CHAPTER 13

Settling Down


One's first impressions are often the most accurate. But it remained for later shifts to enlarge the conception which we had received the first day, and to initiate us into the exact nature of the work we were doing.
The tunnel into which our little electric train plunged every morning was a passage two miles in length, blasted through solid rock, straight into the heart of the mountain. There was a single curve midway in its length. At the end of the tunnel, at the station—twelve hundred feet below the top of the mountain—a huge room had been dynamited out of the solid rock.
From that room, an elevator shaft led down a thousand feet, through more solid rock. Its lower part was filled with seepage water. Every two hundred feet down the shaft, "levels" had been started—substations from which tunnels had been driven in all directions in search of rich veins of ore. From each level, work was not only carried outward but also upward by a process known as "stoping."
When a passageway was once blasted out and the debris cleared away, huge upright timbers were set, on which a heavy plank ceiling was constructed. Using this ceiling for the floor of the next higher stopes, miners would drill and blast upward until more timbers could be placed. The result was a huge underground building, many stories high, but with solid rock as its outer walls. In mining phraseology each story was known as a set.
The workers were divided into three general classes: miners, muckers, and timbermen. The miners drilled and blasted, the muckers cleared away the debris, the timbermen constructed the maze of framework and flooring which allowed operations to be carried upward without fear of cave-ins.
Imagine you are in an underground cavern that has been "stoped" up until there are several sets below you—between you and the level from which work was started. You are standing on a wooden floor; above your head is the rough, jagged rock ceiling. On all sides are the native rock walls—quartz, inlaid with rich veins of shining galena, dull silver ore, copper-colored iron pyrite, solid iron and many other metals.
With machines driven by air pressure piped in from the outside, the miners drill holes, anywhere from a foot to eighteen feet deep over an entire face of rock. At night the holes are loaded with dynamite. Sometimes a hundred sticks are used on a wall of rock no larger than the side of an ordinary room. At the end of the shift the call of "fire" rings through the mine. The stopes are already deserted except for the two or three miners who, "spitting" the fuses with their lamps, themselves make a hasty exit. A few moments pass. Then, in safe positions far away from the scene of action, the workers hear the dull rumbling thunder of the explosions as thousands of tons of rock and ore are displaced.
The next shift which comes in usually finds a sorry sight. Rock is strewn everywhere. Tools and wheelbarrows which were thought to have been sheltered are often broken or wrecked. Perhaps the miners used poor judgment in placing their drill holes so that the rock broke up, not into small pieces, but into huge boulders. In that case the boulders have probably smashed through the floors as though the heavy planking was thin cardboard. Often rocks crash through several sets and completely demolish huge timbers. Then comes one of the most dangerous jobs of all. Either a miner or a mucker goes in with a huge spud bar to test all the jagged rocks above. Many of them are loose. These he pries down, always careful to keep clear of falling pieces. Next task is for the timbermen, who go in to construct the heavy wooden ceiling, thus assuring against danger of falling rocks which may not have been barred down.
Then comes the main job of the muckers. That's what we were. The mess must be cleared away. But in performing this task the mucker must use great care to separate the waste rock from the ore. If quartz contains eight percent or more of silver ore or galena (lead ore) it is placed in one of the many chutes which lead down to the main level. There the ore is drawn from the chute into cars, taken to the elevator, hoisted, transferred into other cars, and hauled outside. Quartz which is poor in silver or galena—and various other kinds of waste rock, together with such worthless metals as iron pyrite (fool's gold)—is put in the waste corrals. These corrals are merely sections of the lower sets which, having served their usefulness, are to be filled up once more.
When we were in our third month in the mine a rule was established imposing a twenty-five dollar fine on anyone found to be carelessly throwing good ore into the waste chute. I blush with shame to think of the silver we threw away on that first shift underground. The galena in its natural state is bright and shiny in color, pretty to look at, easy to discern. The silver ore, on the other hand, is gray and dull, much the color of commercial lead. Carefully we had picked out the galena, not knowing what it was, yet thinking it the most valuable of the minerals—silver perhaps—for on that first day we were not even sure in what kind of a mine we were working. But to the silver we had paid no heed, discarding dollars and dollars worth of the metal, I suppose.
There was almost as severe a penalty for depositing waste rock in the ore chutes for this waste had to be separated outside and carted in again to be dumped back into the huge corrals. All this extra work was expensive. It was obviously impossible to separate anywhere near all the waste, and at the same time make a fair showing with one's muck pile, as the heaps of broken rock were called. At first we did as we were told, even to breaking up hunks of quartz to separate the waste from the ore. This greatly lessened the quantity of our work and cost us many hard words from the shift boss. The duty of the shifter was to warn us against putting waste in the ore chutes, or ore in the waste corrals, and to give reprimands if we got the process mixed up. After that, his main concern was that we made a good showing of work.
So the ore chutes, fed by our shovels, continued to receive their daily quantities of waste rock. Once deposited in the chutes nobody could tell who put it there.
Throwing ore in the waste corrals was different, for the corrals were always open to inspection. The foreman made his rounds daily. He climbed into the corrals with his powerful light and little hammer and pawed around in the rock mass, wiping away the dirt, hacking chips off the stones here and there, apparently in the hope of finding some ore, so he might have the pleasure of loosing his rage on some poor mucker or, perhaps, if his breakfast had been bad that morning, of discharging him altogether.
The boulders had to be broken up by sheer physical strength with a huge sledge hammer. Win and I would hack off the corners of a boulder until, finally, there was only a rounded core. If this was consolidated quartz or iron, no amount of pounding could split it. In such cases small plug holes were drilled and a stick of dynamite inserted. These small blasts were "spit" at lunch hour, the miners always taking care to select a dining place as far from the blasts as possible. In time we learned to break up the boulders with a few accurate blows.
With the debris at last cleared away, the corralman having carelessly throwing good ore into the waste chute. I blush with shame to think of the silver we threw away on that first shift underground. The galena in its natural state is bright and shiny in color, pretty to look at, easy to discern. The silver ore, on the other hand, is gray and dull, much the color of commercial lead. Carefully we had picked out the galena, not knowing what it was, yet thinking it the most valuable of the minerals—silver perhaps—for on that first day we were not even sure in what kind of a mine we were working. But to the silver we had paid no heed, discarding dollars and dollars worth of the metal, I suppose.
There was almost as severe a penalty for depositing waste rock in the ore chutes for this waste had to be separated outside and carted in again to be dumped back into the huge corrals. All this extra work was expensive. It was obviously impossible to separate anywhere near all the waste, and at the same time make a fair showing with one's muck pile, as the heaps of broken rock were called. At first we did as we were told, even to breaking up hunks of quartz to separate the waste from the ore. This greatly lessened the quantity of our work and cost us many hard words from the shift boss. The duty of the shifter was to warn us against putting waste in the ore chutes, or ore in the waste corrals, and to give reprimands if we got the process mixed up. After that, his main concern was that we made a good showing of work.
So the ore chutes, fed by our shovels, continued to receive their daily quantities of waste rock. Once deposited in the chutes nobody could tell who put it there.
Throwing ore in the waste corrals was different, for the corrals were always open to inspection. The foreman made his rounds daily. He climbed into the corrals with his powerful light and little hammer and pawed around in the rock mass, wiping away the dirt, hacking chips off the stones here and there, apparently in the hope of finding some ore, so he might have the pleasure of loosing his rage on some poor mucker or, perhaps, if his breakfast had been bad that morning, of discharging him altogether.
The boulders had to be broken up by sheer physical strength with a huge sledge hammer. Win and I would hack off the corners of a boulder until, finally, there was only a rounded core. If this was consolidated quartz or iron, no amount of pounding could split it. In such cases small plug holes were drilled and a stick of dynamite inserted. These small blasts were "spit" at lunch hour, the miners always taking care to select a dining place as far from the blasts as possible. In time we learned to break up the boulders with a few accurate blows.
With the debris at last cleared away, the corralman having patched up the floors and repaired the damage to the timbers, the next task was for the timbermen to continue with their work. These men received the highest pay of the mine laborers for upon them depended the safety of all the men. The Hercules, many of the miners claimed, was the best timbered and safest mine in all America. Thus each step in the process of mining was carried on, but the stopes were a picture of confusion, for muckers, miners, and timbermen were crowding in their various tasks at the same time.
On the first day our shift boss, Patty Moran, gave us a liberal "bawling out" for everything in general. On the second day he very solemnly threatened to fire us, and walked off opening and closing his hands behind him and shaking his head. As I was engaged in the process of diminishing the size of a muck pile, during our third shift, the assistant foreman came by and irately rebuked me for putting waste rock into the ore chutes. This rebuke was more or less neutralized the next day, when he rather forcibly hinted that I might be depositing ore in the waste corrals. But we must have been gaining in wisdom concerning the ways of the underground, for on the fifth day, the foreman, Mike Welsh, made no comment concerning our work during his inspection of the mine. The sixth shift went fine. We were established.
The light grew bright on the seventh day. We were transferred to the yards as yardmen, a position paying mucker's salary. Of the 500 mine employees, there were only four or five yardmen and we were delighted at the chance this would give us to gain new experiences. This first call to the yards was a temporary job of two days, but we received more calls later on to do work on the outside. After our brief sojourn in daylight we once again returned to the underground. Time sped on, we gained the good graces of the shift boss, and were lost midst the clatter of the mine.