Blasting Their Way Through Hard Rock

The name of this miner, the name of the underground mine, and the date of this photo are all unknown, but what he is doing is very clear. Just as described in the article, the miner is inserting the explosives into a hole (the long fuse can be seen coiling out by his feet) which was drilled into the mine drift’s (the horizontal passage) face. The drifts would follow the veins of high-grade iron ore through the earth within a mine. Notice also that the box on the ground says “DuPont Explosives”. This could have been produced right by Carey Lake east of Hibbing.

A couple of weeks ago, this page told the story of the history of the DuPont Company in Hibbing. It seemed to get people’s interest and a few folks asked for more stories about underground mining and blasting.

Let me start with this story: Joe and I have a friend, older than us, who grew up in Ely and had a long, successful career at Honeywell in Minneapolis. Her father worked at the Pioneer Underground Mine in Ely for many, many years. She never thought much about his work, she said, until, as an adult in the 1980s, she went on a tour of the Soudan Underground Mine. She said that after that tour she went home and said to her now elderly father, “Dad, how did you go to work every day?” Anyone who has taken a tour of an underground mine might very well think the same thing about those men.

The following information is taken from the book “Ready To Descend” published in 2000 from three journals written by Finnish immigrant and iron ore miner Matti Hallila Pelto. His wife’s niece, Vienna Saari Maki, who lived in Virginia, MN, translated Pelto’s Finnish journals to English. She reminds readers many times that Pelto’s memoir concerns the years before labor unions or workplace safety rules existed.

Pelto returned to Finland in 1914 after working in Minnesota’s underground mines, primarily the Pettit Mine near Sparta/Gilbert. One reason he returned to farming in Finland, rather than staying here, was the bad health he and many other underground miners experienced. Coughing up “black mucus and mine dust” and “imbedded dirt oozing out of pores in sweat long after mining days were over,” convinced him to leave. Even though Pelto often wished to return to mining work, more than that he wanted to live a long life.

Matti Hallila Pelto wrote these journals after he returned to Finland. He and his wife bought a little farm and he lived there until his death at age 84, so he did live a quite long life just as he had hoped.

~ Mary Palcich Keyes

It is surprising that even more deaths did not occur, because the working conditions were so very dangerous. Too many men met their deaths at an early age. The ten-hour shifts were often worked in such poorly ventilated mines that a candle hardly burned, and the lingering smell of dynamite after blasting was overpowering. It is no wonder what it did to a man. In time the underground miner turned pale; his health was gone. The constant fear of death or injury left a grim mark on his face….

I want to mention here that Finnish miners were “front line” men. Not all nationalities accepted all jobs, but put a Finn anywhere and he’d take it. The wet, clammy gopher holes were places where the Finns reigned. One can say that a Finn was used in the most important, the best and also the worst working places in the mine. The best timbermen were the Finns. Numerous repair jobs belonged to the Finns also…

The work rules did not always remain the same. From time to time new ones were needed. At first the dynamite and fuses were left close to the work areas. Simple chambers with burning candles were used to thaw the dynamite sticks. Fuses and caps were always in good supply. Each miner could set out his own area for blasting. This practice proved to be very dangerous, so a change was made. Blasting would be under the control of one man, who was to get everything ready. The dynamite storage was also carefully controlled. After 1913, no one was allowed in the room where the dynamite was handled. Each miner was given his allotted supply through a small opening in the door. Later on the dynamite did not require the heating process.

 • • •

When Vienna Saari Maki began to translate Matti Hallila Pelto’s journals, she realized that she needed to understand more about underground mining and its terminology. She researched this topic at the Hibbing Public Library, the Iron Range Resource Center at the Minnesota Discovery Center, and at historical societies across the Range. She included her own research as appendixes at the end of the book “Ready To Descend”. Here is part of what she learned about blasting in the underground mines.

Blasting is the use of explosives for the breaking, splitting or loosening of rock, ore and subsurface clay layers. The operation consisted of boring or excavating a hole to contain the explosives, charging or loading the explosive into the blast hole, tamping or filling the blast hole so as to confine and direct the force of the explosion, and finally exploding the charge.

In the early mines, hand drilling was the only method used for boring holes into the hard ore or rock overlaying the ore. Two men worked this operation, one holding the steel drill while the other struck the drill with a sledge hammer, the drill being turned after each blow. Water was poured into the hole as the men worked, to keep the drill cool and to wash out the powdered rock. When the hole was drilled to the desired depth, it was plugged with cotton waste and the drillers moved to another part of the rock. At the end of the day, the miners placed sticks of dynamite into the holes with fuse and dynamite caps attached. When all the holes were charged, word was shouted to “Clear out!” At a set time, all fuses were lit and the miners ran out of the shaft. Each man carefully checked that his partner was with him. Great explosions would then sound throughout the mine, echoing and rumbling to the surface until they could be heard for a mile or two in the vicinity. Before the next shift was allowed to enter the stope, or room of the blast, a few men were sent in to trim the walls and loosen any rock that might fall and injure or kill a miner.

Dynamite was kept in a cold place and was not dangerous of itself. It contained sawdust saturated with nitroglycerin, and each stick was the size of an 8-inch firecracker. Large stores of dynamite were usually cached in a powderhouse a quarter of a mile from the mine buildings and it froze hard in the cold winter. In this condition it did not explode easily. To thaw out the frozen dynamite, the stickers were placed in a sort of double boiler with hot water in the outside container to warm the sticks until they were soft enough to insert a fuse.

But dynamite could be tricky to handle. The greatest danger came from the explosive cap. In preparing a charge, the miner poked a hole the size of a lead pencil into the end of the stick. Next, he cut off a fuse, which was a thin cylinder of insulated and waterproofed cloth or paper to cover its load of black powder. The fuse was inserted into the open end of a small shell, like a rifle cartridge, at the bottom of which was the explosive element. When the fuse was inserted, the miner either pinched the open end of the cap with a pair of pliers or, more often, with his teeth, to clinch the fuse and cap together. The assembly was then placed into the drilled hole in the rock as far as it would go. Dirt or mud was then packed about the top of the hole around the fuse. The fuse was lit with a match or from the miner’s candle. The men allowed enough fuse length to give them time to reach a place of safety before the powder burned down to the cap. When a large hole in the rock was needed, several sticks were placed in the hole, but only one having its explosive cap, for the shock from one of the exploding sticks was enough to set off all the dynamite in the hole.

Despite precautions, many miners were maimed or killed each year. If the dynamite did not explode after the fuse was lit, some greenhorn miner might try to poke it with a stick to see why. Also, the explosion of dynamite loosened unseen overhead rock which could be jarred free when the ore was later being loaded into the tram cars. Of course, handling detonation caps by hand could result in the loss of limb. Bluish-green powder marks on the miners’ faces, hands and bodies were hallmarks of lucky escapes.

•••

LOOKING BACK

The following items are taken from the Hibbing Daily Tribune or the Mesabi Ore, which are on microfilm at the Hibbing Public Library and/or Iron Range Resource Center at the Minnesota Discovery Center in Chisholm.

1918

May 25, 1918

President Burton of the University of Minnesota will lecture at the Armory tomorrow evening. There will be no admission charge and a large crowd will no doubt enjoy hearing one of America’s greatest orators. The Hibbing Home Guard and Hibbing Band will escort President Burton from the hotel where he is staying.

1957

Dec. 7, 1957

Congressman John Blatnik spoke to Hibbing Junior College students Thursday at an all-college convocation. His subject, “In our greatest challenge, our greatest opportunity,” dealt with the United States’ position in current world affairs. Congressman Blatnik, from a student opinion poll this reporter conducted, was a hit with collegians and gave many stimulating suggestions and idea. (from “College Clippings” column by Lee Ann Zbacnik)

1967

January 17, 1967

Patrick O’Brien, who was named Monday by Gov. Harold LeVander as Duluth Municipal Judge, was born and raised on the Range. His mother, Mrs. Alice O’Brien resides in Hibbing. Judge O’Brien was born in Cohasset, graduated from high school in Keewatin, and graduated from Hibbing Junior College before attending St. Paul College of Law. His father, the late Erwin O’Brien, was with the security forces of Pickands Mather Co. for 41 years before his retirement.

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