Stories Continued From the Front Page


     In my childhood there were several mines in or near our village. The main one, over a mile deep, was located atop the hill and the others some distance away north of town. Two varieties of ore were produced, red hematite (called soft ore) in the north mines and specular hematite, a steel gray hard ore, in our big mine in town.


   It was easy to tell where a man worked by looking at the color of his face or hands. Although our men changed their clothes in the mine's "dry" or locker room and washed up there, the ore dust was hard to get rid of. Some of our folks claimed they could even tell if a miner worked on the surface or if he worked underground. Because the crusher spewed great volumes of ore dust in the air, those who did surface work were more highly colored than those who worked deep in the bowels of the earth. Since the crusher only worked during the day, many of the miner's wives washed their working clothes in the afternoon and hung them up to dry all night, then took them down early in the morning so they wouldn't be covered blue-grey or red. All of us had to scuff our shoes well before entering the house because the sidewalks and streets were covered with that dust. In the winter the snow in our yard sparkled with blue flecks and in the spring the streams north of town ran red.


   Because of the many injuries and fatalities, some of our men refused to work underground even though the pay was better. Surface work paid only a dollar a day for a ten or twelve hour shift while those who blasted and dug the ore got $1.50. That may not seem like much now but it meant a lot back then. Moreover those who worked underground always looked down on the surface miners.


   It was tough, dangerous work. After donning their work clothes and lighting the carbide lamps or candles they wore on their caps, the men would enter the skip (elevator cage) and descend rapidly to the level where the mining was done. There they opened the cage door and entered a horizontal tunnel or "drift" that  led to the stope, the large cavern where the ore body was. These drifts were often heavily timbered to prevent loose rock from falling. Some of the stopes were also timbered and a few had great pillars of rock to support their ceilings.


   At first all the holes made for inserting the sticks of dynamite were done by hand drilling. One miner would hold the drill while the other banged it with a heavy sledge hammer. The holder turned the drill after each stroke and would pour in water to keep the drill from overheating. A brave man, he had to be. Also there were three man teams, two of which alternately swung their sledges while the third turned the drill, cooled it and flushed out loose rock or ore with water. Once the hole was drilled deep enough it was packed with cotton waste to keep it dry and clean and the men moved to another spot and drilled again. By days end all these drilled holes were filled with sticks of dynamite, fitted with dynamite caps and fuses, a process called "charging."


     Then, at a given signal, all the fuses in all of the holes were lit and the miners ran out to the shaft for safety. All of us knew when this blasting occurred because it could be heard a mile away. Many miners suffered hearing losses from the great explosions.


   When the next crew (shift) came on duty, certain especially skilled miners were sent into the stope to check for dynamite that had not exploded and to loosen and remove any ore or rock from the walls of the big room. That work was dangerous and the safety crew were paid a little more for the risks involved. When all was clear the miners entered, shoveled the ore into little tram cars and pushed them to the ore shaft beside the shaft the men descended. There it was put into the ore skips, hauled up to the surface, and taken to the crusher. From there, in summer, it was dumped directly into railroad ore cars or carried on tram cars to build the huge ore piles during the winter.


   In our big mine we once had an ore pile forty feet high and almost a quarter of a mile long when spring finally came. We kids used to go up to the mine to see the tram cars emptying their cargoes down the sides of those great piles and to see the great wheels on top of the shaft houses turning as they pulled up the skips. We were never permitted to go underground though.


   One grizzled old miner told me why. "The chance of a bad accident is always with you down there," he said. "A chunk of loose ore can fall from the ceiling and crack your skull like an eggshell. Climbing the ladders of the raises between levels when the rungs are slippery is dangerous."

     "Drilling is dangerous: blasting is worse. I worked underground for thirty years and was scared all the time, though I never admitted it. I've seen my mates crippled and killed and I've been hurt myself."


    And then he told me of one of his experiences. "Like all the other miners I always carried with me a little metal matchbox with matches soaked in candle wax so they'll burn longer. Well, one day I forgot to fill the box and had only a few left in it. I was working with a younger man on the tenth level all day and when it came blasting time I told him to leave for the skip while I lit the fuses. I said that I'd climb the ladder up the raise to the ninth level and take the drift to the shaft there to be picked up.


    "I used my last matches to light the fuses, climbed the ladder and started down the drift when I suddenly stumbled over a chunk of rock, hit my head, and was unconscious for a little while. When I came to, my carbide lamp had fallen off my hat and had gone out."


    "God, it was dark down there. even on the darkest night above ground there's always some faint light, but not in a mine when your light goes out.  Then came the blast and, even though I was on the level above, it almost killed me."


    "I felt around for my carbide lamp, finally found it but had no matches to light it. I dared not walk down the drift because there were several raises in it, holes that went down to the level below and I'd be sure to fall into one."


    "God, it was dark! Then came the fumes from the dynamite explosion and I passed out again. Well, they finally found me and after about a week I got up nerve to go underground again. A damned fool. It sure was hairy."


   My father's hospital across the street from our house always contained some miners who had been hurt and Dad had a hundred tales about mining accidents. One was about a skip full of miners and dynamite that had blown up during its descent. No one knew why but the walls of the shaft and the long ladder that ran beside it were covered with blood and guts, he said. Another was about an old Finn miner who'd had his skull shattered by a rock falling from the ceiling off a stope. When they brought the poor man to the hospital my father said he'd scooped many spoonfuls of brains and rock from the skull and put him in the ward to die. However, the next morning the old Finn was sitting up in bed, smoking a pipe of Peerless tobacco, and yelling for his breakfast. Dad said he fashioned a skull plate of plaster of Paris and that the man recovered completely. They make them tough in the U.P.