts, and it does me good to get them out for a rest, now and then. They’re only dumb beasts, but you need only watch the joy of them as they play and gambol in the pasture after years in the darkness of the pit, to know how much they appreciate the Creator’s sunlight and fresh air.”
A Thrilling Experience
BEFORE leaving Cape Breton my attention was drawn to one of the most interesting details in coal mining— that of drawing pillars, those great supports of coal and rock left in the mine to support the roof until the seam has been worked out. The job of drawing pillars requires experience and a vast practical knowledge of mining, for when these great roof supports are removed
1 anything may happen and generally does.
Courage and judgment, then, of a very ! high order are essential in gleaning this, the last of the underground harvest.
Not long ago pillars were drawn from I a worked-out seam in a New Caledonia I colliery. Workmen had been active at a ! certain pillar and a large portion of it ! was removed. The roof settled a bit, grinding the tops of the wooden pit props to powder, and every now and again one cracked, with a noise like a pistol shot, under the tremendous strain of thousands of tons of earth and rock. Coal was being thrust from the pillar in large q«antities by the overhead weight, and the miners and their butties worked like fiends to load it and get it away before the roof should drop and crush them out of existence.
All day long the grinding of the props was heard. The roof spat shale and the very earth seemed to be settling under the colossal pressure, creating throughout the whole of the working an atmosphere pregnant with catastrophe. Far back in the exhausted workings was heard the echo of splitting rocks and the crash of huge pieces of flat shale as they dropped to the pavement. Still the work at the pillar went on.
All tools except those needed at the moment were removed to a distance, but the miners remained, lifting, prying, shovelling to win the last available pound of fuel before the fall. One old miner straightened from his work to listen, breathless, for those first faint sounds which run through the immediate roof structure and presage a fall, while his mates remained still All well? He nodded and they returned to their toil, moving faster, if possible, than before. Pit props snapped more frequently as the overhead strain increased. Again the miners listened without speech. Their
ears, upon which alone now depended their safety, were alert for the culminating sounds in the groaning rock which would tell them the instant of crisis.
\ Suddenly they stopped, grasped all the tools they could reach and ran for the shelter of a pillar-supported roof, while behind them, with the noise of a hundred cascading Niagaras, the roof thundered down, and a great blast of displaced air, laden with stone particles and coal dust hurtled through the workings, banging doors, wrenching brattice cloths from their frames and almost throwing to the ground those unprepared for its violence.
After a few moments the fall was over and the miners returned to view their work of destruction and that great wall of riven rock which cut oft’ forever those old workings from the ken of man.
Great War Veterans of Glace Bay
SOCIAL activities in the mining communities about Glace Bay centre in the Glace Bay Branch of the Great War Veterans. As mentioned before, there are about five thousand miners employed in the Cape Breton collieries. Beyond providing an athletic field at a nominal rent of fifty cents a month, the coal company makes little contribution to the social relaxation of the district it controls, so that any departure from the humdrum life of a mining town in Glace Bay must o • ginate and be carried through among the miners themselves. Backed by enthusiastic members and a live-wire executive, the Great War Veterans, or the “Vets” as the town knows them, have been instrumental in bringing to the district fairs, and theatrical companies—• including memorable visits of the “Dumbells”—and in organizing and carrying through a programme of dances that for novelty and beauty of decoration !and presentation would be hard to excel even in the larger Canadian cities. “If the Vets back it, it’s good!” has become the slogan of those interested in participating in the social activities of the town. They maintain a permanent entertainment committee, a football team which plays inter-colliery matches on Saturday afternoons, and prosecute a consistent, continuous policy of providing means where-by the drab lives of the miners in this out-of-the-way corner of Nova Scotia may be brightened.
The organization has an eleven thousand dollar club house, with spacious, well-kept grounds, all of it bought and paid for unaided, by the Veterans themselves, the G.W.V. band gives free open-air concerts on summer evenings to the citizens of the surrounding districts, donates relief, so far as branch funds will permit, to needy veterans and their families, provides burial parties, and in many cases pays the funeral expenses of returned men, regardless of whether they are members of their organization or not, and in many other ways shows a publicspiritedness and interest in the welfare of their community which is of inestimable value.
Danny W. Morrison, the mayor of Glace Bay, is a returned man. Born in Glace Bay, he worked in Caledonia mines as a miner until he went overseas with the Canadian Forces in 1915. On his return, after again working for some months in the mines, he was elected to the Provincial Legislature, and in 1921 was elected mayor of Glace Bay. He has been successively returned by acclamation since. In speaking of the work and influence of the Glace Bay Branch, Great War Veterans, in maintaining order during the strikes that took place in the district he says:
“At the beginning of the big strike of 1922 when there was such fear throughout Nova Scotia of a ‘red’ outbreak among the miners, the local branch of the G.W.V.A. immediately offered to enlist one, two, or three battalions of men and officers for the maintenance of order. This offer was not accepted, because I felt it was not needed, but hundreds volunteered and were sworn in as special police, with the result that never in the history of the district has law and order been so efficiently enforced as on that occasion. The returned men of Cape Breton, and particularly the local G.W.V., constitute the safety valve of labor in the mines, just as Jim MacLachlan and his crowd are the disturbing element.” The returned men of Cape Breton who were miners, before going overseas, found
themselves faced with a problem peculiar to their calling some time after they went back to the pit. The majority of them were discharged from the army as physically fit. But they speedily discovered that they no longer could stand working conditions in the mines as they had before going away. Men who had been even slightly gassed found the air of the pit affecting their lungs so that, in a number of cases, tuberculosis developed where, had they been able to secure jobs on the surface, they might not have been affected. Mining primarily is a physical occupation, and many minor wounds suffered in the war assumed a seriousness far out of proportion with the original hurt, because of their interference with, and, in scores of instances, aggravation by the heavy call upon the physique. Large numbers of men, in their haste for demobilization, declared themselves A-l, without consideration of the effect their old occupation would have. To-day, they find themselves with earning efficiency decreased from fifteen to fifty per cent, and with no possibility of a pension or other assistance from the government.
Problems of Disabled Men
THERE’S cases, too,” said Alex. Cameron, when, on another evening, we were sitting before the fire in the G.W.V. dugout, “like that lad McLeod, brother o’ Neillie over to Caledonia, yonder. He’s a man with very limited education, and could not do anything but manual labor. Before the war he was in the pit an’ makin’ good money. He had the muscles and tendons of his left arm blown away by shrapnel—he’s lefthanded, too, and it left him in pretty poor shape. He’s married, with several children, and his pension from the Government is only twenty-five dollars a month. He tried to carry on with shovel work at the mine—the company gave him a job—but he’s had to quit, for it made his arm altogether useless, an’ now he’s livin’ on his pension an’ a dollar-fifty a day from the miners’ relief fund. When that stops, which it will in a months or so, God knows what he’ll do. He’s just had another medical board.” “Can’t he get his pension increased?” “He’s been tryin’ for some time, but here’s the difficulty. His disability, if he was not a laborin’ man pure and simple, would not be worth more than twentyfive dollars a month—but to a man in his position and with his limitations he’s a hundred per cent, disability, because he can’t earn a living at anything. See what I mean? An’ the same applies to seventy per cent, o’ the disabled men o’ the colliery districts. If they can’t exist by means of physical labor they’re one hundred per cent, disabled.”
The door slammed and three or four well-bundled, strapping miners entered the room, with boisterous shouts of greeting. Our conversation ended.
“Did ye hear, bye?” one of them laughed, “the Dumbells is cornin’ again next month. I wonder who’ll sleep in the hearse this time?”
The room gradually filled, for it was the weekly meeting of the branch. After the business, which was commenced by a minute of silence and bent heads in respect to their fallen comrades, a further influx of big-framed, deep-voiced miners poured into the rooms. Smoke and laughter and good-natured chaffing became the order of the night, with the roar and stamp of songs beloved of all true Cape Breton men, such as “Donald o’ Bras d’Or.” The gramophone ground out the voice of Red Newman in “Oh, It’s a Lovely War” and the audience groaned in unison. Someone banged on the table and a bellowing voice took up the marching song of Cape Breton fighting men:
“Here comes the Forty-Second,
Here comes the Forty-Twa,
Here comes the Forty-Second . . .”
Miners, earning their bread by toil in the pit, vivid of speech, large of heart, easy-going, returned soldiers, but more than that—Canadians; asking of Providence and their little world such things as steady work, fair living conditions and a living wage. Give them these things, then let the red menace of revolution show its ugly head, and the Canadian-born miners of Cape Breton will crush it like a rat.