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NEWFOUNDLAND'S ISLAND OF IRON
The Story of Bell Island
That Picturesque "Rock" in Conception Bay
By Joseph R. Smallwood
The Evening Telegram, April 24, 1920
"A little world by itself" was what I mentally characterized Bell Island, when, last week, I landed on it for the first time and spent half a week there for the purpose of gathering material for this article. The very first impression received was the undreamed of extent of what the people living thereon seem to love to call "The Rock." Having often viewed it from the bottom of Conception Bay, which was some distance away, the Island appeared to be no more than a mere rock in the water. Yet it is six miles long, by an average width of two miles, giving a total superficial area of twelve square miles. The shores of the Island are for the most part very abrupt, presenting mural cliffs all round, except at two points on the Southern Side of the Island, the Beach and Lance Cove. These cliffs range from a hundred to three hundred feet in height, and the highest elevation of the Island, inland, is 495 feet. The contour of the surface is comparatively level, or rolling. On the front, or that side facing the shore of the Bay, is found the agragrian - like portion, while the Banks, or that portion facing roughly out the Bay, is the industrial or mining section. Intervening are marshes and growths of young fir.
There is a small landing wharf on the Beach, facing Portugal Cove, and, back a little, a "slip." The Island rises at a grade somewhat approaching that of Springdale Street, and two sets of rails, side by side, have been placed thereon. The passengers from the ferry-boat just step in from the wharf to the bottom of the steep grade and enter the car. This resembles an enclosed railway freight or boxcar, with a narrow compartment at either end for the ladies. On the ceiling there is a rail running along for the passengers to hold onto while the car is mounting the slip. As it goes up the second car comes down, both meeting about halfway. The fares on the slip are five and ten cents and the novelty of the thing makes it worth the fare. At the top of the grade, back a little, there is a "station," where everybody disembarks, the line extending no further inland. However, you are spared the walk across the Island by the presence of a number of carriages, which have been waiting there since the ferry put out from Portugal Cove. The drive from the Front to the Back of the Island will prove interesting. The road is covered with cinders, on account of the soft nature of the soil. The cinders, becoming crushed, make good roading. Practically every road on Bell Island is treated in this way.
Almost across the Island is the thriving township of Wabana, where are situated the mines and companies' headquarters. Shops, stores, businesses, etc., and a moving picture house, public buildings, etc., are to be found in proximity. The name "Wabana" an Indian word meaning "The place where the daylight first appears," was given the location in 1895 by Thomas Cantley, whose name is closely identified with the iron mines of Bell Island.
One of the first things to perplex the visitor is the way; apparently, the two companies are mixed and overlap each other. There are the Dominion Iron and Steel Co., and the Nova Scotia Iron and Steel Co. It is days before you can succeed in knowing the different claims. When you think that you are on the Dominion claim, you may really be on the "Scotia." This difficulty does not present itself to the residents of the Island, and gradually becomes less and less difficult even to the casual visitor.
Of the geological nature of Bell Island, and the section of Conception Bay in which it is found, I will say but little, - first because the reader would not be interested in reading it, and second because I know little about it. Bell Island, with Little Bell Island and Kelly's Island, are the remaining portions above water of a great trough of Cambrian rocks, which extended from shore to shore, filling the area now occupied by the waters of the Bay. Although the mines which are today being worked existed there for thousands of years, their presence - or perhaps I should say that their extent - was not popularly know, though Anspach, in his history, published away back in 1819, mentions the fact of "an iron mine occurring at Back Cove, Bell Island." It was known around the Bay, however, that the rocks lying about the surface of Bell Island were extraordinarily heavy, and schooners used to come to it for ballast. Anchors were frequently made by enclosing the heavy "red rock" in frames of young fir trees, such as are often found in various places over the country to this day. It is said that the discovery of the real extent of the mines is due to the custom of taking rock from there for ballast. A schooner lying at a premises in this port, so the story runs, was having her ballast thrown upon the wharf. An English geologist, who happened to be standing nearby, saw in the ballast and iron ore of excellent quality. Taking some samples with him, he had them assayed in England, when their excellence was ascertained beyond doubt. The Scotia Company was the first to begin work - in 1895. To the original owners of the property the Company paid $120,000. Four years later the Scotia Company sold out part of their claim to a (then) recently - formed company, the Dominion for $1,000,000. Since then both companies have been vigorously prosecuting the work of mining, and in twenty years, between them, they have exported about 18, 000,000 tons - of which 12,000,000 or an average of six hundred thousand tons a year, - came from the Dominion, and about six million from the Scotia. For the first five years all mining was surface work, and seven slopes have been opened. Although such an enormous quantity of ore has been already exported from the Island, the vast deposits there have been barely touched, for, as Professor Howley said, the ore bands, both on Bell Island and under water, contain the stupendous total of 3,635,543,360 tons. There is ore enough there to supply mining for generation after generation, "now and forevermore." The iron is red hematite, is of a very excellent quality, almost free from rock and very easily mined. It is claimed to be the best iron ore bed in North America. The ore is all in one great, wide bed, about ten to twelve feet in thickness, and beginning at about the centre of the Island and running out under the water, roughly toward Hr. Grace and Carbonear. The mines, of which the Dominion has six and the Scotia one - one that runs out under the water for three miles - are all on that one wide bed, and lie parallel to each other, running out under the sea. The Dominion mines range from East to West, and the Scotia is situated between them.
As one mine is identical to another, and the system of mining is the same in all of them, I will tell about Slope No. 2, D. I. S. Co., down into which I went Monday morning, of this week. Mr. J. MacNeil, the Assistant Manager, accompanied me and was kind enough to stay below with me for the whole morning, explaining everything in detail. To him I am indebted for this article, as without his ready information, it could not have been attempted.
It would be the height of foolishness to go down the mines without first donning suitable clothes, so I rigged myself out in overalls, overall coat, long gumboots and the regular miners' carbide lamp. Below everything is red, and when you touch against anything that portion of you is certain to be coloured by the dust of the hematite. A fact which will illustrate this is that the long rubbers, which I wore, a perfectly new pair, were quite red when I came up out of the mine, and although I was out several times while it was raining heavily, the colour did not wash off, becoming rather, even redder and more brilliant. Everything in connection with the mines is red. The miners' clothing, boots, face and hands, everything are red and practically everything on the Back of the Island is also red. It is the prevailing colour.
So, our clothes on, and our carbide lamps lighted, we set out down the mine. Slope No. 2, which we entered, is the property of the D. I. S. Co. It is 5,200 feet long - nearly one mile. That would be as long as about from the Telegram Office up past the Station. A slope, I should explain, is simply a tunnel. It is square, or almost so, being ten feet high - the thickness of the ore bed - and eighteen feet wide. The slope, opening into the ground for about four thousand feet back from the water, on the Back, runs out toward Hr. Grace, going under water, at a grade of 15 degrees or a drop of fifteen feet in every hundred feet, or a total drop, in the fifty-two hundred feet, of about 350 feet. You do not notice that grade much going down - but coming up - well, it reminded me of walking up Blackhead Road. This slope is perfectly straight. Two sets of rails are laid on the floor of it, and the ore is hauled up to the surface in a train on one track, while the other track is used by empty trains returning for more ore.
A train consists of seven open steel cars, each containing 1.7 tons - or altogether a load of roughly twelve tons. The seven cars are coupled together, and a heavy cable is attached to the nearest to the entrance. The other end of this cable, which is more than a mile long, is coiled around the drum of a great winch on the surface. When the seven cars are to be pulled up the men below signal to the winch - man by means of an electric bell. The winch started and the seven cars, loaded with ore, are hauled rapidly up the slope. In this was an average of eleven hundred cars a day are brought to the surface. The number varies with the force of men working below, of course. However, 1,100 cars a day is a good average. There is a safety device to provide against accidents. If, by any chance, the cable should break or something else happen while the seven carfuls of ore are going up the slope, the cars would not dash down the track, in spite of the 15 degree pitch. On the last car there is a heavy bar of iron always dangling behind. The bottom end of it is pointed, and the instant the cars would start backward the bar would stick into the ground (because it reaches down to it) and overturn the cars.
Beside the main slope, or tunnel, there are cross tunnels, or "levels", as they are called, which branch out at right angles from the main slope on both sides. The levels each extends two thousand feet, so that from the end of a level, right across to the other end, is four thousand feet, plus the width of the main slope, which runs down the centre of the levels. These levels branch off from the main slope every twenty-five feet, leaving a solid block of ore separating them, - a block twenty feet wide and two thousand feet long. But this block is not left thus. Intercross cuts or tunnels are made at right angles to the levels and running parallel to the main slope. These intercross sections are cut every twenty-five feet, so that the resulting blocks, or pillars, are twenty-five feet square. Thus, it will be clearly seen, the whole underground is honeycombed, and sixty-five per cent of the ore, in the land area, may be taken. Of course pillars must be left for safety. In the water area, or under the sea, the pillars are extra thick, being thirty-five feet thick, so that but fifty per cent of the ore may be recovered. This percentage, for water area, is a good one.
The spaces left in the levels and cross sections are called "rooms." This is called "room mining." This means, simply, that an extra slice of the pillar is taken. This is done by explosion. A Sullivan Compressed Air Drill is applied to one side of the pillar, about twelve feet from a corner, and three holes are drilled in straight, each being about two feet apart, and up and down in a straight line. These holes penetrate twelve feet. Then the drill is taken around to the other side, exactly corresponding, and three other holes, also twelve feet deep, are bored. Then the six holes are charged with dynamite. Eight plugs of the latter are used in each hole, making roughly fifty altogether. The dynamite is then exploded by a blasting wire, which extends two hundred feet away. All blasting is done at night and none but those connected with such work are allowed in the mines after tea. This method of mining is called "Slicing Pillars." As the result of one explosion, 100 carloads, or 160 tons of ore, are opened up, ready to be placed in the cars. The ore breaks up into small sized, oblong cubes of easily handled size. The loose ore is then loaded into the cars by the hand-shovellers. There are two men to each car, and they are supposed to load 20 cars a day, between them, or 10 cars each. That works out at 16 tons each per day. For each additional car full they are paid a bonus, an opportunity of which many men avail, thereby making considerable extra money. However, shovelling ore is hard work, and has been described as the hardest work there is, at least connected with mining. By the time a man has shovelled sixteen tons of ore he is not feeling any too fresh. The cars, when filled, are sent out to the main slope, running by gravitation, as the levels are cut on a grade. Ponies, driven by boys, then haul the empty cars back from the slope to be reloaded. The other method of mining is called "room mining," to which I have already referred. The method of doing this varies from pillar mining. It is impossible to bore three holes on one side and then go to the other side and bore three more, as there is no other side to which you may go. The six holes have therefore to be drilled on the one side, or in the "face" of the ore. But they are not drilled straight in. They are drilled at an angle, so they meet twelve feet inside, forming a big V. It is something like cutting a slice of cake, - it is wedge shaped. The holes are then charged and exploded and the big wedge of ore is blown out. The drills have 80 pounds of pressure, and may be heard when working - a kind of muffled sound - for some distance away. As you near a drill the sound grows louder and louder, until you come right up to it, where you cannot hear another sound, not even the sound of your own voice. Conversation is impossible while the drill is going. Two men run each drill. A sign from the manager, made with his carbide lamp, causes the drill men to shut off the drill, and the silence, by contrast, is very intensive. You look at operations for a minute or two and retrace your steps. When you have gone a few feet the drill starts again and once more the roar fills the "room," getting fainter and fainter as you go away, and the faint sound of the drill in the room lower down reaches your ears. You pass down one of the sections, and out into another room, where exactly the same process is being gone through. When this big wedge of ore is blown out of the face of the room, there is what is called "slicing." This consists of slicing off the sides of the V-shaped space that has been left by the explosion, until the face of the room is flat again. Then another wedge is blown out and the slicing repeated. There is very little rock to be found in the ore, being lighter in colour. The ore is a dull red, while the rock has its natural colour. Strange to say, drilling through rock is much harder than through iron ore. By doing pillar mining from 16 to 17 per cent of ore is taken, which average compares very favourably with any mine anywhere in the world.
In No. 2 Slope, which is the Dominion Company's biggest of seven, there are about 350 men working. Those consist of Drillers, Hand-shovellers, Trackmen, Face-cleaners, Trammers, Engine drivers, and Rock-sorters. Trackmen are for laying track on new rooms and sections. The work of face cleaning is to break off pieces of ore, which may be loose on the ceiling of a newly mined room. So that the loose pieces will not fall down, and perhaps kill somebody, they are taken down by the face-cleaners using sledges and hand drills. Trammers are boys who push cars. Rock-sorters pick out rocks from the ore and pile them by themselves, so that as little rock as possible will reach the surface. Afterwards the ore is gone through again, by boys.
In the main slope progress is being continually made, and the slope advances, roughly towards Hr. Grace, at the rate of four feet a day. The Company's claim extends out under the sea another four thousand feet. However, that limit will not be reached for many a day yet, and there is lots of ore beyond it.
Page contributed by: Barbara McGrath
Page transcribed by: Ivy F. Benoit
Page revised: August 2002 (Terry Piercey)
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