Every large mine has a "yards" . Here are located the saw mills, blacksmith shop, sorting mills, plants for compressing air to be used as power, engine rooms, furnace rooms, powder magazines, boarding houses and a dozen more establishments. A special yard crew of four or five men was always maintained. When yard work dwindled, some of the crew would go back into the mine. To our great joy, Win and I became permanently attached to this crew and, during our three months in Burke, spent about one month, off and on, in the yards.
These new assignments gave us valuable experience in a dozen different kinds of work and provided occasional opportunities to be free of the lead dust, gas, poor air, and dangers of the underground. We liked our boss, Pete, who first put us to work shoveling coal. Another shift was a coal job of a different sort. The company was the canyon fuel dealer and we were sent on delivery trips.
The first task was to sack and weigh the coal, one hundred pounds to the sack. If the delivery was to be made up the canyon a team and wagon was brought into service. But for all coal destined down the canyon we used a handcar. Loading it with filled sacks, we climbed aboard and applied the brakes. Canyon railroads, built at the pitch which is necessary between Burke and Wallace, are dangerous. Once a flat car in the yards got loose. Before it came to a safety switch three other cars had been knocked from their moorings and all four were clattering like demons down the canyon. If a man was hurt in the mines he was rushed to the hospital in Wallace by handcar. The seven mile trip could be made in seven minutes if the brakes were properly handled. Without this last condition one would never get there. Neither would the handcar.
During this coal delivery job we had many a breathless adventure. Our little car made scarcely any noise and, as it would hurl itself through the main street of Burke, people had to jump out of the way. Often we had to call out warnings and sometimes so narrowly missed people it made us tremble. Once we neglected to go ahead and close a safety switch. We were careening along at a dreadful pace when suddenly we found ourselves, the coal, and the handcar, in a heap at the side of the track. Derailed!
Win and I delivered coal, tons of it. And our scope of sympathy was extended to the field of another occupation—the coal dealer. As Win wrote in a letter home: "Climbing up forty steps with one hundred pounds of lump coal, or crawling through holes to inconvenient bins with the same amount, trying to get three tons in a two-ton bin, etc. are excellent diversions for the man who wants to reduce, but awful tasks for God-fearing coal heavers who want to retain their good standing with the deacons of the church. And then to have the customers come around later and tell you how it should have been done!! ETC! ! "
We worked in the company boarding house, the "Beanery," carrying unheard of amounts of fruit, eggs, chicken, flour, and who knows what. The boarding house job was always welcome, for the cook showed us his cookie bin and told us to "pitch in" any time. One morning we pitched to the tune of twenty-nine.
Then, once again, after a stint in the yards, we were back in the shelter of the underground and were glad indeed. For winter was coming on. The mine was always warm. Our shift had been changed to the "400" level where we mined lead with a little zinc.
It was in these new surroundings that we became acquainted with "working wet." This was the term applied to labor carried on in stopes or drifts where seepage water dripped or flowed from the ceiling. A worker in such places commanded higher wages, but a certain amount of water (judged by the foreman) had to be falling on him before such wages were his. I have become literally soaked through with water while working on "dry" wages.
In Burke we assumed much of the vernacular of the miners. As a sample of this, here was Win's description of his "wet" job as he wrote it in a letter home.
"About the only way a mucker can make more than his allotted four-fifty per day is to work wet. The extra four bits paid for such work looks good to the inexperienced miner but to the man who has worked wet a few days the additional lucre holds no enchantment. When a man is given a wet assignment, he first provides himself with slicker and boots, provided he has the jack. If the dough cannot be found in his jean pockets he must search the poor box (a receptacle where miners put their discarded clothing) for such equipment as he can find. I did not have the necessary sheckels so the poor box was my fate and thus equipped with leaky boots and torn slicker I entered the wet drift to earn my pay. Drift, the boss called it. It was the Gulf Stream. For eight hours each day while I trammed from a muck pile to a chute, with lagging as rails for my car, the water poured down on me from the rock ceiling three feet above my head. "
Win had to work hard to keep warm and this caused dense clouds of steam to rise around his body. His lamp, sputtering forth a feeble glow, would not penetrate the mist, so the work depended mostly on touch and guess. He would be completely soaked and at the end of the shift, more dead than alive, my brother would drag himself out for the icy, freezing ride through the tunnel. For five days he earned his five dollar "wet" wages, paying severely with a headache. Then the drift was abandoned and the blessed days of dry, easy work and four-fifty a day returned.
The days grew shorter, the mountain walls seemed to lift themselves higher and higher, until even the midday sun was hid from Burke. During the last period of our stay we never saw the sun at all. Cold weather settled down with a vengeance. And then we were called out to the yards!
There were longing thoughts of the warm underground to which we had become accustomed. Our clothes were no match for the cold. As we unloaded and piled lagging we raced like wild horses to keep warm. Then we didn't wish to go back. We became used to the cold; there was the fresh air, our fine boss, a variety of work. We wanted to stay in the yards, and did.
More opportunities for gaining experience in new occupations opened up. Several carloads of logs had to be unloaded, which gave us our first initiation into use of the peavey. We ran motor hoists, and hauled freight. Perhaps because the yard boss thought some emergency work might be needed in those areas, he took us on a trip through the sawmill, explaining its operations. Then a trip through the ore sorting plant. We followed a load of lumber from its entrance into the yards to its final use in the mines.
One night sixteen inches of snow fell in Burke. An equal amount fell the next day and kept on floating down. Motors which drew the ore trains and supplies through the yards couldn't run. All Burke was painted white. White until the snow became dirty, then the whole place became a mess. We were working in the yards and our job was to shovel snow. At first the most convenient way to be rid of the stuff was to remove the planking above the creek and throw the snow into the rushing waters. But the creek was soon filled; the little stream could not take care of its extra load. Then we shoveled it on flat cars. No empty trains left Burke after that. More snow fell. A terrible wind came up. The canyon became a pit of ice and cold.
Our plan was to leave the mines on Christmas and make the exit before being permanently snowed in. About a week before the holidays Pete, our yards boss, informed us that all the special work had been done, that he would have to send us back to the diggings. In a way we were sorry, yet in another way we were glad, for this would give us a chance to see the old stopes again before leaving. Our crew was working the night shift so we went right into the mine after our day's work in the yards, having decided to make a double shift of it.
A letter I wrote to Vera back in Howell was something of a summary of our three months underground:
"We are getting a lot more from this job than just mining experience. We figured up what we were getting and here are some of the things:
1. $9.00 a day between us.
3. Experience in mining.
4. A personal knowledge of the labor problem.
5. An idea of how to boss and how we like to be bossed.
6. An understanding of men—most of whom are as tough as the meat they serve at the boarding houses.
7. A lot of material for write-ups.
8. Religion. You need it more than at home, and when you get it, it's practical.
"You said you didn't like our work. We do. It is intensely fascinating because there is always a spice of danger present and there is a lot to be learned in mining. Today I had to pick and drill around in rocks loaded with 150 sticks of dynamite. One mis-stroke and you couldn't find the pieces. I have learned to load my blast holes as recklessly as any of them but I tell you at first we handled those soft spongy sticks with some care.
"The first day we worked here Win was helping to unload some dynamite. His helper dropped a stick. Win gasped. But instead of picking it up, the man kicked it out of the road. They handle it, and so do we now, just like so many sticks of candy.
"About the danger of our work—don't let that worry you in the least. We'll take care of ourselves the best we can and trust to Someone higher to pull us through safely. That's all any miner can do. For instance, half a dozen times I've struck my pick through sticks of dynamite concealed in the muck pile. It wasn't my carelessness but that makes no difference to the dynamite. We just have to know we're safe and you know it too."
The last few nights underground were pleasant although sleepiness was a problem. But we didn't shirk our duties. Our shift boss, Patty, was a man of few words but when he learned we were leaving, he spoke two sentences we'll never forget. "The day you started," he told us, "I was about to fire you. Now I just hate to see you leave."
On going into the hole the next night, having been working several hours on a muck pile over which no timbers had yet been erected, we were suddenly surprised by a dull crash. A huge piece of slab rock had dropped to the floor from the arched ceiling above. We had been working here for hours, supposing that the area had been thoroughly examined previously and all loose rock barred down.
I took a bar and climbed up on the pile to test the rest of the vaulting shale and quartz. Win was standing back. I reached up to tap the ceiling; he turned and stepped back to lay down his shovel. My bar touched some projections; my tapping produced a dull sound. Then a ton of rock detached itself and dropped—dropped in one dead mass—to the muck pile at my feet, and avalanched down to the spot where Win had been standing. We looked at each other, but said nothing. I tapped again. A huge mass larger than the first fell with a thud. Win spoke. "And we've been working under that all night." The remaining hours were spent in barring down.
We were led to think back on some of the dangers we had experienced in the past three months.
There had been another time much like this. I had been standing with Patty, our shifter, while he was barring down some rock. He turned to speak with a miner. Thud! Patty turned back to see me flat on the muck, knocked down by the falling debris.
Another time Win and I had been working together, shoveling ore into a chute. Our eyes were still strangers to the unnatural conditions of light. Win had seemed dizzy, and apparently without seeing the opening of the chute, stepped directly into it. He had caught himself and I had reached his side in time. Since our arrival at the Hercules one man had already been sucked down with the ore to his death, when he stepped into a chute.
We were always having experiences with dynamite. Often, Win and I unloaded dozens of boxes of the stuff, after it was brought in on the little train. That was no problem. But occasionally, when working in piles of muck, we would strike our picks through sticks of dynamite that had not exploded with the regular blast. Each of us had the more or less rare experience of drawing our picks up after a stroke, to find their points sunk into dynamite in which the unexploded cap was still lodged. The cap is the dangerous part. Even alone, a cap will make a violent explosion. In a stick of dynamite—well, the boss said he was lucky not to be forced to take off a day for our funerals, which was his custom at the death of one of his men. On our first month in the mine he had taken two days off.
Throughout our stay in the Hercules there were five other men killed. One of these was the foreman, the mighty Mike Welsh, known widely as the greatest miner in the Couer d'Alenes. His passing was a tragedy, the passing of a man loved and hated. About Mike, Win wrote in our diary: "Once a day, every miner, mucker, timberman, nipper, and shifter held his breath while old Mike walked through his domain and critically inspected the work. Sometimes a brusque 'Good morning' would be the greeting from the 'head push,' sometimes a good bawling out would be all the men got.
"Mike was a handsome fellow and usually had a pleasant expression on his face; but let something displease him, his face would become as hard as steel. He was a hard man to work for but was just, and could be kind when he desired, and he was always considerate of his men's safety. Along with the rest, we came to respect as well as fear him. A miner never knows when it will be his turn to be carried out on a stretcher and rushed to Wallace on the company hand-car. Our shifter, in laying out the morrow's work, generally put an 'if' in his instructions. Every minute in the mine is fraught with danger, and carelessness is the greatest sin. The foreman would tolerate no carelessness.
"Well we remember Mike's last day with us. Something had gone wrong in the mine and his usual complacent smile, as he watched his men unload at the station, had given way to a worried expression. He started to stare at Francis who for some reason stared back till Mike looked away. We went down into the hole and heard nothing of the tragedy until we were yanked to the top again at 4:00 P.M. Mike Welsh dead? Oh, no, that couldn't be! Other men had been killed and carried out before, but Mike was so big and strong it didn't seem possible he could be lifeless when we had seen him but a few short hours before. All his hardness was forgotten in the sorrow at his death."
Ascending in a cage with some piping, Mike Welsh's head had been crushed when a piece of the pipe fell from his hand and caught on a rock at the side of the shaft. He had often warned us workers about such hazards. Mike died while being rushed madly on the handcar to Wallace. The whole town went into mourning. The mine was closed for two days while five hundred miners boarded a special train—probably the first passenger train to enter Burke for years—to attend the Catholic funeral services in Wallace.
Outside the undertaking parlor all these men who had worked for "the greatest miner in the Coeur d'Alenes" lined up as the funeral procession went by. The service itself, much of it in Latin, was long and colorful. When time for the "sermon" came, the priest in charge did not really preach a funeral service. Instead, he let loose his eloquent tongue on the miners, many of whom he had never before had the opportunity to lead into the paths of righteousness.
Our journey to Wallace was the only time on our trip that we had taken a train; this occasion made it unavoidable. We made up for that breaking of our vow by hiking—instead of going on the funeral train—back to Burke.
On Saturday, the twenty-third of December at 3:00 A.M. , Win and I laid down our picks and started our climb out of the stopes. We went up the shaft for the last time. We rode in the very back seats of the little train so we would be the last out. We wanted to savor the mine and all its memories till the very end.
Our plan was to spend a couple of days packing. But our mine connections were not yet over. Our friend Frank Hyatt, mine bookkeeper, time keeper, and night watchman, wanted to spend Christmas night with his family. Could we take his place at work that shift, he wondered. We could.
With that final job, our work in the Hercules had come full circle. That evening, Win and I checked in the night shift of workers, just as we had been checked in on our first shift of work three months before. For the rest of the night one or the other of us, every half hour, made the rounds of the yards, inspecting the powder house, lumberyard, and all the buildings. In one hand was the night watchman's revolver. Win liked guns and would know what to do with it; I didn't like any kind of firearms and just carried it since that went along with the job. In the other hand was the time clock, with which we had to punch a key at critical places throughout the yards, to give proof that the rounds of inspections had been made.
That was Christmas night. On the night of December twenty-sixth, the boys of our club staged a farewell Christmas party, with a whole larder of goodies—even including turkey—provided by their mothers. The eats were followed by games, stunts, stories, a final pillow fight, and opening of presents until 10:30 P.M. The boys swore they would continue the club after our departure. This was the finest way we could have dreamed of to terminate our three month's mining experience in Burke. They had been among the most rewarding three months of our lives.
- Category: Foot By Foot Through the USA
- Written by Grace McKay
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