Stories from the underground

August 18, 1905. Underground miners stop for a photo before descending into this unidentified mine. Only one man's name is listed on the picture: Hannabeal Bonvincin. Research has turned up numerous spellings of his first name. Maybe there's a descendent out there who can clarify his name? Also unknown is which of the men in this picture is Mr. Bonvincin. Notice the candles on the miners' hats. It will still be a few years before carbide lamps replace the candles.

It is hard for many people, and I am one of them, to imagine descending into an underground mine each day. I wonder how my grandfathers did it. The work itself is physically difficult, and then there is the closeness of the walls and ceilings, the stale air, the general griminess that comes from being deep below the surface of the earth.

Perhaps the part of being an underground miner that is the most difficult is the coming to terms with the fear of “what if?” What if the ceilings and walls give way? What if the air ceases to be breathable? What if there is no getting out?

There are still underground mines, as well as open pit mines, around the world and tragedies still occur in mines. Whenever such a story makes the news, certainly ALL miners everywhere, their families, their friends, feel the quiver of fear. “What if…?”

In April 1938, an unnamed Hibbing Daily Tribune staff writer visited the Agnew Underground Mine, located northwest of Hibbing and wrote this story for the newspaper. The Agnew was one of the Mesabi Iron Range’s greatest mines. The area it covered is now a part of the Hull-Rust-Mahoning open pit mine. The ore produced by the Agnew was high-grade hematite. This was before the successful production of taconite.

Two hundred and twenty-five feet under the ground, with miniature railroads, dynamite, air-driven and electric tools, and timber for supports – and it is safer withal than the corner of Third Avenue and Howard Street in downtown Hibbing!

At least, that’s the way underground mining strikes the average layman.

The visitor to the mine can’t help but notice that since the earlier years of underground mining, far more safety devices are in use from the supervisory operations on the surface to the various exits and entrances far below the ground.

It’s eat, work, and think safety all of the time at the Agnew Mine in the Mahoning-Kelly Lake area. The mine is currently operated by the International Harvester Company. The current Agnew Mine runs to the Hull-Rust pit on one side and to the Utica Mine on the other. In places, its underground drifts run below the old Agnew open pit mine.

Accompanied by the superintendent of the mine, this week we visited the scene of all activity and came away very safety-conscious. It’s not only that underground mining is so hazardous, but when accidents happen the employer and employees feel the pressure of public sentiment. Although accidents happen in automobiles, in buildings, in homes, accidents in a mine garner much news. For this reason, mining men stress and re-stress safety, even when the odds of accidents are not high.

And it is this constant safety-mindedness that makes the Agnew Mine safer, to the layman, than Howard Street. You know that here, at the mine, everyone is thinking about your welfare, along with his own welfare. You are not sure of that when you are crossing the street!

Mechanically, engineers have made many advancements in job safety. Aboveground, everything is open and operations are such that there are many fewer hazards. Here, even in the piperoom, where minor repairs are made, caution is taught. The amount of activity on the surface is minimized since the Harvester firm keeps limited supplies in warehouses at its mines, centering its principal stock at the Hawkins Mine in Nashwauk, which permits easy access by truck whenever it becomes necessary to get materials.

Above ground, as well, are controls for some of the activity below ground. The power room contains the huge hoists which raise and lower the cages in the shafts. They are so constructed that if the operator should fall unconscious at his post, the cage would automatically stop. A pair of “dogs” would clamp into the wooden cage guides at the first sign of extensive slack. Harvester makes sure of this safety feature by testing every month, allowing the elevator drop by a unique pin device which releases slack accumulated in the cable for the test.

Pumps and other equipment have automatic safety devices which halt the possibility of dangerous operation the second something goes wrong.

The cage descending into the shaft of the mine – separated from the buckets or skips which carry the ore up from the heart of the earth – is itself an innovation in recent times on the Range. In the past, men frequently rode the buckets. Many serious accidents resulted. Today it means as much as a man’s job to ride the buckets, although it is still possible for him to use the “ladder road” going down into the ground. At every ladder road there are bars and gates which deter carelessness. On every ladder (made from heavy wood with steel rungs) hangs a rope guide for use if necessary.

A system of signals determines whether the power house engineer or the man using the elevator will control the elevator. Another system of signals notifies the powerhouse engineer to return the elevator to the surface elevation of the shaft immediately after the party has left the vehicle. It stands always at the top to prevent anyone from falling down the shaft. Gates and locks also prevent careless accidents.

Light furnished by the Minnesota Power & Light Company illuminates all drifts (the tunnels which lead to the actual mining operations). A red light system is used along the switching points and intersections of the miniature railroad system which is utilized for hauling timbers. Still another larger railroad system at the bottom level of the mine carries the ore from the various raises through which it flows. That railroad has its engineer and its brakeman.

In underground mining, men cut the drift as far as the ore lies. After they reach rock not useful to the miners, they begin to work back along the drift, slicing off the ore. Air drills fed from the surface, and heavy picks, help loosen the ore. Then, with great care, the men blast. At all times, large amounts of timber are used to support the roof, even where there has not been mining above. Men working must make sure that the heavy weight from above will be supported by their timbers. For that reason, a vast amount of lumber is used in underground mining.

After the ore is blasted down, it is hauled away by “tuggers” which carry it to a raise – a hole in the ground leading down to the lowest level, 225 feet under the surface. The ore used to be shoveled by hand instead of by the power-driven tuggers. All raises are protected at the top by heavy “grizzly bars” to prevent anyone from falling into the raise. In the past, men frequently slid the 70 or 100 feet down to the bottom. After a certain section of the mine is done with, the men build a sort of floor, particularly if mining is later to be done below, and blast the whole mined section down. The floor of timbers becomes a strong ceiling for the new drift below. More timbers below help bolster the ceiling.

The Agnew drifts are honeycombed with heavy lumber making a solid timber ceiling.

The ore, after it moves down the raises, is hauled in chutes at the bottom level of the mine. When the ore train is ready to load, an air hose helps push the sticky ore into the cars. The cars are then driven to the unloading point where they dump over into a big bin some 30 feet in depth. There, a man loads the two buckets which scoop up the ore and move it to the top of the shaft – one going up when the other is coming down. The ore there is dumped thru chutes into the Great Northern railway ore cars standing outside. Or, the ore is carried on a cantilever bridge track, belonging to the Harvester firm, and dumped onto stockpiles for the winter season. From the stockpiles, a streamshovel will load the ore cars.

Another safety feature is a private telephone exchange which connects parts of the subterranean depths with the surface. Also, the pumps which remove water found at the lower depths in rock and from drainage, have safety devices. Signs are posted showing the safety records of the crews. Signs above and below ground remind the men of possible hazards. The company has a man whose duty is centered on safety education and study. Meetings with workers to discuss safety, and actual incidents whether large or small, are held twice a month.

Underground mining is an interesting part of the Iron Range. To keep all the miners safe, it is important that methods and equipment keep improving. The Agnew Mine is an example of how things have changed.

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