By Del Trobak
All photos courtesy of Del Trobak. @copyright Del Trobak, except “a miner’s dream” @copyright Rio Tinto. ‘Rix Athabasca From the air courtesy of Edgar Oliver.
I was born in East- Central Saskatchewan, and raised on a farm. After graduating high school in 1956, I worked as a labourer in Edmonton briefly. In February of 1957, it was clear that a lay-off was coming. A friend and I started to wonder what we would do next. In those days, there was no central place to search for work. Today, the Employment Insurance commission is somewhere that lists jobs, plus the many sites on the Internet. In 1956 / ‘57, there was nothing except daily papers – and the most prolific source of information of all – the rumour mill. By the time the inevitable lay-off notice came, we had a tentative plan. There was (we heard) supposed to be a construction project at Fort Smith, in the N.W.T. in the spring. We tentatively agreed to meet in Fort Smith. I went back home to the farm, to wait for spring.
April came, and spring was on the horizon. I had refined my plan, and decided that instead of travelling directly to Fort Smith, I would first fly to Uranium City to try my luck, and then if nothing was available there, I would travel on to Fort Smith. In retrospect, this was a rather harebrained plan. I had very little money, beyond the airfare, and no job. Nor even word of a job. But I thought that Uranium City was the larger of the two towns, and I knew that there was at least some uranium mining there. Beyond that, I knew nothing.
So, early in April of 1957, I booked a flight on Saskatchewan Government Airlines out of Prince Albert, Sask. for Uranium City, and took the bus to P.A. On arrival in Prince Albert, I discovered that my flight had been cancelled, as the aircraft had mechanical issues, and I would be stuck for three days. As I said already, I had no money, beyond the airfare. I was forced to ask Dad to telegraph $50 to me. At that time, the telegraph was the only way to move money, and there were no credit cards. Even so, I did not eat much for three days. However belatedly, three days later my aircraft, a DC3, unpressurised and unheated took off for Uranium City. The aircraft was 3/4 loaded with freight, but there were a few seats at the back of the plane. I sat just behind a huge rubber tire destined for some heavy equipment. There were only a few passengers, and it was very cold in the aircraft.
On arrival in Uranium City, the few passengers quickly left, obviously having destinations planned already. One other man and myself remained, standing around looking like lost sheep. So we sort of teamed up, and we asked around the small airport if anyone knew of someone hiring. A guy said that he heard that a small uranium mine called Rix Athabasca was hiring. On the strength of that, the two of us shared a cab to Rix, maybe ten or fifteen miles away. Sure enough, when we arrived, we got a positive answer; they had two jobs, one on the surface, which included maintenance and some carpentry, and one underground. My travelling companion, who was maybe fifteen years older than me did not want to go underground, and I did not want to work in maintenance and as a carpenter. So the choices were easy, he chose the surface, and I chose the job underground.
There are points in one’s life when seemingly minor decisions made will turn out to be of major importance, a turning point. I didn’t know it then, but this was one of them.
So, a few days before my eighteenth birthday, I began my underground “career”.
The Rix mine employed about 100 to 120 people, producing ore from two small shafts. There was a camp, with several bunkhouses, an office building, a cook shack, powerhouse, head frame, and a “dry”, where miner’s clothes, wet and dirty, would be hung up to dry, and where we would shower and wash up. There were a few houses where senior staff, the manager, the engineer and geologist lived with their families. I was assigned to bunkhouse three, which had four rooms plus a common wash room, along with seven other men. The bunkhouses were home to the single men, or at least, men with no wives in Uranium City. Miners, who did have wives, lived in town, either renting or sometimes owning homes.
The miners were a diverse crew; many were European. In Uranium City, and at Rix, there was a large proportion of Germans. There were Italians, Romanians, Yugoslavs. There was a Dane and a Finn. There were some French Canadians, who had worked in Quebec and in the nickel belt of Ontario. Many had worked in the Yukon and British Columbia. Our Foreman was an Australian, another a South African. Many of these Europeans were in Canada, in the mines, only to make money, then they would return home. To be fair, we must remember that Europe, especially Germany and Eastern Europe had been very badly damaged by the Second World War, which had ended only 12 years previously. This (sending money home) did not always work out as intended; one of my friends, an Italian, saved every penny, sending it to Italy to his father, for a vinyard. He never went to town, never spent a penny. After two years, he returned to Italy, only to find that other family members had vinyards, but he personally had nothing. He returned to Rix for another year, and this time, he kept his money himself – trusting nobody.
My room-mate, Conrad, was a German. He was a bit older than me, and been in the “Hitler Jugend”, or Hitler Youth. These kids had been brainwashed until they were unrequited Nazis. I thought that Conrad was such a one, a Nazi at heart and in his manner. On the other hand, my new friend Peter was an Austrian, who was my age, and thus he was too young to be in the Jugend. He was a nice kid, and offered to take me with him when he went home for a visit. I did not go, a missed opportunity which I still regret. I have still never been to Austria. There was of course, no television, we were too far from any transmitter. Even radio was difficult to receive. At night, we could often receive the big American 50KW “clear channel” stations like WWV in Wheeling, West Virginia or Salt Lake City, and sometimes we got “Wolfman Jack” out of Detroit, but in the daytime – nothing. We listened to music, on Vinyl 33 RPM records. I eventually bought a reel-to-reel tape recorder. I recorded the records of friends, and it also served as an amplifier later for our guitar. We had a lot of fun with it!
For five days a week, it was work-eat-sleep-work, but on the sixth, the booze would appear. Taxis would begin to deliver bootleg bottles, and to shuttle people to the boom town of Uranium City.
Before I tell you about my life underground, I should explain just how the Rix mine worked. To begin with, Rix was an underground mine, not an open pit like we see at Fort MacMurray. To get to the ore body, one had to descend partway down a 1000-foot vertical shaft, in an elevator, or “cage”. Every 150 feet, a horizontal tunnel, or “drift”, perhaps a mile or more in length headed toward the ore body. Upward from the drift, a tunnel or “raise” would be drilled through the ore body and from the raise, “stopes”, or big hollow areas would be formed as the ore was blasted loose into the raise, where it would rumble down to the drift below. This was the money making part of the mine. At the foot of the raise, the ore would be loaded into small railroad cars, each holding about one ton. Short trains of cars would be pulled to the station at the shaft, where the “cage tender” would load them one at a time into the cage. The cage would lift the car to the “deck level”, which was perhaps seventy-five feet above ground level, part of the “head frame”. There, the “deck man” would tip the car into a bin, where it could later be dumped into a truck and taken to the mill.
My first job was on deck. There, I had to pull the one-ton ore cars out of the cage and dump them. Sometimes, there were big rocks in the car, which would not go down into the bin below, so they had to be broken up with a large hammer. This was hard physical work. I soon graduated to become cage tender. There, my main job was to push these same cars into the cage and send them upwards to the new deck man. In an eight-hour shift, a good cage tender and deck man could load and unload perhaps 100 or 110 cars. This is not a high level of production, so this mine produced only rich “high-grade” uranium ore, anything low grade was not shipped. The cage tender had lots of other duties as well. He would operate the cage to take the miners underground, and back up again. He would move goods, such as the dynamite, drill steel, and fuses. The work of loading ore cars was constantly interrupted. The second shaft at Rix was called “Leonard”, and there a “skip” was used used to take ore to the surface. The skip was a large bucket, so no ore cars were used, a labour saving method. The cage tender worked closely with the “hoist operator”, the person who actually moved the cage up and down the shaft. He sat in the hoist room, near the head frame, on the surface, where he controlled large winches that pulled the cages up and down. (There were two cages operating in a funicular fashion, one going up and the other down). The cage tender and hoist man communicated by a buzzer. The cage tender operated his buzzer by pulling on a cord, one situated at every level. There was a simple set of commands that the cage tender would send to the hoist operator, who would respond. For example, the cage tender would ring three bells, or buzzes. This said, “listen up, I have a command for you”. His response of three bells meant, “I hear you and am ready”. Then for example, the cage tender would ring “I want to go up to the third level”, and again the hoist man would respond. More codes would verify the command, and off the cage would go. Cage tenders were very proud of their speed and proficiency with the signals, and often the codes would be a blur to an untrained listener.
A few months after my arrival in Uranium City, I decided to take a few weeks off, to go home and help Dad with haying. Before I left home, there had been some problems at the farm with big rocks, so I thought that, in order to be helpful, I would take a few sticks of dynamite along with me. Accordingly, when I boarded the plane to Edmonton, I carried a little satchel filled with sticks of blasting powder. (I thoughtfully packed the blasting caps and fuses in another bag.) From Edmonton, I bussed to Saskatoon, then began hitch-hiking toward my home village. I was riding in a big truck when we hit an RCMP roadblock. The cop asked the driver if he had seen any hitch-hikers. “Only this kid”, the driver says. “Out of the truck, kid!” So here I am, sitting in the cop car, with my little bag of dynamite on my lap, undergoing the third degree. Finally, after several minutes, I asked the cop for whom he was looking. It turns out that a convict had escaped from Regina, and was known to be on this highway. The escapee was much older than I was, so on the strength of that, the cop let me out of his car. However, he told every car that came along to not pick up hitch-hikers. After a fruitless hour or so trying to get a ride, I walked back to the cop, and when he went to the driver’s side of an approaching car, I went to the passenger door, and asked for a ride with the cop looking on. And so, I got home, with my little bag of dynamite intact!
Back at the mine, I eventually became the tram operator, where I would take a train of empty cars down the drift to the loading point at the foot of the raise, and load the cars with ore, and then take them out to the station for the cage tender to send up. So these three positions, tram, cage and deck formed a team that depended upon each other. A delay at any position meant a stoppage of production. All three positions were paid wages only, no production bonus. As I remember, we were paid about $2.00 per hour, which was more than twice as much as I had made in Edmonton. However, to make any real money, one had to work in a stope, drift or raise, where production bonuses were paid.
Finally, I got a chance to work in a stope. This was a “cut and fill” stope. That is, the ore seam was more or less vertical, so we stood on yesterday’s broken ore and would drill to knock down more of the ceiling, or “back”. Our first job daily was to look for “loose”, or rock that was overhead ready to fall on us. We would pry this down until we had a solid, safe back. Then we would have to ensure that the height was right for drilling. We drilled with jack legs. These machines used compressed air to operate the drill, and the “leg”, which supported the drill and put pressure on it. If the height to the ceiling was too high, we would build up with timbers, which we wedged into the sides of the stope. If too low, we would have “muck” (ore) pulled out the bottom by the tramsman, to lower our working level, or we would shovel until the height was right. My first day was pretty much a disaster; I was set up at the wrong height, and could not get the leg angle correct. It was a difficult day. My partner was at the other end of the stope, and not much help. In all jobs, there was no training, just “OJT” and “monkey-see-monkey-do”.
Hard rock mining is a fairly safe occupation, safer than farming or fishing. I did however, have a very close call while working in a stope. This stope was almost horizontal, a huge open area. It was so high that I could not see the “back”, or ceiling. I was alone, scraping ore into the draw hole with a pneumatic winch. I had an equipment problem, and was standing near the draw hole in the centre of the stope. I felt, and heard a “ping” on my hard hat, caused by a pebble falling. I looked up, but could see nothing due to the smoke and haze, which is always present underground. But I thought to myself, that this was not a good sign. I turned to leave, and had taken only three steps when a huge portion of the back (roof) came down, right where I had been standing – tons of rock. I would have been a grease spot, nothing more. That aside, I was hurt three times while underground. Once I was hit by a large piece of rock and was hospitalized for a while, but nothing serious.
My income went up considerably while in the stope. Since it was a bonus driven system, everything was “high-ball”, work as hard as you could, drill until an hour before quitting time, then load the holes with dynamite, and at the proper time, light the fuses and leave quickly. Everyone in the mine lit his fuses at the same time. Then we would take the cage to the surface, shower, and repeat again on the following day.
I never did work in a raise, except as a helper, but at the very end of my three-year stint, I spent two months in a drift. Both the raise, and the drift are really “highball”. There you are paid by footage of advance. So if you do not complete your drilling on time, you cannot blast, and so make no footage advance that day, a major financial penalty. But this is where the money is; a good raise or drift miner could make three or four times that of a stope miner. I found the drift very difficult. First thing at the beginning of the shift, we would scale the loose, then muck out the previous round, hauling the broken rock away. Then we would have to lay railroad track as the drift progressed, and extend air and water pipes. The two of us would then drill 8-foot holes; load with dynamite, and at the appropriate time, blast. The noise of two jacklegs roaring in such a confined space meant that I often went home stone deaf. Like anything, it is a learned skill, and becomes easier over time. I left the drift before I ever got good at it.
I have said that hard rock mining is a relatively safe occupation, however the highball mentality can have consequences, and a drift miner of my acquaintance paid the penalty. Blasting, in a stope, is fairly straight forward, as there is always space for the broken rock to go. In a raise or drift, it is not so easy, a miners experience and knowledge of rock is important. Because you are trying to advance straight ahead, the rock, the first holes blasted, must be made to fly, not down in to an open hole, but straight out. Thus the first holes to be blasted must be drilled with precision, and loaded with just the right amount of dynamite, or the rock will not fly straight out but may “freeze”, into a congealed powder, and stay in place. In that case, the mess must be carefully picked out, by hand, as there sometimes remains some dynamite, and a blasting cap, which you do not want to accidentally detonate. It is much faster to use the drill to clean this “frozen” bootleg out, but it also is a lot more dangerous. This particular drift miner was a “highballer”, and used his jackleg. He drilled into a blasting cap and the resulting explosion took his eyes, and his career.
Uranium City, when I arrived in 1957, was a boomtown, unlike anything I had ever seen, or would see again. On the north shore of Lake Athabasca, the only way in was by air, from Prince Albert, or Edmonton. There were several mines in the area. The biggest mine was Eldorado. Then there was Lorado, Lake Cinch, and Gunnar, as well as Rix Athabasca, and other small mines. In the area, there were also some “hi-grade” operations. In these places, one or two men, sometimes more, would prospect the area until they found an small ore body of very rich uranium ore. Then they would mine it, and get it to market however they could, by canoe, boat, dog sled or sometimes by air. This would have to be very rich ore, but they could make a lot of money!
The town itself had most of the amenities. There were two hotels, the Uranium Hotel had a large men’s only tavern. In 1957, the tavern was unlike anything I had seen in my home town, or in Edmonton. A huge bar, it was literally standing room only. One would jockey to the front of the crowd, buy a bottle of beer at the stand-up bar, then holding the long neck bottle he would circle to the back of the crowd and work his way forward until, by the time he got back to the bar, his beer would need replenishing. To take a drink, you had to hold your other arm in front of you, protecting the beer, so that it would not get accidentally jammed down your throat by the jostling crowd. By 1958, the tavern had calmed down a little, and most patrons sat at a table.
Beer cost $1.00 each, an outrageous price I thought, when it still cost only 40 cents down south. Beer (and everything else) was shipped in by barge from Fort MacMurray, or Waterways, as it was then called, during the short summer season. Once freeze up arrived, no more fresh beer, and by spring, the existing beer supply was getting pretty “skunky”. When the word got out that fresh beer had arrived, there was a stampede to the tavern! Sadly, the hotel was burned to the ground, probably in 1959. At least one truckload of beer was “rescued”, from the still-smoking basement by an enthusiastic beer drinker – he and a buddy disappeared into the bush, not to re-appear for many weeks!!!
There was a Hudson’s Bay store selling groceries and other things. The Bay sold bison meat; it was cheaper than beef, which had to be flown in. Milk was reconstituted from powder, didn’t taste the best, but that is what was available. There were several restaurants, (I remember Bartlett’s café), a butcher shop which carried excellent European-style meats, a drugstore, a modern school, an RCMP detachment and at least two churches if I remember correctly, a Catholic and a United Church. And a liquor store. Gus Hawker, a prospector who had made a lot of money in the early days of the boom was still around. There was a small but well appointed hospital, which I made use of a few times, under the able care of Doctor Grey. I remember attending at least one public dance. There were a few places in town where one could rent a room, other than the hotels. One popular spot was “The Cabin Courts”, not far up the hill from the Uranium Hotel. There, several small, very basic bungalows could be rented by the day. It was known to be a lively spot on a Saturday night !!!**!!! I do not remember any sign of prostitution, however one of my acquaintances brought his new “girlfriend” back from Edmonton after his leave. She caused a minor explosion of sexual diseases among his friends.
It was a town with a stratified society. The town’s people, businessmen, police, teachers, doctors and nurses, entrepreneurs etc. were the top of the pile. The miners, whose work and money drove the whole society, were seen as inferior, and did not travel in the same circles. Metis, and to some extent, Aboriginals, made up the service level, waitresses, cleaners, luggers and toters. There were many Aboriginals and Metis who lived their own lives outside of town, in an area called “SGA”, for Saskatchewan Government Airlines, because the float plane base was nearby. They were ignored for the most part by everyone else, but because my friend (and future brother-in-law) Willie Mercredi’s parents lived there, I spent some time in those modest homes.
There were several hundred miners, mostly single, and with a pocketful of money, on the loose on a Saturday night in Uranium City. There were few available women in the area, mostly Metis and Aboriginal girls, and I am afraid that many girls were treated unfairly, to say the least. The alcohol flowed; luckily there were no drugs. But girls were plied with liquor, to be certain, and then men would often take advantage of them. Every one was guilty to an extent, but some men were worse than others. Uranium City had been an active mining area since the 1930s, when gold was mined at Goldfields, a few miles away. Thus there was quite a population of Metis in the area, and many others came from other northern towns, like Fort Chipewyan and Stoney Rapids, looking for work. I made friends with a Metis family. The father was white, married to an Aboriginal, and they had several children, male and female about my age. I often visited with them on weekends. One of my fondest memories is the scent of birch wood smoke on the crisp winter air as I walked down to their pretty log house.
At Rix, I worked closely with Harry Adams, and we became friends. We often went to town together, and we eventually went partners in a car, a beat up 53 Chevy. We began spending a lot of our spare time at a small café, the “Acme Café”. A log building, it sold simple food and was popular with many miners. There were a few rooms to rent in the back, and bootleg rum could sometimes be found there. The crusty proprietor, John O., kept a 30 inch starter (drill) steel under the counter – his peacemaker.
There were two waitresses, Alice, from Fort Chip, and Louise, from Stoney Rapids. I guess it was inevitable, but the four of us teamed up. I remained friends with Harry and Alice Adams for the next 50 years, until their deaths. To everyone’s surprise, they eventually married, and had a large successful family.
Eventually Louise and I moved in together, first to a small apartment above the taxi stand, later we moved to a small log cabin on Lake Cinch, about a mile out of town. Rix owned, or at least had access to this area. It contained a soft-ball diamond, so we visited the area regularly as soft-ball was very popular. There was an inter-mine league and competition was fierce. Mines would hire college students for the summer on the basis of their ability to play ball. When I saw the few empty log cabins nearby, I fell in love with the area.
It was a beautiful setting, right on the lake. In any other location, these sites would have been worth a lot of money. We rented from Rix, very cheaply. There were three houses in our little lakeside community. Electricity was provided part time by a generator, and we drank lake water. There was no indoor plumbing, but both of us were used to that. We heated the tiny log cabin with a pot burner, an oil stove that had to be filled with a pail from the 45 gallon drum outside. I learned that stove oil that is really cold will not burn, so I had to bring a pail of oil inside to warm up, 24 hours ahead of when it was needed. In cold weather, I would have to rotate the oil drum, and pour the oil out of the 3 inch bung, as it would not run out the small hole, it was lumpy, like Vaseline. (An interesting aside – many modern houses in town would lose their heat during the coldest weather because their oil furnaces would stop running, due to cold oil.) I drove a ’49 Pontiac, which would reliably start in mornings as cold as -40 degrees F, but colder than that, I walked. I first saw a temperature of -65 degrees F that winter. By the time I had been in Uranium City for a couple years, in 1959, Louise and I married. A small wedding in the United Church, officiated by Rev. Douglas Shanks was followed by a house party at the LaFleurs, attended by friends only, many of them miners from Rix. The wedding photographer, a friend who volunteered, failed in her task, and photographs of the wedding are few and far between. I didn’t spend a lot of money on the wedding; I went to work the next day. Sadly, Rev. Shanks suffered a terrible blow later. When returning from Eldorado, his car slid into a lake due to icy roads. His wife, and I think one other person died.
The first of July was a holiday in UC, and there was always a parade. In 1959, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinborough also visited UC, but these pictures are of the July 1st parade.
Louise and I continued to live in the cabin until we left the North. Louise had family who lived in Uranium City, sisters, Blanche, Florence and Rosa and a couple brothers passed through periodically. Willy M was married to Blanche, and we became friends. Willy and I fished (with a net) in nearby Martin Lake. I was not allowed to fish in that manner legally, but he was, being a local. We sometimes bought a quarter of a caribou from an Aboriginal; I hunted ptarmigan, and caught fish. We bought a large portion of our annual food by “grubstake”. Through Rix, during the summer we had filled out a long list of our expected grocery bill for the coming winter. Perhaps 4 cases of condensed milk, 1 case of beans, 2 cases of canned tomatoes etc, and it had been shipped in by barge and the money deducted from our pay check. Dry goods only, fresh food we bought at the Bay. Willy, along with Louise’s brother George and I went on a couple of hunting trips, but always came home empty handed. Once we took our freighter canoe to Lake Athabasca on an overnight fishing trip. It was a good life.
We discovered that a baby was on the way, and when Cathy arrived, I was working at the Leonard shaft, owned by Rix, in a stope with two others. I took Louise to the hospital, and went to work, as was normal for the period. Fathers did not go to the delivery room. When she was in labour, several times during the shift, I climbed the 150 feet of ladder to the surface so that I could phone the hospital. When Cathy was on the way, I had realised that I needed to do more than work underground, if the family was to prosper. I enrolled in an electronics school in Toronto, Radio College of Canada. It was an intensive course, one year long, divided into three semesters. I could not afford to live in Toronto for a year, without pay, so I opted to take the first semester by correspondence. It was a tough grind, working underground five days a week, but I struggled through and finally finished the semester. I had to pass an entrance exam, so when spring was coming, three years after I arrived, we “sold” our grubstake and brand new fridge, (we never did get paid), and headed south, with baby Cathy in arms. We went back to my parents home for a couple months where I would write my (supervised) entrance exam.
My time in Uranium City broadened my horizons considerably. This was my first real job, my first time “out in the world”, so to speak. I was exposed to many Europeans, to their cultures, and food. I learned about Italian salamis, copocollo and mortadela, German meats, bratwurst and cheeses, none of which I had seen before. I learned to appreciate different music. Many miners are surprisingly sophisticated in their musical tastes. Peggy Lee, Louis Armstrong, Louis Prima and Keely Smith as well as Ella Fitzgerald were just some of the jazz artists that I learned to love. Louise and I went on to have three more children, and today, more than six decades after leaving Rix Athabasca, I have often wondered where would I be, who would I be, had I not taken a gamble on Uranium City? Today, we have grandchildren and great-grand children in Yellowknife, and working elsewhere in the area. Although I never did return to Uranium City, in a way, I have never left the North.
About Del Trobak
I was born in Saskatchewan in 1939, and raised on a small farm. After graduating High School in 1956, I worked briefly in Edmonton, but in the spring of 1957, I went to Uranium City, where I worked underground for three years at Rix Athabasca. In 1960, I went back to school in Toronto, graduating in 1961 with a diploma as an Electronics Technologist. This led to a three year job with Burroughs Business Machines in the Defence field, working for NORAD ( North American Air Defence.) This was followed by 8 years with DeHavilland Aircraft (again a Defence contractor), with contracts to the American Army and Canadian Navy.
Following this, I spent a few years in the Atlantic provinces, taking part in surveys at sea, for customers who were involved in Fisheries research, oil companies baseline studies etc. These jobs took me from Greenland to Peru. In 1978, I returned to the North, to Tuktoyaktuk, where I became involved in Oil exploration. This field took me from the Canadian Beaufort Sea, to the Alaskan Beaufort and the Chukchi Seas, eventually to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland and the waters off Nova Scotia. I retired after more than 45 years working.