Mining In Flin Flon
Flin Flon is a northern mining town. The city’s website calls it ‘a city built on the rocks,’ and it really is. Sewer lines run above ground (or more correctly, ‘above rock’) and are boxed in so the top of the box can serve as a sidewalk. People used dynamite to landscape their front yards.
The mine buildings straddle the border between Manitoba and Saskatchewan with the boundary line painted across the floor in bright yellow. When you were hired, instructions were given by the union as to which side of the line you should crawl to in case of an accident in order to get the better compensation benefits. When I got to Flin Flon, I was temporarily assigned to mucking underground. Mucking consists of shoveling the loose, often wet, rock material back into an ore car to keep the track clear. It is not an intellectually challenging job. A bus took us from the parking area to the main shaft which went straight down into the earth for a distance of somewhere between half a mile and a mile, depending on what level you were working. There are roadways (called ‘levels’) running out from the elevator. Blasting the rock with dynamite and removing the rock containing zinc and traces of other valuable ores create these horizontal levels, and railway tracks are constructed along them. New roadways are created at lower levels or in different directions when the vein of ore gets too small to be economically useful. Trains of ore cars run back and forth along the levels carrying the ore back to the elevator. At intervals a large hole (called a ‘winze’) went from one level to the one below, like a bottomless hopper. This allowed ore and supplies to be loaded into an ore car by dropping it through the winze from the level above. Working underground was an experience I will never forget. Imagine this. You step onto a platform enclosed by vertical metal bars, hanging from a thick steel cable. As the miners step into the cage it wobbles from side to side and bounces up-and-down enough to make you doubt the wisdom of trusting your safety to it. When the elevator stops at the level on which you will be working, the long cable stretches enough that the elevator rises and falls enough to scare the wits out of you. When you get off the elevator you walk along a railway track through a long tunnel just big enough for the train of ore cars to pass through with maybe an inch or two of clearance between the side of the ore car and either wall of the roadway. Every twenty-five yards or so there is a widened section of the roadway wall just big enough to accommodate four people in safety as the train rumbled by. Then you would continue on your trek to the work site until the next train came along. On my first expedition underground there were three of us who were going to muck in the same area. As we walked along the train track, one of them pointed out a widened space and explained, “If there is a train coming get in one of those.” I thought a bit more explanation might be in order, but that was all I was getting. Conversation was not high on the priority list of underground activities. Maybe it comes from having your vision narrowly focused by the little helmet light shining into the darkness. The three of us were walking along the track when I heard the ominous rumble of a train. Panic. Where is the closest passing bay? Is it better to run toward the train or away from it? And from which way is the train coming? The reverberation of the noise, and my confusion, made it difficult for me to know. There was no time to try solving it like one of those train travel problems so ubiquitous in high school algebra classes. And certainly it was no time to get caught in the donkey between two bales of hay dilemma. Fortunately, one of my buddies (anyone is a friend at a time like this) sensed my concern and nodded his head to indicate we should go forward. I must have set a new mine speed record as I raced down the track and threw myself into the passing bay. I looked back and saw the other two experienced miners laughing at me as they ambled along and arrived at the passing bay just seconds before the train. They stepped to safety just as it sped past us. It was my first lesson in dealing with the closeness of immediate death in the mines. I rationalized it by thinking about how, in a big city, we will stand on a sidewalk as a city bus roars by. The first time it is scary and you stand three feet back. Then, over time, you become desensitized to the danger, ignore it, and stand just inches away from the bus as it roars past. You have probably heard of the big psychological question, “Does a person run because he is scared, or is he scared because he runs?” I had no reason to be scared by this situation. If I stayed with the experienced pair, I knew I would be safe because they knew what they were doing. I ran only because I thought I should be on the safe side. When I arrived at the passing bay I was really scared. Interesting. Thinking back to running from the barking dogs when we were stealing a turkey, I think the running came first (as a way to escape). The fear I felt when I arrived at the safety of the car was a product of the running, probably brought on by the increased adrenaline in my blood stream. During the time I worked there, there were several times when collections were taken on the bus ride back from the mine to help the family of a worker who had died. One person stepped onto the elevator when it wasn’t there. No parts of his body arrived at the bottom of the shaft. Another time a person was repairing the track behind closed fire doors in spite of it being a violation of the safety rules. The train slammed into the closed doors, slapped them open, and crushed the miner against the roadway wall. This was also a violation of the safety rules because the driver should have stopped the train in front of the doors and opened them manually. But that would have taken time, and the pay was calculated on the amount of ore delivered. Drivers rarely stopped the train for closed doors. Even with the constant reminders of the dangerous environment, experienced miners took unnecessary chances. Dynamite for blasting was shipped in wooden containers, which took time to open. The fastest way to open a box was to have it delivered to one level above where it would be used and then drop it down through the winze to the lower level. The impact was just right to break open the box and spill out the dynamite ready for use—unless it happened to trigger an explosion at the same time. Then you would need to have another box delivered. Do you remember the Road Runner cartoon in which Wylie Coyote stands under a big pile of lodged rocks and pokes at them with a pole until they come free and fall onto him? Occasionally, the rocks being dropped into the ore car on a lower level would jam the winze. What faster way is there to loosen them than to stand under the ton of rock, poke it with a pole until it loosens, and hope you can get out of the way in time? Usually there was plenty of time to get out of the way but sometimes not quite enough.
I was ecstatic when I was transferred to work in the research department of the zinc smelter plant. It was above ground level and had access to fresh air and sunlight. And there were no sounds of dynamite blasting on a level above or the rumbling of trainloads of ore. In short, it was boring. Delightfully boring. To my surprise, I discovered Jack was working in another area of the smelter for the summer. I did say we didn’t communicate much, didn’t I? We had been working in the same area of the mine for over a week and I hadn’t known where he was working.
Jack and I spent some recreational time together. I lived in the city; he lived on an island and swam about forty-five minutes across the lake to and from work. I didn’t even know he could swim. I was very impressed and wondered what else he had hidden behind his shy chuckles. He hadn’t completed a credit in Grade 12 Literature, so I helped him study the novel by showing him how to answer exam-type questions. He said he would show me how to party on his little island if I would buy the beer for him and his underage friends. I didn’t think of it as breaking the law, just more as being a few years ahead of my time (actually, 13 years) in realizing that the age of majority should be lowered. In Manitoba the drinking age was lowered from 21 to 18 years in 1970. I didn’t think there was much chance they could get in trouble with the law since the party was on Jack’s island in the middle of a lake. I had read somewhere that in North America people mature one year earlier every decade. When I was in Grade 12 the students decided to have a beard-growing contest with the teachers. It was a disaster for the students. The best we could do was to produce a few scattered tufts of facial hair. I managed two pretty obvious tufts of red hair on each corner of my chin. Being red, made it look even less impressive compared to one of our teachers who could grow a full, heavy, black, beard on a couple of week’s notice. That was in 1950 and it is now 2000. At a rate of one year earlier per decade, that would mean that students should mature five years earlier now, and students now in Grade 7 should be able to grow a beard as good as mine was in Grade 12. It comes out pretty close. When I look at Grade 8 students now they are about the same maturity level as I was in Grade 12. Obviously, this relationship can’t be a straight-line one. The rate of early maturity has to slow down with the passage of time, probably asymptotic at some point. There were three of us employed in the research department. Two were regular staff and I was the summer help. The mine hired university students in hopes they would eventually be interested in a permanent job—not to actually do anything useful. Our job was to take samples from the various stages of the ore as it was processed from solid form into liquid suitable for the zinc to be electroplated out onto large cathode plates. It was an easy job but very important in making sure the whole system would work smoothly. One day we found the plating solution to be unusually acidic. We reported it to the smelter boss and were told keep a watch on it. So we did frequent checks and found the situation getting progressively worse. We went as a group and reported our findings, recommending he shut down the system until it was corrected because it could make the zinc very difficult to strip off the cathode plates.
His reaction was, “I’ve been working here for ten years and we’ve never had trouble with the zinc sticking.”
We went back to our regular job of sitting and waiting.
By the end of the day he came to us and asked, “Do you have any ideas how to get solidly plated zinc off the cathodes?”
“You will be lucky if you can get it off with a hammer and chisel. Electroplating is supposed to be permanent,” was our unsympathetic response. It did provide a week of fulltime employment for a dozen hammer-and-chisel experts. There were good things about Flin Flon. One was the lovers’ lane provided by the slag pits. The downside was there weren’t many eligible girls. It may not sound romantic, but the molten hot slag cooling slowly provided a magnificent glow of simmering light in the sky. Another amusement was the summer swim to the block of ice left in the middle of the lake as it slowly melted in the spring. Maybe it wasn’t as great as we thought, but it was all we had. However, there was great fishing. Lake trout was large, plentiful and easy to catch if you had the right equipment. They lived deep in the lake and that required more equipment than I was prepared to acquire. I never did catch one, but I did catch lots of pickerel in the spring while the water was still cold. In the early spring when the lakes flooded the ditches, a person could stop anywhere by the side of the road and catch dinner out of a ditch. Flin Flon was full of unusual experiences.