Once a miner

photo of miners

A very young Gordie (left) with three buddies at the Keno Hill Mine, 1960. Photo supplied.

Gordie Graham

Dear Trent:

The story last week asking “are you a miner?”, has prompted me to recall my fond memories of spending nine of my youngest years underground.

Mining was not really in my blood but going underground at age 17. I didn’t have a clue of what I was getting myself into and looking back at it now, almost 60 years later, I often wonder what happened. Was it faith? Or was I just simply going blindly off into the world to seek my fortune?

I am just so happy now at how things turned out that I wish I could do it all over again.

It all started at an early age when I left Edmonton in 1957 and flew to Yellowknife in a DC-3. I stayed overnight in the Gold Range Hotel then next morning flew out to the mine site in one of Wardair’s Dehavilland Beaver aeroplanes.

I started work as a Bullcook at a Uranium mine called Rayrock Mines Ltd., about 150 air-miles north of Yellowknife. After only one month as Bullcook, I transferred into the lab and became a lab tech.

Canada didn’t have any hard rock underground miners at this time and had to import many from all over the world. There were many, Italians, French, German, Polish and Czechoslovakian miners and I spent a lot of time teaching them English and I in turn learning their languages … mostly swear words.

One day, one of the miners showed me his paycheque. WOW! It was three times bigger than mine and next instant I was asking the mine manager for a transfer to underground. Next day-just like Tennessee Ernie Ford says, I went to the Company Store and got me my underground gear.

The commissary attendant asked me “Gordie, you are spending all this money to go underground, what if you don’t like it?”

“I will force myself to,” I said.

I was only 17 years old and law said I was supposed to be over 18. Shh. Down I went and learned everything about mining in a short time.

The most important thing to me at the time was the big paycheques. The mine operated on the bonus system. The harder you worked the more pay you received. Production miners would get a bonus for tons trammed, feet of track laid, rock bolts drilled and even how many spikes used in the ties to lay track. I started as a trammer (railroad engineer) and worked my way up to Drift miner, the Stope miner and finally, the top paid Raise miner.

About a year later, I quit and made my way over to the Yukon for my next adventure.

I have lived your “hellfrozenover” cold January mornings, Trent, getting up at 5:30 in the morning to chip the ice off the wash basin to wash my face and taking my car battery from the warm stove area to the cold car outside to give it extra cranking power for the engine to fire up. This was in Keno City Yukon in 1960, when I lived in a shack with nothing—NOTHING—except a wood stove, coal oil lamps for light, a water bucket, and an out building in back.

The mornings were quite busy trying to build sandwiches out of frozen everything. The Mining operation I worked for was called United Keno Hill Mines and I worked underground at Calumet, about 40 mile drive from Keno and had to get there in time to change clothes and catch the cage (underground elevator) for lower levels in the mine.

From United Keno Hill mines I drove over to Dawson City and hired on with YCGC, Yukon Consolidated Gold Cooperation. I stayed in the Pearl Harbour Hotel on my first night before heading out to the dredge in the morning. For a short period (half summer) I worked on the biggest dredge in the world: Dredge 4, which is now on display in Dawson City. For some unknown reason on my return to the Northwest Territories I stopped in at Cassiar, BC where I worked for a short time, but didn’t like the product they were mining.

This was asbestos and the dust got into everything so I quit, kept driving and ended up at Discover Gold Mine in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. A Methane blast underground resulted in two of my mining buddies receiving third degree burns and another blast not 20 days later resulted in the mines inspector telling the mine operator: “one more blast and I will shut you down.”

I helped bring the four blast injured miners to surface and not long after, I quit that job and flew out and hired on with Giant Yellowknife Gold Mines.

I worked at Giant for a long time. One day I was quite proud of myself as I had finished drilling off my round and thought I had finished early as it was only 2:30 pm. Normal shift is 8 to 4 pm. I left my work area and climbed up my manway to tidy up a few loose boards on my manway cover.

As I was checking, I could hear shots going off from the lower levels. I thought to myself, “wow someone is blasting early and checking my watch found it was still stuck on 2:30.

“Holy crap, I am late!” I scrambled back to my work area to hook up blasting wires. I set off my blast and made my way to the station but now the mine was filling up with smoke and could only slide one foot down the track to find my way out.

I rang for the cage when I reached the station. I could just barely make out the huge—over six foot tall— cage tender. He says to me, “hey kid—you’re late.”

That was 1962 and I did not know this person’s name. Twenty eight years passed and when I started with Quintette Coal the first person to drive me around the Eagle’s Nest mine site looked awful familiar. I asked his name. Clay Isle, he replied. After all those years and such a brief meeting, we both remembered meeting each other in the smoke filled station on the 750 foot level down in the mine.

In the past I have been a team Captain of a mine rescue team and was a member of the CMI (Canadian Mining Institute) where this group would visit and tour a different mine each year. I am all -eyes and ears- when I hear of any mining news on TV.

Yes I AM A MINER and will always be!