Elliott Leyton May 1 1975


Elliott Leyton May 1 1975


A hundred miners are dead, 100 more dying. That’s the way of it, boy


Along the foggy south shore of Newfoundland’s Burin Peninsula are nestled the peaceful villages of Lawn and St. Lawrence. For years, these two communities have owed their economic lives to the nearby fluorspar mines; now they owe their deaths to those same mines. One household in every three contains a dead or dying miner; there is no family that has not been numbed by the loss of a father, an uncle, a son or a brother. Any man who worked steadily in the mines before 1960 — when new equipment was brought in — expects to die. is waiting to die.

These men are victims of what they call “the miner’s disease” — silicosis, lung cancer and other illnesses brought on by years of inhaling the mine’s dust, or exposure to background radiation. They are also the victims of economic blight. The mine project began in 1932. when an American entrepreneur arrived to tell the villagers — then living in abject poverty — that their homes w ere almost on top of one of the w-orld’s richest deposits of fluorspar, an essential ingredient in steel and aluminum smelting.

In 1933. the St. Lawrence mine was opened, using secondhand equipment. No regulations governed the mining operations until 1951, and for years halfstarved men stood 10 hours or more a day, half-choked with the dust of pneumatic hammers, trying to wrest a living from the rock. Particles of silica lodged in their lungs, and radiation from an immense low-grade deposit of nearby uranium sifted through the air, bearing a deadly freight of cancer.

Even when the miners began to die. in the 1940s, little attention was paid, and while the men themselves knew something was w'rong they also knew' they w'ere trapped — there were no other jobs to go to. In 1960. a federal study finally pinpointed the danger, but by then it was too late. In all, more than 100 miners have died (no one knows the exact count of those whose deaths are directly attributable to mine work) and another 100 are stricken.

The only mining company still oper-

ating is owned by Alcan; its operations have always conformed to mining regulations and. since 1960. powerful new ventilation systems have been installed to clear the air. Alcan believes it has solved the problem for those still at work, and Dr. Brian Hollywood, who has devoted decades to the plight of the miners, is guardedly optimistic.

Still the men go below ground every day, and still those whose health is ravaged beyond repair sit at home and wait for the end.

Last summer. Elliott Leyton of Memorial University in St. John’s went to Lawn and St. Lawrence with a taperecorder. to set down the story of the dying miners of Newfoundland. From his interviews, he has compiled a book. Dying Hard: The Ravages Of Industrial Carnage, w'hich has just been published by McClelland and Stewart (and the royalties from which will go mainly to the miners and their families). The following is an excerpt from Dying Hard. It is the story of Jack Callaghan (not his real name), 51. whose illness has been diagnosed as silicosis and associated heart failure.

I was born in Lawn. Me father was a fisherman, but me father died when 1 was eight years old. He got a chill in his arm. back in the country, then he lost his arm and he died. We had nothing then, only poverty. When I was a child you don’t know how bad it was. We used to get six cents a day. the whole family. Ground flour; time after time maggots’d be in that and you had to sift the maggot out of that or get it out the best you could. You’d open the sack and see it moving, moving. There was no pork, no beef, no butter; only just if you had land and reared a cow you got a drop of milk from your own. Me mother used to get $12 every three months after me father died, that was a pension. $48 a year.

Up until the time I got into the mine I had it pretty bad. Because fishing, the price w'asn’t that big. and you wouldn’t be getting all that many fish.

First time I ever went in to Salt Cove

Brook. 1 went in there on the surface in ’40. Worked a few months on the surface and then 1 went underground. I worked so long, and then come home for a spell fishing, and then back again for another spell working. I boarded there for a spell. 13 months, but 1 never lived there. We used to shack there, camp ourselves where the mine was at. The company had shacks made there, about six or seven people in it. bunks alongside of her. a table and a stove. Carry your ow n grub, cook for yourself. And then after a spell the company put a cookhouse there. You paid. Five that were in my shack are dead. They all had the miner’s disease.

When 1 went down there first, boy. we started off on the 150 feet. The drift was only narrow, just room enough to shove a little trolley and track, about two foot wide I suppose. Just shove your trolley up to the face, and you used to have to fire back the muck to your mucker w ith a hand shovel. You’d load up and come out and dump it down into a bend. The bucket'd come down and somebody’d load it and hoist it up. It was good there then because she wasn’t mined out. You had a little drift, only six feet or eight feet w ide, and the ground wasn't hurted that much. Only just cutting a path through. And then after we sunk another shaft, we started mining there then. Driving stopes here, there and everywhere, 30. 40 feet wide. Well everything got pretty shattery. Lots of humps you looking up at. you never know's if they was going to stay up there.

In the first eight or 10 years they done a cruel lot of dry drilling. No water see. They were only using a dry hammer and there was nothing, only smoke and dust all the time. Well that going down into your throat all day long had to go somewhere. You were all the time blasting, you couldn’t hardly live with the smoke down there then, there wasn't that much air see. It used to bother you. but you had to try to do the best you could. You’d just draw back for a spell till she’d blow out a bit. You'd turn on your air hose and blow out your drift as clear

The company wouldn’t do nothing for you anyhow. The way they looked at it was, “I paid you, I never have to keep you no more”

as you could get it, you’d clear away your chutes, and start mucking again. When you were going ahead with your light, you could see something like a fog, your light was shining through streaks. You'd see circles, you often see the sun shining like that. Outside of that, boy, she was a beautiful spot to work.

I was mucking, 1 was drilling, 1 was

tramming. 1 was at it all when I was there. 1 liked the mine good when I was there. The reason why everybody did like it was you went dow n there and the time used to go wonderful fast. Say if you had a contract, perhaps 50 buckets. Well if you got good going, you got that in a couple of hours with a trammer hauling 10 buckets at a time. You always

made it in four. And then you had the other four hours home. She w'as good that way. Although we were getting no money we w-ere getting a lot of breaks. It was a very good spot to work. They’d give you a job, and you had to do your best. And if you didn’t get it ail every time you went there, they didn't throw any sauce at you. They were pretty fair that way. We used to have to get 15 buckets for the company, and then after that you’d get 10 or 15 cents for yourself for a ton bucket.

After word of the miner’s disease come out there was a lot of disagreeing, a lot of talk. Because they really should have been let know. If the company knew' it. the doctors knew it, it really should have been let out before it was. If it w'as in those other big mines up in Canada it was kept very quiet and nobody knew' nothing about it. Then there was a lot of people talking about it. a whole lot of people. The company wouldn’t do nothing for them after anyhow. because 1 suppose it was throw you over to the government. They paid you for what you done was the way they looked at it. 1 was working with them and they could say, “Well. 1 paid you; 1 never have to keep you no more.”

When I found out the radiation was in the mine. I jumped ship, got out.

Dr. Quinlan, he come to a union meeting and he told us what was there. He explained see what we were up against. He come out and he told us. “You were working in radiation, and one hour is as good as one year.” The way he explained it, the weakest part of your system, no matter what part of your "body that was, that was the part this thing would hit. Whether it was your lungs, chest, head, legs, whatever the weakest part of you was.

I never even w'ent back looking for a job on the surface after I come up, because 1 didn’t want any more to do whth them. 1 thought I might be after escaping it. And to Hell with it, because I knowed they were after testing everything then and the mill was reading just as much as underground. So 1 suppose all over the place it was, wherever the ’spar was at. The whole air was full of it. Fellows that never went under the collar got it, so goddamnit, they had to get it somewhere.

They’re after dyingjust the same as he says. Sam O’Reilly, 1 worked with him three years, the two of us together. And so help me God 1 didn’t know him. That’s where he got it. in the eyes. After they told me that’s who it was, I wouldn’t believe it. I’d say “No, that

“You know what that does to you what’s down there? That’ll even take away your nature. You won’t want women or nothing”

wasn't Sam O’Reilly.” He was raised out; by God, it went right to his brain.

I can remember sitting down in our hall playing bingo one night with a man that I worked with for years. There was hardly any difference in him to look at him than you. And all of a sudden he got a little bit queer and no time after he was feeling miserable. Jesus, he never lived not three months. He got operated on and gone as quick as that. They opens you up and it fills you full of air. I think pretty well the first person from St. Lawrence to go in to take the operation was Alistair Andrews. He come back with the lungs took out and told everybody he was sound cured, and in a couple weeks he was going to go fishing or go back to work. He came here one day looking for a lobster and he told me he was feeling pretty miserable. A couple weeks after that he was in there then, gasping for breath. Never laid an eye on him after.

Before the doctor let it out, in the latter part of’59, I’d been off a few months and I wanted to go to work again. Our foreman, Murdock Justin — God Almighty couldn’t make them any better than that, we all loved him — he told me this in his own kitchen. He said. “You’re not going back there again.” And I says, “Yes boy. I’m going back there again.” He said. “You knows what’s down there, don’t you?” And I said “No, I don’t.” “Well,” he said, “they’re dying down there.” And everything that he told me is after happening too. He said. “You know what that does with you what’s down there? That'll even take away your nature, you won’t want women or nothing. That’s a fact.” So it was a funny sickness isn’t it? It goes through your whole system I suppose. But I didn’t believe him. I thought he was figuring he didn’t want to take me back.

The year Alice was born, ’67, I went down to the doctor. I was feeling miserable. I was on the relief, the “punky” they used to call it. We were waiting for the Relieving Officer to come to get the order. I was drawing $23 a week. So this day the Relieving Officer comes and tells us we had to go to Burin to work in the fish plant. There was going to be no more relief. You had to go get a medical. So I went down to get a medical. A week was up and 1 had to go back for a report. So I gets in to Dr. Hollywood, and Jesus, he was frightened to death. I said. “I’m supposed to get a medical to go to work.” “Lord.” he says, “you’re not going to work, you're going home.” He sat down to the desk and wrote a letter. put it in an envelope, and said. “You

get home now and get this off to the Welfare Officer as fast as you can.” About a month after that we gets the social assistance. Not too long after that I gets a call to go in to St. John’s. So I went up to Dr. Wilder and he goes all over me and everything and told me my chest was rotten. “You had a cruel bad chest.” So he give me another paper and I had to go to General Hospital for some more tests. The doctor he say he wanted an operation. So I told him. “No, I’m not taking no operation.” I suppose they must have got fed up on me then, so they sent me home. They wouldn’t give me the money, but it was a good spell

before they bothered me anymore.

In April they called me back to the Confederation Building. Three doctors there then, Dr. Stewart, Dr. Wells and Dr. Sullivan, Lord Jesus, one fellow got me in there and he went all over me, twisting and turning and drawing. He went out and the other fellow come in, and he done the same. Then the other fellow come in and he does the same. II' they hadn’t knocked off I would have fallen on the floor.

Put me clothes on and the doctor took me down to this great big board. “There’s your X-Ray,” he said, “there’s all evidence of silicosis there. But we got to have a piece of your lung to have the real proof.” “You’re not getting no piece of my lung.” I said. “Well, sir.” he said, “the proof is there, you got it; but we can’t do nothing for you till we gets the real proof.” He wanted a piece. Dr. Wells there, he said. “You know, Mr. Callaghan, we got to have proof before we can give you compensation.” I said, “Well you’re not getting no piece of my lung! Everyone ye cut. do you know where they’re at? They’re in the graveyard.” But he said. “Today we got all

new equipment and everything, the latest.” I said. “They’re not made yet that’s going to cut me.” He said, “How much would you get in a year on compensation?” The other fellow said. “He’d get between six and seven thousand dollars a year.” That was more or less to try to buy you over. They were offering you that much money. I said, “No, I’m going to live on what I'm getting.” He said, “How much are you getting?” Three hundred and fifty dollars on the social. He said, “I'll tell you what we’ll do. You go home; and if they takes the social away from you, we’ll give you your compensation.” That’s the words he said to me, so help me God!

I knows men that worked there 20 years that they never give nothing to. What’s better than that, he told me that he come off sick leave, and after he got his compensation, begod they tried to take it back. The company tried to take back the sick leave they were after giving him. I think Christmas they sent him out a $10 bill. So I mean they didn’t do very much for nobody. They wouldn’t give you a cent. I knows a man now was sent up this year. He was took up from underground, he had to get up. He tried to stay down as long as he could, but directly they come and said you got to get up. He went up to the doctor. All he got was his wages and his holiday pay, and go to work on the surface if he wanted to. Now that was in the middle of the winter, in February that was. Now to take a man up from somewhere it’s warm, stick him out in the frostiest kind of weather! Now he had to be sick to be drove up didn’t he, so why try to put him out somewhere and freeze him to death in another few months?

Frank Ryan, he was sent into St. John’s the early fall, and he got his compensation, he got $2,800 back time. I don’t know what his monthly salary was, but according to what his lump sum was it couldn’t have been more than $50, $60 a month. And as soon as he died, they cut his wife off right away. She never got a cent since. I don’t know how that happened. because there’s another woman over there, her husband died and she still gets it.

Whatever year I got it. I gets a call to go out to the Compensation Board. I was up before the board so long. And all that doctor done with me the next morning; I went up and just hauled off me shirt, he went around me chest and back and forth over me back, that was all. And two weeks after that I had me money. $6,700. And all before that they wanted to operate, operate. To do away

I used to cough, my Jesus I’d cough half the night. I’d have to pillow meself up for to get to breathe. Night is the worst

with you. that’s all they wanted to do. I’m just as sure as God in Heaven. I suppose there’s big money for them for operating; and they learn more about those things, cutting you open and just sewing you up again. The fellow was in with me that time, Paul Connell, they tried to do the same with him at that time. Well we were talking back and

forth and he refused it that time. But he was no time home when he went in and took this operation, and it wasn’t three months after that he was dead. And his own brother told me he didn’t know him when they brought him home that day. He was gone so far he melted right out of the world.

My son, anyone’s got that and he

takes the operation, just like that! Jack Malraux went in there and he come home, they were supposed to have him cured. He wasn’t a man, he was a giant. Jesus, I think you’d have to hit the man in the head with a mawl to kill him. He went in less than months. Not one of them lived. The only one that did live to three months was Alistair Andrews. Another fellow, he used to live right here, they operated on him and said to him, “In a month now boy, you’ll be fishing.” Jesus, in a month we were burying him.

I’m not feeling all that good. I'm uneasy about that frigging heart. You see I had a brother died with heart trouble, he went just like that, never even got time to speak to no one. You never feels good after the heart attack, you’ve always got pains down through your shoulder and in your back and your breast.

It’s very grim. I got no good hopes at all. I feels too miserable mostly, sometimes I feel so frigging miserable. I’ll tell you you’re having a lot of colds and everything, it really gets you down at times. You go out and do any little thing at all and you’ll come up with the flu.

And my breath is getting shorter. A lot shorter. I used to cough, my Jesus I’d cough half the night. I’d have to pillow meself up for to get to breathe. I used to choke. The night is the worst. Oh my son. I had some bad nights. This treatment after I had the heart attack. I’m really finding that keeping my chest and tubes a bit clearer. I’m taking 18 pills a day. One is a little nerve pill. Dr. Hollywood told me, “You’re cruel a-quiver.” I mean twasn’t me, it was whatever was inside me doing it. I suppose when the lungs start to go it’s got to be bearing on something else. It’s like an engine; when one thing wears, something else wears. Jesus. I was ridiculous with the cough. I was almost ashamed to go anywhere. Cough, cough, cough, cough, I used to have so high as two and three hours steady coughing at night, honest to God. And I’d get the pillows and try to rise meself up. That’s what used to have me up so early every morning, I used to get up because I didn’t want all the youngsters woke up.

That’s the way of it boy. It gets a little worse. It got to get worse, it’s not getting better. Like Hollywood told me, “You only can expect one thing, that it’s not going to get no better.” He told me mine was holding its own, it’s holding pretty good. There’s only one thing you can live for — to live as long as you can.r£>

Elliott Leyton