Big Sleep (an Account Written in 1948 of the Malarctic Mine Fire of 1947)

By Timmerman, Jack | Labour/Le Travail, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Big Sleep (an Account Written in 1948 of the Malarctic Mine Fire of 1947)


Timmerman, Jack, Labour/Le Travail


THIS SUMMER, if you hit the Tourist Trail to Canada and your venturesome spirit follows the route of the original prospectors through the string of fabulous goldmining towns that Northwestern Quebec flaunts like a necklace of raw nuggets -- Noranda ... Malartic ... Val d'Or -- take especial care as you enter the eastern approaches to the Town of Malartic and you will see a unique and notable monument to main's disastrous struggle for gold. A half mile from the highway and across a crater-like "glory-hole" caused by underground cave-ins, a pure white cement pillar rises one hundred and forty feet above the rank muskeg and scrub bushland. There is no plaque upon this imposing edifice to commemorate the sixteen men who died two thousand six hundred feet beneath it during its construction nor is there any bas relief work in the cement depicting the heroic feats of the rescue workers who, armed with hooked poles like peaveys, floated on makeshift rafts into an odoriferous underground station and like loggers on a drive, steered their former buddies, dead for two months, into wickerwork baskets. A monument in the hearts and minds of the bereaved members of the community, the white pillar serves a more functional purpose as the headframe of East Malartic Mine's new inclined shaft No. 4 -- affectionately nicknamed "The Big Slope" at its inception, now and for evermore, branded by the miners with typically callous humour as "The Big Sleep."

It is a necessary outlet, this harsh and sometimes, cruel humour of the miner, especially the shaftmen of which I am one. Practical jokes are an essential opiate to relieve the unnatural conditions of working underground, a soporific to ease the tension of ever present danger and also, the only means available to vent one's spleen on a man who has aroused in you a violent dislike. The mining regulations, in their wisdom, decree instant dismissal for striking another man underground but there is no edict against throwing pie, the result being most lunch periods underground take on the semblance of an old Mack Sennett comedy. However, the one that gets the pie in the face usually goes one better the next day, like Fred, the Ukrainian, who wrapped the paper from a stick of dynamite around an eight inch length of loading stick to resemble the original explosive, cut the detonating cap from a short piece of fuse and inserted the fuse in the false stick of powder.

This ingenious contrivance Fred lit in the crowded lunchroom and his fiendish laughter at the resulting mess of overturned lunch pails deterred not a whit the frantic exodus of alarmed miners through the lunchroom door. Deranged laughter is not a rarity underground and to men who are familiar with all the legendary stories of suicide among miners, the spectacle of a man apparently intent on blowing himself to bits is a very convincing prod to get as far away as possible. Definitely, it is not a subject to stand around and discuss, sanely and calmly.

Childish, that grown men should comport themselves like this? Yes, miners are childish in more ways than one and yet an especially youthful trait of theirs is both enviable and admirable. Despite their hard and dangerous occupation, their coarse jesting and crude profanity, most miners retain the deep, unshakable, abiding faith of childhood -- the main source of their strength, I sensed but failed to understand, in overcoming the near insurmountable task of rescue which confronted our shaft crew when twelve men of the graveyard shift were trapped below the fire which broke out on the tenth level of No. 4 shaft on April 23rd, 1947 and later, on October 7, when four members of my own shift plunged to their death from a height of five hundred feet in a free riding timber cage.

The fire, the miners trapped a half mile underground and the fate of the new million dollar shaft made a natural news story that Canadian newspapers played up to the hilt for the better part of two months, which is no mean feat in itself in these days of short-lived headlines. …

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