Graveyard Shift: The Last Gold Mine
[a different version of this piece appeared in Toronto Life magazine in February, 2001]
I once asked my father to explain why gold and gold mining are so compelling. He said, if you donít know, I canít tell you. But watch an old prospector, he said, heíll always have a little nugget of gold in his pocket, and heíll pull it out and heíll look at it and look at it and look at it. Gold is fascinating, he said.
You are driving along a road in northern Ontario, a gravel road possibly, in the bush; there is an outcrop of pink, no, red granite, a stern lesson in the turmoil of geological and glacial uprisings that make this landscape. In a gully there is a slate-grey pond fringed with lupines in springtime. A dark tower shape wavers as a reflection on the water. Your gaze travels upwards, beyond spindly birches and underbrush; there is indeed a tower, a simple narrow structure propped up it appears by some kind of scaffolding, wooden in the old days, steel now. The tower is almost windowless and capped by a little roof; an arm like a brace extends to the ground or to a lower roof. The tower encloses thick, oiled cable, miles and miles of it, a ladder and not much else.
Headframes are stark, beautiful sculptures, the inukshuks of mining towns.
Headframes stand over the collars of the shafts blasted straight down into the earth for the purposes of underground, hardrock mining. The shafts contain the cages and skips that bring men underground and men and ore back to surface. Cages (open elevators) carry men; skips (huge, iron, box-shaped buckets) carry ore, and are sometimes suspended below cages. The headframe encloses the cables used to winch the cages and skips up and down. The cables run up to a wheel at the top of the headframe, then down on an angle, into the hoist room, where the machinery running the cages is operated by the hoist man. If you stand beside the headframe of a traditional underground gold mine, you hear the sound of the air compressor, a gentle rhythmic thrumming, which you think to be the sound of the headframe. In fact the air compressor is the engine, the heartbeat for all the machinery underground. When the thrumming stops, there is an uncomfortable, unfamiliar silence, signalling that the mine is not working.
Wherever there is or has been an underground mining operation in northern Ontario, there is or was a headframe. Some are still covered in the tarpaper cladding of old; others have been renovated, some would say debased with coloured metal siding, which is what they have done to the Toburn headframe, now an unfamiliar, shiny red blot on the landscape fringe of Kirkland Lake. The new, glossy pale yellow headframe that marks Number Three shaft at Macassa Mine also strikes a dissonant chord. When Upper Canada Mine closed, Number One headframe was torn down, leaving only the mill, a strangely disorienting sight by itself. The question, how can there be a mill when there is no headframe, always flits through my mind. It is like an empty space on a puzzle. Number Two at Upper Canada (green trim, white tarpaper with the black bleeding through) should have been torn down years ago, but still stands, poignant and dangerous in its fragility, reflected as a dark tower in the pond beside the road.
For years after Lakeshore closed, its magnificent old headframe stood naked, stripped to its metal skeleton, looming over the town of Kirkland Lake on a high, granite bluff behind the Journeyís End motel. Kids climbed there and picked blueberries and snuck cigarettes and a few beers and threw rocks to hear a ring against steel. It was torn down a few years ago for safety reasons.
Experts and old-timers collect photos and amateur paintings of headframes and know at a glance one from another. Headframes are to northern Ontario what grain elevators are to the prairies, and fishing boats to the Maritimes. They used to signify life and work and industry; now they are grave markers. Northerners read a history with no future in their headframes.
When I was a child we followed old dirt roads up into the bush, guided by the sight or knowledge of an abandoned headframe not fully swallowed by the bush. We played in old mines. We climbed huge, clattering piles of diamond drill core at the Brock, smooth cylinders of pink and grey rock, broken into bits after the drilling process and discarded on the periphery of the mine property. We took picnics up to the old Queenston, even then known as old, where the shaft lay open to the sky and the weather and the curiosity of small children. My younger brother and sister dared, double-dared, to walk across timbers like tightropes high above the still open vertical tunnel. My brother climbed Number Two at Upper Canada years after it had been closed. We sat in rusting ore carts, pretending to drive. We invaded old bunkhouses, constructed like log cabins, with the shreds of brown, fibrous stuffing hanging from the walls, and floorboards rotting in places and crumbling chimneys and shattered panes of glass. We knelt in awe before a rusted shovel, a glass lantern wound in cobwebs, frying pans, bits of old stoves. We strained to hear the sound of lives from the generation of miners and their families before ours who lived in what we called the old camps. We knew what our history was.
In 1911, the scrubby, sombre landscape around a small northern Ontario lake became the focal point for a prospecting adventure, a dream of prosperity based on gold that has gone on for almost 100 years. The discovery of a fault line running under the shore of the lake resulted in feverish speculation and mine development and the town of Kirkland Lake. A fault line, like a jagged edge in the rock, a slip, a fracture in the earthís crust, is regularly associated with the presence of gold. This particular fault line is roughly a mile long; it is closer to the surface near the eastern edge of the lake, and descends deep as it moves west. Underground, people talk about the Main Break. On surface it is known with affection and bravura as the Mile of Gold.
By 1933 there were seven mines with seven headframes nudged up against one another along The Mile of Gold: from east to west, the Toburn, the Sylvanite, Wright Hargreaves, Lakeshore, Teck Hughes, Kirkland Gold, and Macassa. Around Kirkland Lake, near towns like Swastika and Dobie and Virginiatown, there were other mines: the Morris Kirkland, Bidgood, Upper Canada, Brock, and Kerr Addison.
During the Depression, mining towns flourished. By the early years of the Second World War there were more than 4000 men working in the mines of Kirkland Lake and in 1941 gold production was valued at $32 million. In the early '40s, there was a serious strike over the issue of union representation. Then gold was declared a "non-essential" war industry, and the ongoing war depleted the population of the town. For a variety of reasons in the '50s and '60s all the mines on the Main Break closed one by one rockbursts, production costs, the price of gold, the quality of the ore. All except Macassa. The population shrank to less than 10,000, the town shrivelled. By then the lake itself was scarcely more than a pond, because the mines poured their detritus, the spent rock known as tailings or the slimes to us as children into the lake.
The slimes look like fields of dried mud, which is what they are, the rock hauled up from underground, ground to successively finer bits in the mill, doused with cyanide, then zinc, in order to tease out and separate the gold. At the end, just two products: a pale, shining brick of solid gold (actually adulterated slightly with silver), fired in a furnace the size of a backyard barbecue, poured into a mould, cooled like a cake, stamped and shaken out to be put on the train to Toronto. And, left behind in the mill, ponds of a thick sludge, a paste, the wasted rock. Miles of this beigey grey stuff then shot out of big pipes laid over the ground, coating the scrubby landscape, gradually, over time, filling up the lake, the nearest lake. When I was a child there was no Kirkland lake at all; it had been solidified, filled, obliterated, but it never occurred to us then to ask, if this is Kirkland Lake, where is the lake? There were plenty of others.
We played on the slimes behind Upper Canada. We played softball and kick-the-can and hide-and-seek. There were acres of the flat, slightly resilient mud, the stumps of birch trees and rotted poplars the only landmarks. It was where the men went to track down the bears that came down to the houses at sunset in spring to eat garbage. In the winter we skied across the whitened slimes. Slowly, very slowly, the scrubby northern bush crept, crawled, found footholds in the slimes. Slowly, very slowly, with the closure of the mines in the town, the wilderness reclaimed the landscape.
Since the Ď70's there have been sporadic flares of prosperity around Kirkland Lake, fanned by the release of gold from the government-set price of $35 an ounce into the heady spirals of market-driven prices that have gone as high as $800 and back again to $300. Even the tailings are being sucked back up from the lake to be re-milled. The flakes of gold that were worthless at $35 an ounce are now worth coaxing out of the mud. And around Kirkland Lake, exploration continues; prospectors still walk into the bush with a compass, a pick and a sounding hammer, but they also plant radar devices in trees and do sonar readings of the landscape from low-flying helicopters.
But in Kirkland Lake itself, Macassa is the last gold mine. Macassa is the quiet kid who becomes responsible for the family long after the show-off profligate big brothers have blown their wad. The fortunes and misfortunes of Macassa are the barometer of prosperity. The abstract fluctuations of the price of gold are reported on almost every CJKL newscast, but the true measure of health in Kirkland Lake is a walk down Government Road, the main street of town that virtually follows the fault line, or a walk underground in the stopes and drifts of Macassa.
One thing to keep in mind about Kirkland Lake is that the seven mines aren't off in the bush somewhere; they are right under the town. First came the mining camp, seven headframes and seven mills, seven shafts straight down and from each shaft a network of the tunnels known as drifts. Then came the town. If you are sitting in the Golden Palms Restaurant on Government Road having coffee, directly below you, 600 feet, or 6000 feet, teams of men are setting rock bolts or tramming muck. Underground is an open honeycomb of shafts, stopes, and drifts; in the old days the mines blasted right up to within seven feet of each other underground, maintaining what are called boundary pillars, like rival cathedrals, between one another. Now even those boundary pillars have been mined out. On the surface, cars obeying an excess of traffic lights and skidding up hill in winter. Underground, the rumble of trams hauling ore, the constant shifting of tons and tons of rock. On the surface, a motley higgle-piggle of roughly paved streets over small hills, a crooked horizon of modest houses, church spires and the eloquent headframes.
The other thing to know is that there is very little real gold on the Mile of Gold. The town is plain and practical, even ugly. Gold nuggets are few and far between; the ones treasured by prospectors come from other fields. As my father told me, you could mine your entire life in the Kirkland Lake mines and never see a speck of gold; here, the rock has to be ground as fine as talcum powder before gold can be released. Maybe two or three men (the chief assayer and the manager) handle the daily samples of ore magically reduced by fire assay to shining little balls of gold that tell the story of how rich a certain vein of ore is. Very few people actually see the gold bricks, whisked away by Brinks security guards; in the old days, they might be loaded into a car to be driven by the managerís wife to the train station for the overnight train to Toronto.
I was born in Kirkland Lake; my father was a mining engineer who came north in the late Ď30s; he was for years the manager at Upper Canada mine and finally the manager at Macassa in the early Ď70s. My brother is also a mining engineer. We grew up attuned to the regular sound of blasting and alert to the more ominous, occasional sound of rockbursts. Our imagination was fired by the stories of the prospectors who came to visit my father, grizzled tough men whose entire life was thrown into an army duffel bag along with a forty-ouncer of rye; men whose ragged coughs and expletives floated up to us sitting on the landing late at night, as long, old stories of tortuous prospecting ventures were told and retold. It was all about this lustrous, gleaming substance that we never saw. (Of course we were taught at an early age to recognize foolís gold when we saw it.) We never thought about the connection between the earthshaking rhythm of the underground blasts and that glittering rich manís substance called gold that we were obscurely proud to be linked to. Any child could have told you the price of gold, but nothing at all about what was going on right beneath our feet.
My father found a reason to go underground almost every day. Every day he personally checked the assay reports done on every single rock face being mined underground. Every day he could have told me, if I had asked, what grade the ore was that day, how many tons had been mined, when the next brick would be poured.
I never asked. Mining in Kirkland Lake is a manís world. My mother lived a five-minute walk from the mine for forty years and never saw a gold brick poured. It used to be considered bad luck for women to go underground (in Kirkland Lake no women have worked underground). I went once in the late Ď60s with my father when he was still at Upper Canada; the power went off and I spent a tense, blind hour in an underground hoist room.
But in 1988, the year of the first, grand Kirkland Lake Collegiate and Vocational Institute reunion, Dave, my brother, and I went to Macassa and went underground together with the mine manager and the mine superintendent. The big yellow headframe at Macassa stands over Number Three Shaft, which plunges more than one mile towards the centre of the earth.
We reported in time to catch the last cage going down for the day shift. We watched the day shift roll in: "Stragglers come in and the first cage goes down about twenty after seven. The last guys to go down are the last guys to come up. Twenty after three is quitting time." Bill, the current manager and Art, the mine superintendent, provide commentary.
The men all go into "the dry" to change. This, I am told, is a huge, very hot room where they not only change for work, and change and shower at the end of the shift, but also hang their underground clothes, their diggers, overnight on an overhead pulley system to dry between shifts. No mention of if or when their diggers are actually cleaned. Hearty camaraderie booms from the dry, but I go into the washroom, having been assigned an orange denim coverall, steel-toed rubber boots that are a little too big, fat wool socks, work gloves, safety glasses, a hard hat, a heavy-duty belt, and a small lamp, which can be clipped onto the belt for now. I re-join the men.
"Good day Andy, how are you today, last night they put in ten more postsÖ"
"Good morning Michel, how are you?"
"Morning, Blaine in yet?"
"No, I havenít seen Blaine yet, itís still early. Now Michel, I took your chain saw yesterday, Andy and Blaine have got it..."
"Fern, I want you to move muck first off, then fill the Zimmerman with scrap; hereís a new chain for your chain saw... "
The civility of the shift boss greeting each man is notable, and I donít think it is for my benefit. There are more than one hundred men working underground; each one of them reports to his shift boss at the beginning of the shift. They are brought up to date on what took place in the previous shift and told what to do next, the only instruction they will receive all day. The atmosphere at the beginning of the shift is serious, but relaxed professionals sharing information. Up to the level of mine superintendent, and sometimes up through to mine manager, most men have begun underground and literally worked their way up. My fatherís first job at 24 was as a stope boss. The respect is mutual. It is not spoken, here, but mine management and miners in any case share a common enemy, the mine owners.
As the men report they take one of two tags hanging below their name on a board. This breathtakingly homely system is in fact the main form of safety, indicating at a glance if a man is up or down, underground or on surface. The telling moment comes at the end of a shift, when there must be two tags on the board for every miner. The worst moment of truth comes after a rockburst; if a manís two tags are not on the board after an evacuation, he is trapped underground.
At 8:10, we're standing at the collar of the shaft, ready to get on the last cage down for this shift.
"Weíre all going to fit in there?" (Me, a little nervous)
"Definitely." (Art, the mine superintendent, who used to work at Upper Canada and remembers me as a little girl)
"Just act natural, guys..."
A big bark of laughter from the men of the deep.
"Did you hear that, Bennie?"
"Act natural, right."
"Theyíre gonna put me in the movies..."(Bennie, the day shift clown, singing from the back row)
The cage operator buzzes a signal: two buzzes, down; one for up. The door clunks shut. The hoist operator (in the room on surface at the ground end of the hypotenuse triangle of the headframe) releases the cage and we drop, silently, gaining speed as we move, 800, 1000, 1350 feet per minute. "When weíre skipping muck or ore we get up to 1850 feet per minute." (Bill the big-bellied, good-natured mine manager.)
The cage is an open box that sways gently. The movement creates the illusion of a breeze, a cool, vertical breeze. The black, wet walls slide past, close enough to touch. We are twenty people, chest to back, shoulder to shoulder, hard hats bobbing gently with the movement of the cage, eyes adjusting to greater and greater degrees of darkness, slipping down together into the belly of the earth. The sudden descent is hard on the ears. There is what is clearly an unusual silence.
"Okay Bennie you can tell your jokes now."
"She said act natural not normal."
The voice of Bob Carlin, one of the great, old miners and union organizers of the Kirkland Lake mining camp, floats into my mind as we drop down:
What did you feel when you first went underground, did you find it scary?
No, it made me feel strong. I suddenly became a man. I only weighed about 125 lbs. Iíd yet to wear long trousers, just little boysí trousers and canvas shoes, Iíd never shaved. The manager, when he first saw me said to the mine captain, and this is underground, What crib did you steal that little fellow from? He doesnít look a day over 12, does he? Youíll have to get him out of the mine and quick too.
The buzzer signals a stop, the cage slows, slowly.
"Is it normally this quiet?"
Quick, warm laughter.
"Somebody put a muzzle on the men" (the quiet voice of my brother, Dave).
The buzzer sounds again, the cage stops, the door swings open, and we are deposited at the 4750 foot level.
There is a sound of rushing air, or water, and the voices of the men in the cage fade, laughing and talking now, as they descend deeper. There is an open area near the cage, and a small room carved out on one side, where men might wait for the cage, or rest or come to eat their lunch. The walls of the small waiting room are whitewashed; everything else is black. A man emerges from the gloom as we move away from the cage, into the mouth of the drift.
"Okay, Marian," says Art, "meet Terry. He's the shift boss."
"Weíre going to the 4735 stope," says Terry, nodding quickly to Dave and me. "The crew in there are rock-bolting getting ready to blast and put in more uppers. Weíll go inside. Itís a little ways. Itís a long walk."
It is darker than I ever imagined darkness. Natural light has never warmed this cave. It is a darkness with weight, if you think about the mile of rock on top of us. I pass through a fleeting moment of claustrophobia into the tasks at hand, unclipping my lamp from the belt, securing it on my hard hat, adjusting safety glasses. We, five in all, leave the comfort zone, the station at the shaft area, and become a file of bobbing lights, striking out into the drift, Terry in the lead.
The walls glisten, glitter. It is hot, very hot, and damp, and the sweat pours into my boots. It is unexpectedly silent, as we move deeper into the drift; the rock absorbs all sounds, and we only hear the sound of our boots, the sound of our breathing. Just our breathing? I feel the presence of ghosts, imagine the whisperings and laughter and memories of men who lived down here as surely as they lived on surface. There is a narrow gauge track set into the rough rock underfoot and the walking takes concentration.
I think about what I have just been told, matter-of-factly as if I would understand: rock-bolting, blasting uppers. I am in a foreign land, underground, hearing a foreign but familiar language. These words give me pleasure. This is not jargon, but plain talk, rarely multi-syllabic: drift, chute, stope, tram, muck, hard Anglo-Saxon words spoken by hard men. The words used by my father every day of his working life.
Now, as I walk just ahead of my brother who is the last man in the file, I remember my father taking me underground those many years ago. My father liked to have and to give correct information. He was a man who wanted to know everything about everything, and assumed that everyone else felt the same way. He was especially fascinated with how things worked, who worked, how things got made, what things were named. And he loved the mine. A few years before he died, I tried to have a conversation with him about mining. His words come to me now, underground. "No, no, no," he said, exasperated, (I should know this)...
In the industry a mine is simply a place where you mine underground. People in Toronto refer to people in Kirkland Lake as miners. People in Kirkland Lake refer to anyone who works at a mine like Upper Canada or Macassa as miners. At Macassa or Upper Canada, people only call the people who work underground miners. But underground the only people you refer to as miners are the stope runners, the people who drill and blast. Other men are trammers, timbermen, trackmen, nippers, muckers....
We are walking in silence, except for the occasional hiss of release of water, like an old-fashioned radiator being bled off. There are no markers, arrows, lights, nothing except a blackness that opens to let us through and folds over behind us. "Do people ever get lost down here?"
Art takes the question seriously. "When the men first come down itís a strange environment. Our system here is that the water and air lines are all on the right hand side on your way in. On your way out, if you always keep the lines on your left, youíll always end up at Number Three shaft."
We hear the sound of voices. The shapes of two men emerge from the darkness. They are at the mouth of a tunnel thrusting upward from the drift, a narrow tunnel, body-width, filled by a small wooden ladder that leads vertically up sixteen feet to the 4735 stope. A manway.
"Good morning, gentlemen," says Art, then turns to me. "What theyíre doing here is rock-bolting in the stope, getting ready to make another blast. We use both five-foot rock bolts in the back and eight-foot rock bolts in the walls, so the walls donít peel and we donít have too much loose in the walls. Weíll follow them up into the stope. PleaseÖ"
The formality, even underground, is surprising.
These men are stope runners, the kings of underground, the true miners as my father pointed out. Their work requires the most skill and training. Exactly where do you place an eight-foot rock bolt so the whole stope doesnít come crashing down when you blast? Exactly where do you set the blast? They form long-term partnerships; they are couples, who spend more time with each other than they do with their wives. Eight hours every day, side by side in the squeezed confines of a stope, holding heavy hydraulic drills the size of submachine guns up to the rock face. A visit such as ours is rare; they might see only their shift boss once in that eight hours.
Stope runners are also the highest paid workers underground. Motormen are paid a little less. "Motormen pull muck from the chutes and tram it up to the stations so we can skip it up to the surface," explains Art. From further down the drift we can faintly hear the rumbling approach of a tram rolling along the tracks.
"Okay, you can come on up!" A disembodied holler directly above us.
We climb up the steep manway ladder into the stope, a smaller, shorter tunnel than a drift, with no tracks. We grope our way along to the stope runnersí work site. In this particular stope, the grade is excellent; the yield of gold will be about six to seven ounces of gold for each ton of rock blasted out and hauled up to surface to the mill.
"Weíre very liberal in how we use rock bolts," says Art, "You canít really overbolt the stope." He shows me the metal netting used to contain loose rock, and slurry cemented into the walls of the stope for added strength. The mat. The two men adjust their safety glasses and earmuff-like ear plugs and position their hydraulic drills at the rock face. How long will they be working in this area? I ask, the area being the size of a small bathroom. "About three years until we get up to the next level. Itís a slow process, you have to work safe and you have to be aware of the ground conditions in your stope."
What are the wages like? "Good, very good," says Art, "the men who work underground lead a very very comfortable life." Bill, with a managerís authority to provide detail, adds, "The basic wage recently negotiated is $16 an hour; some men make more than $50,000 a year."
Underground miners are now mostly well-paid, contented workers. But in 1941, the miners of Kirkland Lake were involved in one of the most bitter strikes in Canadian labour history. "Remember Kirkland Lake," they said then.
We were a bunch of slaves! Just do what youíre told and thatís all. Oh yeah, we started to talk back. We couldnít talk back before. Oh no, you just do what youíre told. Yup.
The Kirkland Lake strike was an ugly, grim strike that pitted neighbours and families, even the churches, against one another over a cold northern winter. The memory of the strike surfaces when you ask questions of the old-timers. There are still people who are not invited to one anotherís picnics, and whose daughters would not be permitted to marry the sons of a certain family. People know still which grocer extended credit, whose father joined the Pinkertons to march against the miners, oh yes, people remember.
Bob Carlin, then well over 90, told me most about the strike. I visited him in a pleasant retirement home, the converted mine managerís house at Kerr Addison Mine. He appreciated with me the irony of the great union organizer spending his final days here. "We went out on strike on November 18, 1941," he said. "The first thing was wages, of course; the starting wage was $4.60 for an eight-hour shift, and really it was more than eight hours. Now the company pays for time going down in the mine, and coming back up; hardrock miners call it collar to collar. Then, there was firing people. Iíll give you a classical example; at the Lakeshore, the mine that sparked the whole movement, well, Harry Oakes, he had the money and he had the men he could sacrifice. Somebody lost an application card for the International Union of Mine Metal and Smelter Workers. And this man was signed up. But his name wasnít on the card. There was forty or fifty people working on that level and they fired everybody on that level."
Itís the one thing that bothered me more than anything else not to treat workers as a human being. We werenít talked to very nicely. I donít mind saying the name Lakeshore, they didnít treat people very well at Lakeshore. I can remember how the merchants thought of us, they thought we were wild at that time. And management didnít think very highly of us, asking for such things as a 44-hour week, or to think of people not working on Saturday night anymore.
"It started out to be violent but then the Ontario Premier, Hepburn, had guts enough to send in the mounted police, and it was pretty quiet after that." This is my father with the perspective of the mine manager. "Upper Canada didnít go out on strike. Our guys didnít want any part of it. We were the only mine working."
"What was it they didnít want any part of?" I asked him.
"Well, that particular union, I guess," was all he could muster, forty-five years after the strike. He was referring to the battle within the union between old-style communist organizers and more moderate CCF socialists, a conflict that made it possible for the mine owners to cry "enemy alien" and convince the government to send in both the police and the Pinkertons.
The churches were surprisingly militant. The Irish Catholic priest supported the strike; the French Catholic priest admitted to "scab-herding." The Methodists and United Church were for, the Anglicans, Presbyterians and Baptists against. Prime Minister Mackenzie King turned down the unionís request for intervention. The strike ended in failure on February 12, 1942. The Americans declared gold "non-essential" and started shutting down gold mines.
"There werenít too many gold mines in the States," said Carlin, "but by shutting the gold mines in Canada, they cut off our bread line. There was no money, it was winter, we couldnít beat old man winter, the mine operators, the church, business, everything else against us, oh no!"
Couldnít get anywhere in three months. Had to go back. Most didnít come back, they went south, into the army, the town went from 26,000 to 13,000 in a very short time. I went back, sure, I had two kids, my own house. And right after that we got a week off we never had before, a week holiday with pay. That was a big thing. Up. We won something. Respect, up, they talked to us. We werenít a bunch of Niger's anymore.
It was not until 1944 that workers acquired the right to collective bargaining. Since then labor relations in most mines have been reasonably cordial. My father took pride in the fact that during the thirty-eight years he was at Upper Canada, mostly as manager, there was not one strike. (In the early Ď70s, during one of the flurries of buying and selling gold properties, Upper Canada was bought and then closed by the new owners of Macassa. My father moved, or was moved, for the last four years of his working life to Macassa as manager. He grieved the closing of Upper Canada, in his way; this I knew from afar.)
Our head lamps send bobbing light off the walls as we climb down from the 4735 foot stope, back into the 4750 foot drift. Down here, covered in dust and sweat, I realize how the two worlds of Kirkland Lake, surface and underground, were always separate from one another. Men don't talk about their work; women rarely go underground. But still, on surface, from the time we were children, we knew what the rhythms of mining were. We knew the regular sound of blasting and what were the unusual shakes, tremors, booms. Just as a mother is alert through sleep to the sounds of a baby, so a miner's family never stops hearing the signals from underground. And miners sleep with one ear underground.
If you were in bed at home and you heard a rockburst the first thing you did was look at the clock and if it woke you up and it was three oíclock youíd say well thank God no one was hurt, because it was after quittiní time, you see...
The walking is cramped by low overheads and encroaching walls. I wonder frivolously if miners are mostly short, but Art gives me a serious answer, about leaving as few empty spaces as possible, building the waste rock as high as possible, so there are few gaps for cave-ins. We are approaching two more men drilling. When the sound stops, the silence hurts. Do people get scared under here?
"Some do, but if you do get scared you donít work underground."
Ask a miner if he feels safe underground and heíll say, safer than on the 401. Ask a mine manager the same question and youíll get the same answer. Ask both of them how they feel about rockbursts and they will give you a technical description of what a rockburst is. Mining is driven by the great northern virtues: a sense of adventure that leads prospectors into the bush until the day they die; a dogged stoicism about work that makes it possible for a man to descend day after day into darkness and danger.
Iíll tell you a funny one. This fellow wasnít long married and he was my partner, and there was a rock burst the night before, you see, and he came to work the next day and he says, I went home last night and my wife was pacing the floor with the insurance policy in her hands and she was wondering if it was double indemnity or not.
We go back to the cage, drop down to the 5100 level. It is hotter, noisier; we pass through an area where a drift man is mucking his round. There is a sharp, unpleasant odour, getting stronger. "What's the smell?"
"Ammonium nitrate fuel oil mix we use for blasting," says Bill. "They blasted yesterday, and the gases get caught in the muck pile so when they muck out the muck pile, itís quite strong."
We walk further; the ground is loose. Art points to a mat overhead, inserted to hold back rock; now I see signs of holding up and back the rock everywhere. "The rock is very brittle, fine-grained, very sharp," he says and then without a breath, "I don't know if you heard, there was a little snap, just now, we take that for granted, once in a while we get very loud snaps."
"Whatís the snap?" I say, although I already know.
"This rock is under pressure and we have created an opening here, so there is pressure added. The rock suddenly has room to expand and it will break; the wall here has to take added pressure. There is 27,000 pounds per square inch, when it gets higher than that, it will explode, it will explode and that's what we call a rockburst."
I had heard only the smallest sound, like an icicle breaking on a frosty morning.
If you put rock under great pressure, my father patiently explained, and itís hard brittle rock, eventually it will explode. If you put a cube of glass in a vice, and screwed it up it wouldnít yield, it would shatter. Thatís what happens in a rockburst. Rock under strain every so often it starts talking, it makes noises, you see. One time the ground started talking and creaking like the whole thing was going to collapse. All of us, five of us, we just stood against the pillar wall and waited, well nothing happened, we were probably perfectly safe, but I for one was scared.
Five years after my trip underground at Macassa, on November 26, 1993 at 8:10 in the morning, when most of the day shift was already underground, there was a rockburst on the 6600 foot level. I went back to Kirkland Lake the following winter. It was gloomy and dark, the snow hardened into dirty grey piles, the streets deserted. There were gaps along Government Road where commercial buildings had been torn down, like the teeth missing from the wrecked mouth of an old man. I went, out of a habit instilled thirty years before, to the Golden Palms, had coffee with men I had not seen since high school, eavesdropped on the banter. The banter never stops even in the worst of times, which this was. But people are not talking about the rockburst.
The person who told me most about the rockburst was another mine manager at Macassa; they donít stay for twenty or thirty years in one place like my father did. He is William Ruecker, a thin, precise man with a clipped German accent. I want to know what a rockburst sounds like; what do you hear? He answers carefully. "Depending on the magnitude, depending how close you are to the event, a deafening sound or a bump. People on the level could hear a sound like a machine gun going off, a rat a tat tat tat tat. In this event, some heard a scraping."
"Was there actually a burst, an explosion?"
He clears his throat, speaking slowly. "The whole sill pillar exploded, like unbreakable glass when you drop it on a concrete floor and it breaks into a zillion pieces. That's what happened to our sill pillar. I was in my office and the whole office building shook. We also have seismic monitoring in the mine so we can pinpoint immediately the site of an event. Normally when we have an event we release stench, it smells like rotten egg, and as soon as people smells the stench they collect around the shaft area and we notify them by telephone what to do. When we collected our people and brought them to surface there were two people missing."
We are standing over a diagram, a drawing of the underground section affected by "the event." He points to the exact location: "At the time one employee was descending into the stope and the other was working around the scoop tram, this one."
"They were buried under the debris when the mat collapsed?"
"That is correct. They were buried under anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 tons of rock." He scrolls the diagram carefully.
"Is this a typical rockburst?"
"No. The average rockburst would only peel less than five tons at a time. This was a very unusual event, probably the largest in North America, ever. The amount of muck that came down could not be moved by slusher. We tried an approach from the west end and that didnít work out either. We decided about December 6 that a new approach had to be planned and designed, a foot wall access at the stope, at the right elevation."
In other words, removing the men was planned like a mining operation. "We completed our development work around Christmas. Since Christmas until February 10 we were mucking continuously. Eventually we found one employee adjacent to the scoop tram, and as we managed to pull the ore from the stope, the body of the second employee came through with the muck."
Even without a tragedy of this magnitude, it would be hard to get miners to talk about being underground. They are by nature phlegmatic, pragmatic; men who go underground are not the type who reflect on their work or articulate their feelings. It is well-paid work; they say they do it for their families, to put their kids through school; this is their achievement. Many would be minimally educated and in the old days, a polyglot crew of immigrants who shared nothing but a certain skill and fortitude. They just do their jobs. The danger is not articulated, so not acknowledged. When a disaster happens, it cannot be spoken about by those who saw, or were somehow part of the event, even the rescue/recovery operation. There is a code, someone said. People who don't work underground only know anything by rumour, word of mouth, a clue here and there, a nightmare, a prayer.
Women? Look at that round table in the Golden Palms, occupied every morning by a succession of burly, red-faced, gray-haired men, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, eating steak and eggs and boasting about their hangovers. Served silently by skinny, pale women with bad hair and shy smiles; some joke back. The domestic and social dynamic in Kirkland Lake is that the men talk and the women correct them or throw in asides.
There is fear at all levels. In the local paper, the only descriptions, laconic, cryptic, were given by men on the condition of anonymity. Even the manager tried to set boundaries for what he could say, although I think he spoke openly. Union members feared for their jobs. The union is weak, I am told several times; the union is in the company's hands; there are many outstanding grievances. The last inquest was just a whitewash, someone said. But everyone puts jobs and the hope that the mine will re-open ahead of truth.
The town feels devastated, bleak, blasted. All the feelings are buried. The trapped miners are not once referred to as bodies until their bodies are found, seventy-seven days later. The recovery operation becomes the focus for energy, anger, and grief; one man works a twelve-hour shift looking for the bodies, then comes to the bar and drinks eight beer one right after the other. One night he does break down and cry. Men drink alone; they are in place at the bar by noon, and some stay all day, all night. Or leave briefly, to go home and hit up the old lady for some dough so they can come back. Friday nights, everyone drinks hard. Some of the young people are full of spunk and energy; but some, the sons of men I went to school with, are on their way to becoming third-generation alcoholics. My old friend drank from noon until two in the morning on Saturday, having been up the night before drinking until four. He has two jobs and a six-year-old son. Sunday is his day at home. He and his wife are barely making it financially.
In midwinter, during the rescue operation, there was a vigil, just off Government Road in downtown Kirkland Lake. There was, I was told, a fresh snowfall; everything was white and clean and still. Everyone brought or was given a candle. There are only 10,000 people now living in Kirkland Lake, half of them over sixty; there were 3000 people at the vigil that evening.
The bodies of the two miners were recovered in February, 1994. The mine was closed all winter, into the spring. During that period, Kirkland Lake was in mourning, and also in despair. There were rumours that the mine would never re-open. "It's as rough as it gets," my old friend said.
In June, 1994, a coroner's inquest cleared the mine of any wrongdoing in the rockburst, and made twenty-one safety recommendations. Macassa gradually changed its mining methods, to prevent rockbursts. The mine re-opened and returned to its former working capacity. Optimism stirred. Fishing and black fly seasons began. People got ready for the celebration in July of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the incorporation of the town.
There are always flurries of exploration and development around Kirkland Lake, the next mother lode discovered, new properties developed, old properties re-opened. But as all the other headframes in the town became unused, as the air compressors fell silent, as the mills stopped grinding up rock and spitting out piles of slimes in one direction, and stacks of pale, shining gold bricks in another, Macassa became, as my old friend said to me, the Last Picture Show.
the graveyard shift
To think that you could take that great gash all down through the earth, to 3000, to 4000, eventually down to almost 8000 feet, that you could do that, nobody had an inkling, nobody could see back then this great thing going on for years and years, this great violating of the earthís surface, you see...
"Clarence this is Art on 51. Weíd like to go right down to the 7000 and then straight up." Art, Bill, Dave and I descend ceremoniously in the cage like royalty to the 7000 foot level, just to have gone as deep as possible, and then are whisked silently to surface by the cage tender. The cage door opened, we emerged on surface, startled by the brightness, as the noon whistle blew.
The underground miners of Kirkland Lake make this journey twice daily, in some cases for forty or fifty years. The mentality is like that of going off to war, every day. And there are similar overtones of manliness, the collusion that enables men to continue to work wordlessly in dangerous conditions; no one dares to say, this is stupid; this is scary. Then there are the engineer and manager types, like my brother and father, men who also suppress mightily their feelings, men who see only the rational, the intellectual, the objective realities, and never the emotional complications. The colourful creature in this world is the prospector, the dreamer, the reckless spender and wild liver; the man who has made millions with shell companies; or the boasters, swaggering, diamond-knuckleduster-flashing men, always talking about the latest find.
All these men are joined in the enterprise of alchemy. Alchemy, like war, is a search for an elusive ideal carried out by men who risk their lives and sometimes die for something they never see.
Macassa stayed open, on and off, until June 1999, when the price of gold tipped the balance and it closed with what seems to be final certainty. Two hundred men lost work. A liquid cement is being pushed like toothpaste into the stopes, the drifts and probably finally into the shaft. Water will flood every crack and cranny. Maybe one day the big yellow headframe will be dismantled, and the slimes of Macassa will disappear forever under leaning jackpine, stick-like birch and poplar and a springtime rash of lupines.
Marian Botsford Fraser
Banff, July, 2000