CHARLES DOBIE : LOCAL HISTORY
KEARNS & VIRGINIATOWN, ONTARIO

Kerr Addison Underground

By

There are many pictures on this website of Kerr Addison Mines, including pictures of past employees at specific events, but there are no stories "about" Kerr Addison . . . what it was like to leave surface and head underground. What went on down there? What was it like? This is my attempt to address that gap in V-town's illustrious past.

Mike Molotkin, 2010
Mike Molotkin in 2010.

It is January 15, 1977 and I am in my second week as a full time employee of Kerr Addison Gold Mines Ltd. As I walk the two km or so from my parents' house on 27 street in North Virginiatown to the mine gate, I can clearly hear the humming noise emanating from the mine, which is perched up on the hill overlooking highway 66. The hum comes from the cables that run from the top of the mine headframe (the tallest building on most mine properties, it is hollow to encompass the cabling) to the very bottom of the shaft. The cables are affixed to the cage and skip which continue to move men and materiel up and down the shaft on a continuous basis.

As I approach the mine gate, on this -25C clear and crisp morning, I can see large amounts of steam coming from the bottom of the headframe and from the adjacent "dry". Mining terminology is pretty specific and I will endeavour to explain these terms further on.

I enter the the "punch clock room" and retrieve my punch card from the row upon row of identical cards lined up for every employee. I find mine, #1652, and insert it into the punch clock. "Chung" the clock rings out and stamps the time on the card . . . 07:31 am. The cage leaves at 8 am so I have about half an hour to get ready.

I replace my card into the row board and walk the 100 yards or so toward the mine dry. This is where all the street clothes are hung and the mine clothes are put on. As I enter by walking up a small slope and into the west facing door, the smell of drying clothes, aluminum powder, sweat and steam is very noticeable. I find my green painted locker and begin to disrobe. After shedding every vestige of my "civilian clothes", I walk, just in my birthday suit, down a flight of concrete stairs to the next lowest floor and find my stall. The chain securing my "mine basket" is affixed securely to stall #1652. I unhook the chain and like drawing water from a well, hand over hand, I slowly lower the basket and, lo and behold, my mine clothes hanging below the basket come into view from their overnight perch about 50 feet above me.

I place my watch in the basket and retrieve my gloves. I then put on my long underwear, denim overalls and my checked jacket, grab my yellow hard hat that has two ear-covers attached and put on my mine boots. Each boot weighs about two pounds and has three distinct ribs of steel running across the toe portion of the boot. The boots even have two side holes about the size of today's Toonie coin, to facilitate hanging the boots onto hooks provided below the basket.

Once I am all suited up, I raise the basket back up and secure the chain. I then walk down a narrow hallway that connects to the "lamp room". Here I see Steve David who is busy repairing and testing the various miners' lamps. I take a fully charged lamp and battery from the row of such lamps placed there for use. I then continue down the hallway which starts to slope towards a large white plywood board fastened to the concrete wall on my right. There I find my metal tag with number 1652 on it, and move it from the "out" portion of the board and place it on a nail in the "in" portion of that same board, hanging it on a nail that forms part of a row of such nails lined up directly below the number 4200. This tells everyone that I am going to go to the 4200 level of the mine to spend my work day. 4200 means that it is 4,200 feet underground!

The process of moving the tag from the "out" board to the "in" board is strictly monitored and is in place for safety and search and rescue purposes, should that be required. It is also a violation of the Provincial Mining Act to wilfully move some else's tag or otherwise tamper with the arrangement of tags. Mine rescue needs to know who is working where at all times.

Next, I head to the shift boss window. This is adjacent to the tag board and is basically a row of identical windows / wickets where each shift boss on duty sits inside a small room. Each miner lines up at their respective window and awaits their turn to be briefed by the shift boss on the goings on from the previous shift, and to receive written instructions on what work is required for their shift at their work location. These instructions are transcribed onto paper and placed into a small metal type book that the miner can retain and refer to during shift. My shift boss is Paul Ranger. On the other side of him sits Hans Kneiremen, Lou Bougie and Frank Sacher, who occupy the other three open windows.

At my briefing I am told to take a "motor" (as miners call it, but it is actually an electrically-run locomotive) from the station at the 4200 level, retrieve three full 10-ton cars next to stope 4000-14 and dump them, then fix the track in drift number four and scale the walls adjacent to this track, replace the fish plates and clean. This is expected to take most of my eight-hour shift to accomplish. I have a partner, Michel Paquette of Larder Lake to work with today. What does all that mean? Basically I need to retrieve a fully electrically charged locomotive engine which is parked overnight next to the shaft on that level station and drive it about three km down a tunnel to a specific area of the mine. I then need to ensure the work "stope" directly above my level on the 4000 level is empty and the "cars" which are over-sized buckets on four wheels, are full of crushed rock. I am to dump those rocks and then repair the track that these cars and locomotives travel on. Sounds pretty basic, but remember this is all accomplished in complete darkness and almost three quarters of a mile underground. Not for the faint of heart!

Now the mine whistle blows loud and clear, like a long distance train whistle during a cold night. This signals to all miners present that it is time to make their way to the Number Three shaft area and await the arrival of the cage.

Each miner sits on their lunch pail. They are made of riveted steel and improvise as a handy seat, for the shaft area has no real seating options. There is a green light glowing next to the shaft indicating it is in operation. Next to that is a large wooden home-made board that extols how many days the company has gone without a work-related injury. You can watch the cable vibrate to and fro, as it is being wound up on the reel located in the top of the headframe.

Mines number their shafts for exploratory and continuity reasons. Shaft One and Shaft Two had been decommissioned and taken out of service many years before.

Think of a large hotel elevator where you await the arrival of the elevator car and you enter via sliding doors. The mine cage is exactly the same principle, except there is a man called a "cage tender" operating the cage by standing inside and giving instructions to the hoist room.

The cage finally arrives. It's a double-decker that has two separate compartments, each of which can hold about 90 men. The first loading is announced via the mine's speaker system as simply "Number Four shaft". Miners who are required to take an internal shaft and second lowering to their work location get to go down first, because it takes them longer to get to their assigned work place. So . . . that includes me.

I get into the cage at this Number Three shaft which will take me down my "first leg" of the trip. The trip down the shaft has me hurtling to the 3,850 foot-deep level in about three minutes, or roughly 1000 feet a minute. The cage slowly glides to a stop and lines up exactly with the station floor and track. That's because Harry Curtis is at the hoist. Harry has been doing this job for many years and he actually sits in a room about 200 yards away from the shaft. He manipulates the cables that are wound on a drum then run up to the top of the headframe and down the shaft, with the skill and expertise of an artist.

At the 3850 level I have to wait for the "subway cars" to come to the station. This long string of "man cars", each car carrying about ten miners, arrives shortly. Everyone piles in and we are off for about a 15-minute ride to the "internal" Number Four shaft. This is a totally separate shaft and runs further underground from the 3850 level to the bottom of the Kerr Addison mine, at 5,900 feet down. The hoist man at this shaft is Otto Bock. Once at the station for the Number Four, we congregate waiting for the cage to arrive. The lowering process is repeated and we are lowered down the shaft. My trip from 3850 to 4200 is quick as it is only three levels down. I had actually walked up from 4200 to 3850 on occasion. The air at this level's shaft is noticeable musky and not as fresh as Number Three shaft.

Once I exit the cage, the "station" beckons. The station is where men and materiel congregate as they make the trip up and down the shaft. Each station is the only place that offers light bulbs and light over and above what is on your helmet. The station is also where the lunch rooms are, the shift bosses have an office and the electric locomotives are also parked here to receive their daily electrical charge.

I take one locomotive, back it out of its parking spot, and head down the "drift". This drift is a long tunnel that connects the shaft to the actual mine workings. In my case the drift on 4200 level is about 1.5 km long, and as I operate the "motor", I drive at about 40 km per hour and pass the "ore pass" and several cross-cut intersections. It is from the actual drifts and cross-cuts that a miner accesses his "stope" (basically a room comprising of all rock, and where all the drilling and blasting takes place). To access the stope usually entails walking up or down 16-foot section ladders inside a "manway". Stopes are worked by mining out the rock in either an upward process to the level above, or a downward process to the level below. No side-by-side stope operations go in the same direction, to prevent cave-ins or collapses. Each stope also has a number attached next to the ladder, similar to a "house address" so that everyone can find their work location.

Finally, about 40 minutes after leaving surface, I arrive at my work location. Once in the blackness that is working underground, cries of "how she go" and "hey partner, give her hell", can be heard in various manners of English, inflected with dialects of the miners who hail from all over Europe, Asia, USA and Canada. It is a fraternity premised on survival, assistance and respect, as each miner plays a vital and pivotal role in ensuring the mining actually gets done, and each gets to go home at the end of their shift.

I bid farewell to the cage-tender, Charlie Lapierre, and walk towards the charging stations to pick up my locomotive, one of three that is sitting waiting for me. These locomotives are about 1/5 of the size of a railroad locomotive and have 20 batteries hooked up in parallel to give power.

Here I see shift boss Clem Dorval sitting in his little wooden 4 x 6 "shifter office". Clem is going over paper work and takes a moment to talk about his exploits working at another mine in Chelmsford ON and how that mine had the deepest single shaft in Canada (Creighton Mine) and "whoa what a trip dat was, for sure", he says in his noticeable French accent.

I pull the three-inch round coupling from the charge box and see that the needle indicating a full charge is right where it should be on the locomotive's dash, if you could call it that. I then back the unit out of the station parking spot and wait near the "roundabout table" for my partner Mike Paquette. The roundabout table is a steel dial type piece inserted into the track bed and flush with the floor. It spins once a locomotive is parked on top, and that allows the locomotive to be rotated 180 degrees so that it can face the proper direction before heading down the drift.

Mike Paquette gets off the next arriving cage and we greet each other. Mike has to recount how he did on his latest hockey game in Larder Lake. We both jump on the locomotive that is really only designed for one operator and head down the drift. About 10 feet ahead we come to a set of heavy steel ventilation doors. Opening these produces an immediate rush of air, but the doors are in place to ensure any gas, fire or excessive wind is not compromising the overall effectiveness of the mine's ventilation system. This mine is one of the best, so we are told, in respect of fresh air capability and ventilation processing. The air shafts that run throughout the mine are augmented by two large submarine engines on surface that power huge fans to ensure surface air is drawn down into the bowels of the mine.

We close the vent doors and all of a sudden the need for a head-mounted lamp is obvious, as it is pitch black. Our light seeks out the general terrain in front of us like a lighthouse sending out a beam to a wayward ship. The track ahead glistens with moisture and polish, indicating good air quality, and frequent rail use. That's good. Rusty rails are a sign of limited use and perhaps an area of the mine one should not venture into, as no one may have been down this stretch for a while!

Think of the level as something that mimics a highway or major street on surface. The drift from the station to the level's stopes and cross-cuts can be compared to a tree trunk and the branches above. The drift is the trunk and the branches are the cross-cuts. So the distance between station and stopes is usually about 1/2 km or so. There are intersections with other streets (or cross-cuts as they called underground). As you rumble throughout the drifts and cross-cuts, you can easily spot the yellow hand-painted signs made of wood that provide you with the address of "stopes". I am now looking for 54-1/2 stope on 4200 level, so that it can be "pulled".

This means positioning the rail cars I am pulling under the "chute" of that stope which is being mined down. The miners actually enter their work place on the level above, which is the 4000 foot level and walk down. I am going to empty their mill hole. Mining relies heavily on the principles of gravity, meaning rock that is broken on the level above, is then scooped into a large round hole in the floor of the stope so it drops into a mill hole. The hole gets full and because of the chains at the bottom of the hole holding in all the crushed rock, it is the motor crew on the level below that must manipulate those chains and empty the hole by discharging the rocks into the waiting cars below. (It's like a laundry chute process, with the floor below the recipient of the laundry).

Today I am the chute-puller and Mike, my partner is the locomotive operator. Carefully we approach the chute at 54-1/2 and I walk slowly in front of the advancing locomotive and 3 x 10 ton cars to ensure the track is clear, no other miners are in danger and the chute is aligned properly with the empty car to be stationed below. Once this is complete, I walk up a 10-foot ladder into the gangway and find the chute lever. Activating this pneumatically-controlled lever releases a rush of air and the chains and "grizzly apparatus" moves, opening up the chute to permit the release and free flow of rocks out of the chute / mill hole area. Timing is of the essence because you must only permit an exodus of rocks to fill up the car below -- too much rock flow and it overflows and you will have a mess to clean up.

Once one car is full, the train is advanced a bit more and the next car is filled up. The goal is to empty completely the mill hole above. This permits the mining crew on the level above to resume blasting, scaling and slushing, to eventually push more ore into the hole. The fact we emptied the mill hole will be communicated to the shift boss by recording this event in the metal book we received with our instructions back on surface.

Mining, as I mentioned, works on the gravity basis, so we have three full 10-ton cars (they actually weigh 10 tons when full, hence the name) and we head the one km or so to the "ore pass". Arriving at this location in the mid-point of the drift, we see the ore pass dump station. Here there is another larger hydraulic opening steel door that is adjacent to the track we drive on, but the door is at ground level and must be opened to expose the big opening in the floor. This opening is where we dump our full cars. As Mike activates the hydraulic door it is my turn to ride the locomotive and line up the first car with the opening. Upon doing this, the platform next to the door opening raises slowly, and catches the "bogey wheel" affixed to the side of each car. In raising the bogey wheel, the car bucket slowly tips to one side, thus creating a fulcrum, swinging open a hinged door on one side of the 10-ton car. The more the car tilts (the wheels remain on the track) the more the rock inside pours out and into the ore pass. The process is repeated with each car. The rock we dump drops all the way from the 4200 level down to the bottom of the mine at the 5900 level for eventual crushing. The drop of almost 1,700 feet is daunting and is the reason safety around this area is paramount. Think of this drop as the height of the CN tower and it gives new perspective to what goes on here! Some miners have actually miscalculated, or tripped or have been trapped in their locomotive as the entire train of cars somehow tumbles into the ore pass opening. Certain death then occurs.

This mining process, albeit not the mining one envisions, such as standing with a drill or dealing with explosives, is non-the-less integral to the overall operation, as the rock that has been drilled, blasted and moved has to go somewhere and somehow get to surface, so that that illustrious gold can be extracted.

The rock we have just dumped to the bottom of the mine will be crushed at the 5900 level by a huge internal crusher that can reduce a large two-foot diameter rock into one the size of a golf ball in a matter of minutes. The crusher operator then ensures this newly-sized rock is loaded into a "skip pocket" and when the cage comes down to the bottom of the mine, the skip which is the counter balance on the other side of the cable, goes up. Mining is really efficient and wastes very little energy or electricity. The skip then dumps this rock into an internal pocket at the 4000 level. There a large conveyor belt built on an incline connects the 4000 level to the 3850 level, as I previously mentioned. The rock moves to the 3850 level along this belt, like items at a grocery check-out, and is once again "skipped" up to surface after loading into the Number Three shaft counter-balance. Once on surface the rock makes its way by travelling on another conveyor belt into the surface mill, to be refined, treated and eventually smelted inside the refinery to produce . . . GOLD!!

On our way back to the cross-cuts to empty more chutes, we see a light approaching us. This light is much like a motorcycle headlight, but it bobs and sways to indicate it is in fact attached to the helmet of someone approaching. We slow the train and come to a complete stop. The light gets brighter and eventually our lamps afford us a view of the holder, as he emerges from the shadows cast by our lamps. The underground Captain today is Lou Bougie and he is wearing his lamp and inspecting the goings-on on the levels within his beat, which is all of Number Four shaft operations, or in this case, levels, 4000, 4200 and 4400. We greet each other and exchange production data. Lou advises me that some of the track in Number Two cross-cut is damaged and that some fish plates securing the steel track need replacing. He draws a crude hand-drawn map and dispatches Mike and me to fix it. We are the journeymen on the "level" and it is our job to maintain our track.

Mike and I go off to the station to get the parts and proper tools we need. A fish plate is a rectangular piece of steel that has pre-drilled holes in it and is affixed to separate sections of rail and holds the two rails together. Once we obtain the tools and parts, down the drift we go. We had early parked our 10-ton cars on an unused section of track.

It takes us about an hour to make the repairs. Beside the underground tracked drifts ran a breadbox-sized ditch. This ditch is parallel to the track / drift and runs for the entire length of each drift from the station to the cross cuts. The ditch is designed to carry away excess water used in the drilling and blasting aspects of mining. Another benefit is that if a miner is ever lost underground, simply looking in any ditch and following the direction of the water flow will lead back to the station. All water flows towards the station and the shaft, as the ditches have a slight grade to them. No need for GPS here!

Eventually our shift boss Paul Ranger comes along, doing his rounds, and directs Mike and I to go to the "timber yard" and obtain four posts and four girts, to reinforce a square set that was in need or repairs. We were to deliver this material to 58-1/4 shrinkage stope on the 4200 level. This means we have to go down one level and then take another "motor" to that level's timber yard, get the wood and deliver it.

We decide to break for lunch at the station prior to hailing the cage and moving to the next level. The station will afford us more fresh air, a lighted environment that permits you to dispense with your hard hat and head-mounted light, and relative comfort of sitting on a wooden bench, versus sitting on a piece of rock or the locomotive. At the station we meet up with miners Richard White and Ron Wollner of Virginiatown, Donald Veinot and Stan Materny of Larder Lake, Bill Reynolds of Virginiatown, and Johnny Yargeau of Kearns, who make up today's lunch room crowd.

Once lunch is done and we discuss the day's world events, sports scores and of course the weather, it is time to call for the cage to come pick Mike Paquette and me up. Now, we could just take the ladder system that runs beside the shaft and climb down to the next level, but with our tools and underground heavy boots, this may be a challenge. The ladder system is comprised of 16-foot ladders in sequence separated by a platform. Using this series of ladders takes you down the 200 feet.

Approaching the shaft, we see the steel door that rises above the height of our heads and feel the rush of air as it traverses the length of the entire shaft. We take the phone and wind the crank a few times which raises the hoist room. We tell the cage-tender (the guy who directs the operation of the cage) to come pick us up. In a few minutes the cage arrives. This cage, as do all of them, has a three-part safety system to prevent falling out. First the cage tender lifts up the bar that runs horizontal with the cage floor and swings it up, next the sliding mesh door is opened and finally the metal shaft door. Mike and I enter and greet the cage tender, George Eastman. George is a veteran cage tender and operates this system with ease.

George instinctively grabs the long hanging chain that has a rubber handle and pulls it in a series of carefully timed yanks that signals to the hoist room where he wants the cage to go. Each yank of the chain in a downward motion, emits a DUH - DUH - DUH - DUH - DUH noise. This signal, very much like Morse code, is understood by cage tenders and hoist room operators alike. The command requests we be taken to the 4200 level, 200 feet below us. Hoist room operator Otto Bock, then releases the brakes on the cage (called "dogs") and the cage slowly lowers, as Otto moves the hoist lever forward to unwind the drum. All of this is unseen to us, as Otto sits in the hoist room at the top of Number Four shaft.

Upon arriving at 4200 we quickly pull out with a newly charged locomotive and head off down the drift to the timber yard. As I mentioned each level has a "store house" of various pieces, shapes and sizes of lumber. This lumber is used to reinforce mine workings in a stope and is basically a crib type of support system, similar to pillars you would find in your basement. We are able to locate the timber yard quickly and find a flat car, hook it up to our locomotive and load four posts, four girts and four caps. Each piece plays a part in the support efforts of a stope and each piece of wood was cut and shaped to fit together with another piece and basically hold the structure together without the need for nails. The post is the main support and then the girt runs horizontal to the post. The cap is the top piece of wood, so when all is said and done, you have an arrangement of all the four pieces and it forms a neat box shape. This box shape can be stacked one on top of another to ensure the floor to ceiling part of the stope is properly reinforced.

We deliver the wood to the proper stope and upon arrival open the small metal grated door that is flush with the ground next to the track and directly below the stope in question. We open the air valve to the "tugger" (a small air-operated winch that has wire cable wrapped around its drum) to signal to the miners below that their requested shipment of wood is about to be lowered down. The miners hear the air rushing and a quick tug on the cable signals a lowering. We wrap the cable around each piece of wood separately and then lower it but activating the tugger. The wood goes down a wood lines tube designed to get materiel into the stope.

This exercise takes about an hour as at times the cable hangs up on the wood-lined tube and needs to be manipulated up and down to free it. This is completed without ever seeing the miners who accepted our delivery, but we know sometime that's how it works. Well now that we have completed this task, our shift is just about over. Its time to go back up to the 4000 level and reclaim our motor and 10-ton cars and "pull" some more chutes to empty more mill holes, to ensure the mining process on our level can continue. We check our watches and find its time to end our work day, or as miners confidently call out to their partners: "quitting time".

The ride up the shaft from 4000 level up to 3850 is short, followed once again by the ride back to Number Three shaft in the man car. The noticeable scent of human sweat and dirty faces surrounding us in this man car is a testament to the hard work miners perform each day in breaking rock. No one speaks, but each is rather reflecting quietly on their own the accomplishments each has made in the pursuit of GOLD, plus they are all tired, as we are!

The station at Number Three shaft on the 3850 level is now crowded with about 40-50 miners who have appeared from various locations on 3850 level and below. At this point in its illustrious mining history, Kerr Addison Mines is an aging mine and the bulk of its underground operations is concentrated on levels 2850 to 4200, over the two shafts. Every level above 2850 feet has been "mined out" and has no employees working in those areas. Remember this mine first started production back in 1938, so its been almost 40 years!

The ride up Number Three shaft to surface takes about five minutes or so. We hurtle up the shaft and see each lighted level and its station flash by, like stops on a subway line. The air gets noticeably fresher the higher up we go. Frost is now visible on the exterior of the cage and the air gets noticeably colder. The cage has an open ceiling, but it is screened in with mesh. However, it affords the rider the opportunity to look up, to see surface and the small square of light that creates. As we rise higher and higher, this square gets infinitely larger, indicating that soon we will emerge from the depths of the mine and re-join the rest of civilization that has gone about their daily lives . . . on surface!!

The cage now comes to a smooth and gradual stop. I exit and make my way past the shift boss offices to the "IN-OUT" tag board, moving our respective tags to the IN board, then head back up the ramp to the lamp room, drop off our head-mounted lamp, and then slide our lunch pails down a tube to the security room. While I am in the shower, my lunch pails gets opened and checked by security staff who work in the "Dry" as its called here, to ensure no miner / underground employee, is trying to sneak out explosives, blasting fuse, or even a chunk of gold-bearing ore.

As I approach the Dry to hang up my mine clothes and have a shower, I see my Dad, Felix Molotkin, standing next to the dry entrance. I say "Hi Pa", and he asks how my shift went. I reply that it was "a good day and glad to be back on surface". Many miners rush past us, as they are anxious to shed their underground garb and get into the warm and inviting shower!

I disrobe, hang up my mine clothes, raise the chain hand over hand, and see the clothes and basket rise to the ceiling. I should add that while in the shower, my mine clothes will be sprayed with a fine mist of aluminum powder which is used to prevent a mine lung disease called "silicosis". Miners call it "Black Lung."

The Dry is exactly that . . . a large concrete square room that houses all the mine clothes, and boots and what not . . . and its dry!!

After my shower I walk up one flight of stairs to the next floor that contains our lockers. On the way to my locker I pick up my lunch pail which is now prominently displayed with many others in neatly arranged rows much like a Post office box lobby. Each lunch pail sits in its own cubbyhole.

I dress quickly and exit the locker room only to be greeted by the now -30C cold air. After being underground in 72F (21C) air this is quite a shock. Only to be repeated tomorrow!!

The sun is setting now on this 4:30 pm, January day, as I walk . . . crunch, crunch . . . in the fresh snow to the mine parking lot.

The mine whistle rings out in a long dragged out shrill which signals to the rest of Virginiatown and its residents that the Kerr Addison day shift is now over. The Town's residents can expect their sons, brothers, fathers and husbands to be home soon.


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