Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Remembering Elliot Lake

This is the Elliot Lake that I first met my eyes in 1958 when I arrived there with my mother and father and my 5 siblings.

The population of the town went from a few trappers to 10,ooo people virtually overnight.Housing was in short supply. Men lived in bunkhouses where influenza was epidemic. Other families were forced to live out of their cars or tents.

As an eight year old boy I would spend hours exploring the old tumbeled down bunkhouses.

"A sea of mud!" is how my mother described the sidewalks and streets of early Elliot Lake.

The 'Algoden Hotel' the first hotel built in Elliot Lake. The first night it opened a man was killed. This set the rowdy mine camp tone for the next few years.

The town in the early 1960's.

Elliot Lake in more recent days. The town went from a population of 25,000 people with the average age of 30 to a 12,000 seniors community.

All signs of the mine are gone. The two - 2000 foot deep shafts have been capped and the entire area has been re-sodded and allowed to return to something approaching a 'natural state'.

Denison Mines just north of Elliot Lake was the largest mine of the 11 that once operated in the area. At it's peak Denison has a payroll of over 3,000 people.

The mines employed a number of people and was an important component in the Northern Ontario economy. However the environmental damage that has been created and the potential for a horrible accident if the large dams were ever to be breached, could far outweigh the economic benefits. The Serpent River which flows from Quirk Lake (the lake on the top of the photo) has been heavily contaminated. The river flows through the Serpent River First Nations.

I worked at the Denison Uranium Mines in Elliot Lake from 1978 to 1991.

For most of those 13 years I worked at #1 shaft in a number of capacities. When I first hired on I was a Dux truck driver on the service crew and one of only maybe a dozen guys who worked at 1 shaft who were company guys. The rest were contractors; CM , Powertel and Beaumier Construction.

Dux Truck

They were building the new conveyor system and my job was to haul rockbolts , screening and conveyor roller assemblies from the station to the job. I also hauled powder to the various magazines in the 1 shaft area.At that time my shift bosses were George Foy (now passed away) and Daryl and Brad Rogers. Later I worked for Jack McWilliams and others where I operating a scoop tram on the haulage crew and later worked as a pumpman.

Wagner ST-8 Scoop Tram

I was injured in a fall in the spill drive and spent a few months off. I then came back to work for Mike Murphy on the construction crew. Later I put in for, and got, a job as forklift operator at #2 shaft underground garage. after a while I decided that I’d try surface for a while and worked in the crusher.

I took the voluntary layoff in 1991.

Rock Bolter

For the better part of the time that I worked at Denison I also worked a reporter for the local newspaper, the Elliot Lake Standard. After the layoff I went to work for the paper fulltime.

I was pretty active with the Steelworkers and was steward and then chief steward. I certainly wasn’t a pushover for the company – but I must say that during my career at Denison I was never ever given a hard time. I did get a warning slip (the only one I was to ever receive) when I told a shift boss to F**k **f.

I thing that the biggest thing that strikes me when I think back to those days, was the incredible variety of people that worked there.

Artists rendition of Number 2 shaft Denison Mines

I knew men who worked on the jack leg and in their off time collected butterflies and moths and would have been considered as experts. I knew men who were former school teachers and I knew a defrocked priest who worked on one of the rockbreakers. One man I knew who worked underground as a diamond driller had been in his former life, a fairly well known poet in his native Hungary before the Russians invaded.

Underground Mechanics Garage

I used to love to hunt and fish, and I wasn’t alone. Just before moose hunting season there was a big rush of guys trying to get a week off. A lot of the guys waited and dreamed of the time when they would qualify for three weeks holidays, so that they could take the family on a vacation in the summer, and head to the bush for a week with the buddies in the fall.

But mining is a serious business. During the mining history of the Elliot Lake camp (1955 to 1996) better than 130 men, company men, and contractor’s surface and underground were fatally injured. Pretty well anyone who has ever worked there would have the memory of some friend or acquaintance that lost their life or were badly injured.

Miners Using a Jack Leg Drill

The life of a miner

During my time in the mines I lost a number of friends as a result of horrible accidents, mainly rock-falls and cave-ins.

Although well over a hundred men died during in the Elliot Lake uranimum mines, the Elliot Lake mines were no more hazardous than any other underground operation in other parts of the country, it’s just that mining is by its very nature a rough business – and one that demands very special people.

The only building standing on the old Denison Mines property is the 'mansion'. This building was build for Denison Mines owner Stephen Roman.

Built in 1979 it was a symbol of Denison Mine’s success. In that year Denison Mines marked a year of outstanding achievement reflected in the 109% rise in earnings, thanks to a 'cost plus' sweetheart aggrement between the Ontario government and Ontario Hydro. Roman was projecting decades of wealth for the area, and invested some of the profit into building this luxurious mansion. Roman and his friends would occasionally visit the mansion. The facility was staffed by a house cleaning staff and a cook 5 days a week.

Stephen Roman

Currently managed by a private agency Denison House is available for rent to the public. It is also listed on Sotheby's Canada website for sale for $1,950,000.

In 1982 Roman had a Great Lake freighter named after him. The Stephen B. Roman was named in 1982 after Roman became the major shareholder in Lake Ontario Cement.

The ship has a rather colorful career and would be worthy of a blog entry all to itself.

Originally contructed in the early 1960.s the ship was named the Fort William was capable of carrying 7,400 tons, the vessel is powered by two Fairbanks Morse 10 cylinder horizontally opposed 10-38D8-1/8 diesel engines producing 3,330 b.h.p. and 2Fairbanks Morse 8 cylinder diesel engines producing 2,664 b.h.p. for a total of 5,994 b.h.p.

Shortly after entering service; early on September 14, 1965, the Fort William capsized and exploded while unloading at the company’s dock in Montreal killing 5 sailors with 16 escaping. The capsizing occurred as cargo was being moved to the upper deck at the same time as ballast was being pumped making the vessel unstable. The explosion following the roll over was the result of 300 tons of powdered calcium chloride cargo mixing with the water forming an explosive gas. The freighter was refloated on November 22, 1965 and taken for repairs, returning to service in May of 1966.

On August 10, 1967; the Fort William was in a head-on collision with Kinsman’s Paul L. Tietjen in lower Lake Huron. The latter was holed in the bow with the Fort William receiving only slight damage. Other incidents followed. On December 17, 1977; the vessel went aground in Maumee Bay at Toledo, OH in fog. She was freed with the assistance of local tugs. Also in fog, the freighter hit the Detroit River Light while downbound early on October 1, 1979. Her bow was pushed in by the stone base but not holed. She proceeded to the Port Arthur Shipyards at Thunder Bay for repair. The Detroit River Light, however, sustained an estimated $100,000 in damages.

The company found that it could not compete with rail and truck and terminated their service resulting in the Fort William laying up in Hamilton, ON in December of 1981 until it was bought by Lake Ontario Cement.