Bar Down, A Story About Working At A Silver Mine In the Good Old Days

Bar Down

By Dr. Ralph E. Pray

"Who worked in my stope before me?" I asked my shift boss. "That was Ole. He got careless about barrin' down and ended up hurt." "You mean some of this heavy lead ore fell on him?" I asked. "Yeah kid, make sure you bar all the loose stuff down after you shoot, before you drill the next round.

This silvery-lookin' ore is heavy. Ole's still in the hospital. You bar down or you'll get carried out!" I wondered why I was working alone. Every miner had a helper. I asked one of the men, "Can you figure why the boss won't give me a helper?" "Yeah, nobody else will work in your stope. The vein ore falls out like you're bein' bombed. It's dangerous. Can't you see that?

Anyway, who's goin' to be helper to a kid with just two whiskers, even if he's drawin' miner's pay? Get outta there while you're in one piece." "No, I'm stayin'. I bar down like crazy. I won't drill over my head until the loose stuff is all barred down. I think half the guys come to work so hung over they can't lift the steel bar or see straight. No wonder they get hurt."

When I did get help it was from a cracker-jack miner who came in at shooting time to help me spit(light) my fuses. One of my rounds was 28 holes, each with its own blasting cap and fuse with four or five sticks of dynamite tamped in behind newspaper wadding. We stood a quarter of a mile away deep underground to count the blasts. This was Bingham, Utah, site of the world's largest open pit mine. Hoot and I had hitchhiked from New York to Salt Lake City and hired on at the U.S. Mine, an underground lead-silver-zinc mine near the pit.

The giant copper porphyry ore body was surrounded by 400 miles of underground workings in lead-silver-zinc. I didn't know it at the time, but the outer zone of fissure and replacement lead-zinc ores was attributed to mesothermal processes following the emanation of hydrothermal fluids upward from the deep-seated Bingharn stock. All geology aside in that year of 1947, we lived in the company two-story bunk house and mess hall run by Corlota Merite.

It wasn't all work. One of our miner friends was a young fellow who had wheels and knew lots of girls in Salt Lake City. He set up a triple date for us on a Saturday night. We took the girls to a movie. Under the theater marquee on the way out Hoot tried to light a cigarette with a wooden kitchen match by raking it across his teeth. He had a neat way, very casual, of performing the ritual. But that night the lit match-head broke off in Hoot's mouth. He was bent over spitting up a storm while the rest of us just about fell down laughing. Then, to cap it off, Hoot took his shoes off, shoved his fingers in them and walked down the Main Street sidewalk, all six-four of him, on his hands. It was hilarious, and you could tell we young miners were quite pleased to still be alive.

The machine I drilled with was called a stoper. It weighed about eighty pounds and had a telescopic leg activated by compressed air. The leg had a steel point on the bottom to set into a block of wood on the rough rock floor. The stoper was a little like a street jackhammer, that noisy thing that's used to break pavement. Except mine drilled upward and, instead of a handle to lean on for pressure, it had the air leg. One air control knob operated the leg, raising the stoper and bringing the drill bit into contact with the ore vein. Another air control made the drill bit rotate and hammer with an ear-deafening chatter. The hose carrying this high pressure air was made of thick, heavy rubber and was about three inches in diameter. Another thick hose came to the machine bringing high pressure water which cooled the bit, eliminated rock dust, and washed the cuttings out of the drill-hole.

The air and water hoses came into the stope from steel pipe connections. Thousands of feet of pipe reached from the surface to carry working air and water to the dozens of drill sites, the ore stopes. One of the tricky parts of stoping, I learned, was in changing steel without a helper. There were usually no more than eight feet of headroom in the work place. The stoper is five feet long. You start drilling with a two-foot steel by extending the powerful air leg and rotating the steel, both by air. The body of the stoper moves up on its leg as you stand beside it with hands on the air controls. After drilling two feet you take that steel out and put in a four footer, putting the business end up in the two-foot hole. After that you use a six.

This changing is where a helper comes in handy if you have one. Without a helper it's necessary to either grow another hand or convert a leg into an arm. The six-foot holes are loaded with dynamite, poked in and squashed with a long wood pole. On that orebody from twelve to sixteen of these holes constitute a normal round completed by a miner and a helper. I was sure my stope was the safest place in the mine until the day my drill bit got stuck in the hole. You have to realize the work site's not anything like a pool hall or a coffee shop. There's air hissing all over the place out of worn seals, water spraying from broken gaskets, and a mist of lubricating oil hanging in the glow of my carbide headlamp. The place smells like a fresh, head-on, two-car collision. There's no level place to stand on. Everything I touch is wet, or grimy, or hot, and nothing is soft.

Anyway, my hand got yanked off the air control valves when my drill bit stuck in the hole I was drilling over my head. The drill steel stopped going around, but the high pressure air had to keep something rotating. It was the massive steel stoper. Before I could react the machine was on its own and had made about five revolutions. I was standing next to it. The air and water hoses flew up off the floor like giant whips as the rotating machine snatched out the slack and wound the hoses around its body.

I was suddenly trapped in the tight hose coils, painfully pinned between the writhing rubber and the stuttering stoper. My hard-hat and carbide light flew off my head into the darkness. There wasn't time for fright. Wrapped in the unforgiving loops of the mechanical anaconda, I struggled with one arm to reach the air control valve. Going by feel in total darkness I fumbled around even as the air in my lungs was squeezed out. I found the valves, shut the air off, and twisted the stoper until the hoses loosened. Barring down wasn't enough.

It was important to keep one hand firmly on the air controls at all times lesson learned. Working. alone with a drill machine underground wasn't very bright, and was not, of course, legal even then, over fifty years ago. Machine accidents, bad air, rock slab falls, and ladder failure took their toll underground. Bad air can be lethal after a blast if colorless, odorless carbon monoxide isn't totally evacuated.

The safest things underground were the lunch pail and the dynamite box. The only real caution with powder(dynamite) was if you counted your shots and found one or more missing. When I drilled and loaded my round I made sure there was time to sequentially fire it before getting on the lift-cage to end the shift. Each blast, a thump at a safe distance, is counted. If there are only 19 thumps for 20 loaded holes I know there's trouble tomorrow.

A mercury fulminate blasting cap and raw dynamite are in my muck-pile someplace. I don't want to hit that cap with anything like a pick, shovel, or rock. Slow digging. Another unique aspect of dynamite was the headaches. Working around powder, particularly a broken stick, often let nitro get in through the skin. My heart would pound like someone was beating in it to get out. The old timers would cut off a piece of powder the size of a lima bean and eat it. They swore it stopped the headache. There was plenty to learn from the men, but I preferred deep breathing for headache relief.

The lessons came fast and sometimes furious, both above and below ground. Nothing came easy. But I had this tremendous feeling of elation, that I was putting "rock in the box," producing new wealth from the earth's crust, measuring the risks, challenging the odds. Those were glorious days.

Published in Pay Dirt Magazine, April 1999

Reprinted with permission of the author.

Dr. Ralph Pray, Mining & Metallurgy
805 S Shamrock Ave, Monrovia, CA 91016

Telephone: 626-357-6511
Fax: 626-358-8386