Chile Mine Rescue Teaches Us That Modern Civilization Built on Mining — John R. Hunt (On the Rocks)

I spent most of one night and the next day watching the rescue of the Chilean miners. Like most people I am delighted, and a little surprised, that the rescue was successful. The news they are likely to make a very healthy buck out of their adventure is also pleasing.

I thought the commentators missed one point when they were pontificating about mining and miners. If it were not for the metal ore miners dig up, modern civilization could not exist. This is not an exaggeration. Just walk around your home and consider all the things made out of metal, or held together with metal.

Plastics have replaced some metal but I even your computer has some vital bits of gold and other precious metals performing tasks I do not understand and cannot spell. That awful tangle of wires that connect your computer, printer, scanner and also connect to the power source are most likely made of copper, possibly from the same mine the 33 Chileans were trapped in.

Mining is dangerous, even if safety regulations have made mining a lot safer in Canada than in many other countries. Even as this is written there is news of miners trapped beneath the surface in Ecuador and a much bigger and nastier accident in China.

According to many reports the Chinese mines kill more than 2,000 miners a year. There are not only many big operations which can be supervised but also many illegal small mines where anything goes.

It seems the working stiff does not count for much in the curious mix of political communism and rampant free enterprise that is modern China.

Canadian mining was once unregulated and terribly dangerous. In 1953, I was researching a special edition to mark the town’s 50th anniversary when I stumbled on a report in the 1909 edition of The Cobalt Nugget.

It noted that the coroner for Temiskaming had recorded more than 100 deaths in the Cobalt mines during the previous year. Most of them were caused by “falling objects.” Men were killed by rock falling as they dug deeper for silver. I read somewhere that many were killed as the early shafts were sunk. Look at some of the early photos and illustrations and you will see there were no hard hats, and I doubt if safety boots had been invented.

Everything was primitive by today’s standards. There is an eyewitness account of the famous Dr. Drummond stitching up a gash in a miner’s leg. It noted that the doctor’s training was pre-Listerian and that between stitches he took a puff on his cigar while sticking the needle into the mattress. Only the tough survived.

It was the Cobalt mines that inspired or forced the first safety regulations. My introduction to mining was before the Second World War when my father took me to a subway construction site. The London tunnel miners laboured all day digging out sticky clay. They sometimes worked in compressed air as the Thames River often threatened to break through.

In Noranda I went up instead of underground. I accepted a challenge to go to the top of a new chimney being constructed for Noranda mines. Carried up in an open bucket and standing on a platform 200 feet above ground, I discovered I am mortally afraid of heights.

At Cobalt my first trip underground was a disaster. At the Rockzone mine I had to walk across a plank over a large hole. I slipped but fortunately the hole was full of water.

The late Lou Cadesky was a great promoter and for many years he kept the Cobalt mines alive. He usually called me to get pictures when he had some spectacular silver.

For the rest of the column please go to the North Bay Nugget website: