Shrugging off the danger of working under millions of tons of creaking rock, Canadians like Dusty Miller blast out one seventh of the world’s gold. The roar of dynamite is music in their ears because, as Dusty says, “I feel better when I’m down there”
RODERT THOMAS ALLEN
IF YOU were to trace the chain of events behind the frenzied signals of a broker’s man, or yesterday’s luncheon address on the nation’s gold reserve, or the panic in a best man’s eyes as he fumbles for a ring, the trail would end with a dirty, work-hardened, taciturn figure crouched in the belly of the earth, his helmeted head kissed by a million tons of rock, surrounded by the night of eternity, buffeted by an ear-shattering clamor as he blasts out a seventh of the world’s supply of gold Canada’s hard-rock miner.
He checks in before dawn, goes to work in a bucket, eats his lunch in a cave, and goes home in the dark. Occasionally he stops the racket of his drill that slams back like gunfire from the underside of the world, sits down to smoke a soggy cigarette amid a silence that hasn’t changed since primordial rains cooled the earth’s surface and listens to the drip of water through old diamonddrill holes that were made in the days when the mine was just a hope in a promoter’s heart. He thinks of women, beer, or how things are going on his boulder-quilted little crown-land homesite, the distance of several city blocks above. Twice a month he lines up for his pay of between ten and sixteen dollars a day, looks at his cheque, shrugs and goes to Noranda or Rouyn or Duparquet or Val d’Or to play poker, bowl, take the wife to a show or get drunk. He comes back to the mine in time for his shift, puts on his helmet and oilskins
again, lights a cigarette and goes back down into the earth. And if you mention that there’s anything unusual about his job he looks up at you quickly as if you’re crazy.
One man who has been at the job the biggest part of his life is Dusty Miller, a tough, energetic, lean-bellied Lancashireman of forty-six who now holds a job of foreman’s standing as mine captain of Elder Gold Mines, nine miles from Noranda in northern Quebec. The first time I talked to him on the sixth level he stood on a thing aptly called a grizzly— eight 10 x 12 timbers, a foot apart, spanning a yawning black hole that looked as if it went straight down to hell spat a stream of Copenhagen snuff downward into space, came out with an oath, and said, “Don’t call my job dangerous.”
I had reminded him of a story his wife had told me about a mine accident he’d been in. “Don’t put that in,” he said, jabbing a finger at my notebook. “The boys will think I’m a sissy. There are more farmers killed every year than miners.”
Most miners feel the same way about it. Certainly there are definite hazards in mining (one hundred and sixty-six miners were killed in 1950— a death rate that is about ten times what it is in manufacturing industries) and some mines are notorious for cave-ins and poor ground. But the average miner, working in a well-supervised mine in good
ground like Elder, goes to work day in day out without seeing an accident, and is as matter-of-fact about his environment as a sailor is of the sea.
“I’ve only met one man in my life who couldn’t stand being underground,” Dusty told me. “He lasted only two hours and asked to be taken up. But university students who come to work in their summer holidays are pretty jumpy.” He grinned. “I’ve worked with halfbacks, fullbacks and quarterbacks and they look over their shoulders so often they keep tripping over their feet.”
Only two men have been injured at Elder since it started producing six years ago. The accident was caused by drilling into a hole containing unexploded dynamite. “We have a four-man rescue crew ready to go into action here or in any other mine that calls for help,” Dusty said. He spat. “Accidents are usually caused by ‘floaters,’ oldtimers who drift from mine to mine and think they know everything.”
But, accidents or no accidents, to the layman a miner’s job is a terrifying one. He works in a vast, eerie, frightening, pitch-black labyrinth of tunnels, rock-strewn inclines, and water that seeps down from the surface and from underground springs. There is a faint fog in the air and the smell of a freshly hosed cellar. Elder Mine is an even five degrees above freezing, winter and summer. Now and then an insect will get down with some wood -one miner at Elder told me he’d
seen a frog at one thousand feet—but generally a mine is as lifeless as the tomb.
To Dusty the eerie underworld of Elder is as familiar as the back of a counter to a departmentstore clerk and as undramatic as his home-town streets. He knows every crevice, crack and turn, every inch of pipe, track and fitting. He spends his days in a form of mild mountain climbing a fifth of a mile beneath the surface of the earth, walking with a fast slope-shouldered gait over miles of rough ore-strewn slopes, using his twentyseven years of experience to show his shift bosses where he wants them to drill, how the vein lies, where to leave pillars, checking footwall, hanging wall, kidding the men, talking in gestures and British profanity to Canadians, Finns, Poles and Ukrainians and managing to make himself clear.
Dusty has worked at just about every job underground: tramming, tending skips the metal cars that haul the ore to the surface (“A farmer’s job,” he told me)—and mucking, loading trams with the blast-loosened ore, which in Dusty’s day was done with a shovel instead of today’s mucking machine, a miniature one-man-operated power shovel that tosses the ore over its back into a steel car. But, like most miners, he served his long apprenticeship as a stope miner, who begins and ends his eight-hour day slowly and laboriously following the veins of ore with drill and dynamite, like a painstaking mechanized human mole.
We clambered up one of the many slopes at Elder, one called Stope 6-1 East, Extension No. 1. (I clambered: Dusty mounted it like a goat.) He stopped and (lashed his light at a place near his feet, “That’s called a raise,” he said. “It’s where we drop the muck down to the next level. If you don’t know the mine you have to be careful.” I looked down a sheer unguarded black hole about five feet in diameter, dropping vertically in the direction of the centre of the earth. I changed course hurriedly.
A couple of stopers were getting ready to start work when we reached the top of the stope. They were hauling and lugging their drills into position in the cramped, angular, black underside of the roof of the world.
They flashed their lights in our faces. I was beginning to get a bit used to the idea, which at first had seemed rude. I flashed my light on them. They looked awkward and bulky in rubber jackets, rubber pants, rubber boots and rubber gloves. They wore light-weight amber-colored fibre helmets, like trimmed-down versions of the pith helmet of the tropics. Each had an electric battery lamp, about the size of a bicycle headlight that can be snapped onto the front Continued on page 37
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of the helmet or held in the hand like a flashlight. A thick rubber cord comes back over the wearer’s shoulder to a five-pound dry-cell battery in a chrome case that hangs from his belt at the back.
Dusty flashed his lamp around and said, “There’s a hell of a lot of muck here.’’ He moved with the mechanical sureness of old habit. He ran his hand over the vein. He flashed his light overhead, then back into the face of a young slusher helper named Pilon. “That’s loose you’re standing under,” he said. Everybody flashed his lamp overhead. About half a ton of granite was peeling from the ceiling a couple of feet above Pilon’s head. The miner grinned and moved away. “That would give him a bloody good headache,” Dusty said to me.
“Loose” is the least spectacular and most lethal thing in mining. A major cave-in gives plenty of warning: it rumbles and groans, and little chips fly from above for half an hour before the tig stuff comes down in an inferno of smoke, dust and a cataclysmic roar. But “loose” is just a bulge in the “back” or “hanging wall” which, to a miner who taps it and listens, represents potential agonizing death. Blasting at Elder, where the vein lies in solid granite and the ceiling can be safely supported by leaving huge pillars every seventy-five to one hundred feet, comes out clean and firm. But in some mines where the vein lies in softer stone, there’s always “loose” after a blast. A miner is supposed to scale down to his working position, testing each place with his iron, a sort of crowbar. Most of them are inclined to get careless about it.
The stope miner, such as the men Dusty was talking to, has better equipment than Dusty used to work with, but his work is basically the same as when Dusty was learning his trade. Working with a helper the stoper washes the face down with a hose to see the vein and decides where to drill his holes for the dynamite that will blast out the ore. He uses a compressed-air-driven rock drill about the size and general appearance of a machine gun, with a long inch-thick steel bit, from three to ten feet long, protruding from it. The stoper lugs it up into position in tight awkward corners, sets it, gets it started into the rock and stands by while the drill
automatically feeds itself into the rock with a revolving-hammering motion, amid an inconceivable racket, like that of a dozen cement breakers with a huge screeching noise added. When it reaches the end of the bit the miner shuts it off and, in a silence that’s almost as great a shock as the noise, changes to a longer bit, working up to as long as ten feet, depending on the particular angle of the rock. He does this for an entire shift, spacing the holes so that when they fire consecutively they will knock out the j maximum amount of rock, and averages j twelve holes during his eight-hour shift, j
His only break is when he eats his j lunch. He goes back to the station, a dismal rock-walled enlarged part of the shaft lit by a few naked bulbs, sits on j a wooden bench, and, while he eats from his lunch pail, talks to the other ! miners, maybe plays a short game of poker for half an hour, and goes back to the working position.
About an hour before his shift finishes he walks back to the station and phones the surface for his dynamite and fuses. The fuses are long black sticky wicks about a quarter of an inch thick and from six feet (the minimum allowed by the Miner’s Act) up to whatever length he requires. Each fuse has a cap crimped onto the end. He picks these up at the station, puts them in a sack and takes them back to the stope. He shoves the first stick of dynamite home with a wooden loading stick, shoves the capped end of a fuse into the second stick and fills the rest of the hole with alternating sticks of dynamite and pieces of wood. As he loads the other holes he cuts the fuses with his jackknife, crouched in the dark, working by the light of his lamp, carefully measuring them so that the shortest one will give him ample time to get up to another level, or about two hundred and fifty feet out along a drift. Each fuse is cut two feet longer than the last to blow eighty seconds later. A red string inside the wick controls the speed of the burning at forty seconds per foot. He slits the end to free the powder, sees that his gear is in a sheltered spot and covers it up with timbers to protect it from flying rock.
Although it’s known throughout the mine that all blasting is done at the end of the shift, as an extra precaution, if there are other ways into the stope than the one the stoper and his helper will takeout, they put upa warning sign. The stoper’s helper is compelled by law to stay with him while he lights the
fuse, in case of accident. The stoper walks from fuse to fuse, lighting them with a thing like a 24th-of-May sparkler, called a spitter, and calmly starts on his way to the shaft. He chats with his helper while the fuses he just touched off burn toward enough dynamite to blast tons of rock from the bowels of the earth and bounce the buildings a fifth of a mile above. By the time he reaches the point of safety, the first shot goes off.
It starts with a flat rifle-like crack as the cap and the first stick of dynamite go, followed by a gigantic roar and rumble of falling rock; a wave of air slams along the drift, flaps the miner’s oilskins and makes the dust fly from the ceiling. The miner goes on talking, but from old habit he is at the same time counting the shots. If be drilled nine holes and only eight went off he reports a miss on the surface so that the next shift can watch for it, wash it out or explode it before starting to drill. By the time the miner is at the surface getting ready to go home the mine’s ventilating system begins clearing out the deadly carbonmonoxide gas from the blast.
The blast leaves gold-bearing ore littering the stope in glistening mountains, but the stuff that glitters isn’t gold, but pyrite, or fool’s gold. The real gold can’t be seen, has to be recovered by a long elaborate process of milling. The Elder mine’s seventyfive underground workers bring down about five hundred tons of ore per day from which the average gold yield is around one fifth of an ounce per ton.
Sometimes a miner washing down a face will flash his lamp on free gold that clings to the rock like the filling in a tooth. In some mines the men have to pass naked between the place where they take off their mining clothes to the place where they dress. At Elder there is no such routine, although the miners are pretty well observable at all stages between shifts.
“Besides, I’m usually on the job right after a blast,” Dusty told me. “I know where there’s liable to be high grade. I can smell it.”
A Woman Is Bad Luck
When the men we had left at the head of the stope, and the dozens of others Dusty saw that morning, finish their shift, they ride up to the surface in the skip and go to the dry house, a mine building that looks a bit like a football dressing room on a muddy day. The men’s clothes are hoisted up to the ceiling to be dried in a current i of warm air, giving the place the appearance of a disorderly and exceedingly dirty laundry. A fine cloud of aluminum dust is blown through the room by compressed air to be inhaled by the miners as a safeguard against silicosis, a lung condition sometimes caused by breathing rock dust. Most miners take lots of cod-liver oil to compensate for lack of sunshine and every two months or so have to have a doctor clear their ears of the wax that nature builds up as a protective cushion against the underground noises. Apart from these things, and the fact that their ears occasionally plug up from change of pressure at various depths and have to be poked free with a finger, a miner suffers no noticeable effects from his underground life.
During the change of the afternoon shift Dusty pointed out one tiredlooking miner and said, “He’s got his old lady’s stocking over his head.” The miner grinned. Dusty explained that it’s a common trick for a miner to tie a knot in his wife’s or girl friend’s stocking and pull it over his head to keep the dust out of his hair.
The men l saw at Elder were for
the most part the same as the hundreds of hard-rock miners Dusty has worked with all his life—as is Dusty himself: profane, hard-working, hard-playing, capable of risking their lives for one another underground and blackening one another’s eyes on the surface, the older ones superstitious about a woman coming down a mine and muttering on such an occasion, “It’s going to be a tough shift,” the younger ones getting wanderlust when the spring buds burst far away up on the surface and changing to another mine; but all content with mining as a steady good-paying job where a man has a chance to do a man’s work.
A driller at Elder averages $10 a day stoping. If he is working in a raise or drift he makes $12 to $14 a day. Shaft sinkers make $14 to $16 a day. Each category has a helper who makes about a dollar a day less. A mucker or a trammer makes $10 a day. The man who operates a slusher, the machine that drags the ore from the working place to a raise, makes about $9.95; his helper about $8. An underground worker has to buy his own clothes. His rubber boots, which last only a month to six weeks, cost $8.50. His lamp and battery are provided by the mine.
It’s Better Down Below
The CIO Mine Mill and Smelter Union operates in the district, but Elder is an open shop, and none of the miners belong to a union. “I’ve only had one visit from an organizer,” Dusty said. “He soon left. Why should I have to hire and fire men according to seniority? If you came from another mine and a promotion came up I’d have to try everyone else with more seniority before I gave you the job. Yet you may be an experienced all-round miner.”
Unlike most men at Elder, who live on farms or in Rouyn or Noranda, Dusty lives at the mine in a five-room frame house with his wife Enis, a vivacious friendly woman of Italian descent, and three children: Gail, nine; Noreen, ten; and Eddie, twelve, a sensitive-looking boy who wants to be a free-lance magazine illustrator, an ambition Dusty vaguely but staunchly approves.
Right now, between his daily trips underground, Dusty is having the time of his life working at his particular trade of shaft-sinker, sinking a new shaft that will intersect the system of veins at Elder farther south. He has never had any desire to be a prospector: “It’s only good when there’s a boom on.”
Once while in a mining camp one hundred and fifty miles from the nearest railway he saved seventeen hundred dollars in eleven months and started back to the Old Country. “1 never got past Winnipeg,” he grinned. “At that, I did better than a lot of them. Some of them never get out of camp. They lose it all at poker.”
All in all, after twenty-seven years, he still enjoys his work. While I was getting ready to say good-by, he opened the door a crack, spat out into an early October snowstorm and said, “I’ve got one of the nicest little mines in the country here. Yet it’s not so big that a man is never noticed and never gets a chance of a promotion.”
Another thing Dusty likes about his job at Elder is that he can still spend most of his time where he likes best to be—underground. “Once you’ve been underground for long,” he said, “it’s hard to work on the surface. In the summer I want to get down to get cool; and in the winter I want to get down to get warm. I always feel better when I’m down there.” if