Tales from the Open Pit [Read This Free]

A Summer at the Blackbird Mine

By Russell Steele

This story is offered free in its entirety for the first part of January.

In the rear view mirror I could see my new hard hat, just a shiny reflection in the damp dust on the narrow haul road. It was the first day for the hat, which had replaced a beat-up pressed-fiber one my dad loaned me when I first got a job driving a water truck to wet the dusty roads at the open-pit Blackbird Mine. More concerning was the black diesel smoke shooting into the sky as the Euclid #1268 dump truck struggled up the hill with a load of overburden for the dump. On the narrow road, I knew my new hat could soon be a flat aluminum saucer if I did not recover it before old #1268 topped the hill and rolled down onto the spoils dump.

I cranked the steering wheel of the surplus Army 4WD hard to the left, shifted to third gear, and stomped on the accelerator. The four-banger under the hood screamed in protest as I circled back to pick up the hard hat. Suddenly, my world started to tilt. Glancing out the passenger side window, I saw the tree-covered horizon slowly disappear, replaced by rocks and dirt. I gripped the wheel hard and slammed my feet to the floor, bracing for the impact. Dust and loose stuff filled the cab as the water truck rolled over and then skidded to a stop on its side.  Water rushed from the tank, creating a small river in the dust. Fuel fumes filled the cab as I groped for the ignition switch and killed the engine.

My immediate thought was, “You’re fired!” It was my second week on the job at the Blackbird’s open pit after graduating from Salmon High School in 1957. During our first morning on the job, the shift foreman, Don McGowan, had explained the safety rules and made it clear that damaging the equipment was a firing event. “Respect your tools,” he warned.

Since the late 1800s, miners had been extracting copper and cobalt, with a little gold and silver on the side, through a complex of tunnels at the mountain, but the engineers had determined the ore body came all the way to the roots of the lodgepole pines that covered the upper end of the deposit. The mine owner, a now-defunct company called Noranda, hired a construction group out of Reno to access the copper and cobalt ore deposits.

The Blackbird open pit project was just getting started the year I graduated. My dad Bert and mother Margaret were managing the Cobalt Recreation Hall, my younger brothers Bob and Ron were working at the IGA Market, and I went looking for a job at the mine.

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Rock containing colbalt and erythrite. James St. John, Flickr.
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Copper ore. James Petts, Flickr.
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A shiny new hardhat. Courtesy Russell Steele.
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The mining company's repair shop. Ted Maestretti photo.
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Water truck (foreground) and other equipment. Ted Maestretti photo.
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Primer detonation cord. Courtesy K-2 Solutions.
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The Blacktail open pit. Courtesy NOAA.
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Shovel loads a truck at the mine site. Ted Maestretti photo.
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Upon graduation, I was hired by the construction company to dig trenches for trailer park sewer pipes. They had started a small trailer park just off the road at the South end of the Cobalt townsite on the west side of Panther Creek. As the workforce grew, more workers brought their trailers with them, because there was no rental housing in Cobalt.  Each trailer required a power, water, and sewer connection. My brother Bob and I were hired to dig trenches for the water lines and the sewer pipes. Once we had finished the project, I asked Ted Maestretti, the project manager, if he had any work I could do at the mine, telling him I had worked in the engineering office and the service yard at the Empire Mine in Grass Valley, California, since I was sixteen.

“How old are you?”

“Nineteen in July.”

“Nothing right now, but we’re expecting a water truck any day now,” said Ted. “Can you drive a truck?”

“I drove a dump truck at the Empire.”

A couple of days later, Ted came by and told me to be on the street in front of my house at 7:00 a.m. with a hardhat. He was expecting the water truck to be delivered from Reno the next day. The Euclid truck drivers were complaining about the summer dust that was enveloping the haul roads within the open pit.

I scrambled out the open driver’s-side window and headed for my new hat, scooping it up just as #1268 crested the hill and started to pick up speed, rolling toward the dump point, kicking up a rooster tail of dust as it rolled. My new hat saved,  I continued up the hill toward the shop, looking for the day-shift foreman Don McGowan, or Ted Maestretti.  I met Manny, the project engineer, coming across the shop yard.

“What was all that noise?” He asked.

“Rolled the water truck,” I stammered.

Manny took me to the office, a trailer parked next to the shop building, and started asking questions.

“Are you OK? Where do you hurt? Want some water?”

“I’m OK,” I said.

“Stay here, I’m going to find Ted,” said Manny, moving to the door and disappearing across the shop yard.

I didn’t hurt anywhere, was just a bit confused. But as I sat down on a stool in front of the drafting table covered with maps and drawings, I suddenly realized again I was about to be let go. We all had been warned on hiring day, “Damage the equipment and you’re fired.”

Ted came in the door of the trailer, asking the same questions Manny asked.

“You OK? Do you hurt anywhere? Do you need a doctor?”

“No, I’m OK,” I repeated, as I awaited the fateful words that meant I was out of a job.

Manny came in with my lunchbox from the water truck. He had been surveying the damage. Ted went to find Don McGowan. I ate my lunch while Manny watched, and I told him about working at the Empire Mine. After lunch, I could see Ted and Don conferring in the yard outside the trailer.

McGowan came to the trailer door and called me out. This is it, I thought. But he told me where to find a grease gun in the maintenance shop and to go clean the tracks and grease the rollers on a D-4 Cat parked on the other side of the shop—something for me to do until the shift change. It took me a while to figure out how to start the D-4, using a rope to start a gas engine, which was the tractor’s diesel engine starter.

The crew rode to the open pit in two nine-passenger SUVs. My ride down the mountain was very uncomfortable, my neck turning red as the crew teased me about my lack of driving skills. But the unforgivable issue was they would have to eat dust until a replacement water truck arrived. Manny, who was driving, came to my defense, but the crew didn’t stop teasing me. I kept thinking, this is my last ride. But when I got out of the vehicle in front of my house, no one said anything about me being fired.

Later that evening, Ted came to our house. He lived just up the street and around the corner. When he came to our front door, Mom invited him in for coffee, as we were still at the dinner table. I just knew the ax was about to fall. Ted pulled up an empty chair, stirred his coffee and then smiled. “You’re now on the evening shift. Driller’s helper,” he said. I had escaped being fired, and I was not about to ask why.

I don’t remember the driller’s name. He was a tall lanky guy, wearing a hard hat with a big ding on one side and scratches on top. He always wore gray coveralls, with a wipe rag in the right back pocket and a twelve-inch crescent wrench in the left. Under his coveralls, he wore a crisp khaki shirt with a pocket protector stuffed with mechanical pencils.

The drill was mounted on tracks, with the compressor at one end and the drill tower at the other end. The air, winch, and drive motor controls were on the left side. Lights hung on the drill tower. Before it got dark, the driller showed me how to change the ten-inch rotary bit, and where to stand when he was bringing up the drill stem. I was to shovel the rock chips that were blown out of the hole by compressed air that cooled the bit. I also kept the rig fueled, oil levels checked, and all mechanical parts greased.

Shortly after starting the first hole of the day, I was shoveling away chips and dust when the driller leaned over to get real close to my ear. “Don’t throw that stuff too far. We’re going to need it later,” he shouted over the roar of the engine driving the compressor.

The only time we could talk was at lunch, or when changing the bits, which were three rotating wheels studded with carbon tips. We changed the drill bit about once every ten holes, depending on how hard the rock was.

After two weeks on the night shift we switched to days, because the day-shift driller had quit or was fired, I don’t remember which. Two crews could drill faster than a single shovel and trucks could carry it away, so Ted requested that a second shovel truck be delivered to the site.

We drilled a pattern of thirty ten-inch holes twenty feet deep and ten feet apart, in three rows. Once the last hole was dug, we moved the drill back a hundred yards and prepared the holes for blasting. One-and-a-half bags of nitrogen fertilizer were poured down each hole, followed by two gallons of diesel. With a pocket knife, we cut six inches from a tube of high explosives that was three feet long and three inches in diameter. Using a Phillips-head screwdriver, we poked a hole through the wall of the cardboard tube in the center. Then we fed detonator cord through the hole, wrapped it around the tube twice, and tied it in a square knot. We lowered the explosives down the shaft on the remaining end of the detonator cord, and then filled the hole with chips and dust created by the drill. Each drill hole was later linked with more detonator cord, using square knots at each junction, and bringing the detonator cord from each chain of holes to a central point.

Detonator cord, also called primer cord, is a thin, flexible plastic tube filled with explosive material. When set off, it would explode at a thousand feet per second, providing a shockwave powerful enough to ignite the explosive- and diesel-soaked nitrogen fertilizer in the drilled holes. 

Sending me back to the drill rig, the driller took an electrical blasting cap from a wooden box and taped it to the primer cord ends with black electrical tape, then rolled the blasting wire back to a detonator box behind the drill rig. The shovel was pulled back, the haul trucks were parked on the approach road, and the all-clear was given to shove down the plunger on the detonator box.

The whole hillside lifted up six to ten feet and fell back down, dust shooting into the sky, small rocks raining down on us. Now I knew how the driller’s hard hat had gotten so many dings. After a safety check by Don McGowan, the shovel was moved back to scoop up the broken rock and load it on the Euclid haul trucks. This cycle was repeated thousands of times, to scrape out the side of the mountain.

When the second shovel arrived from Reno to speed up the removal of the overlay so they could get to the cobalt and copper ledges below, I was assigned as the night shift oiler. It was the scariest job I ever held, moving about the shovel with all its slapping cables, squeaking cable drum brakes, the diesel engine grunting as it swung back and forth loading the trucks. I could easily be crushed in the dark. I was always greasing, tending, and cleaning up with the tractor around the shovel when the spillage made spotting the haul trucks difficult. At lunchtime, I climbed the shovel boom in the dark and greased the pulleys.

As I progressed through jobs in the open pit, from water truck driver to driller’s helper and then shovel oiler, all in just a few months, I always wondered why I had not been fired. When I interviewed Ted for my book, Cobalt: Legacy of the Blackbird Mine, I asked about this and he explained that the water truck tank did not have the required baffles. I should have been warned about making fast turns—the rollover was not entirely my fault.

I thought my move from driller’s helper to shovel oiler was a safety issue, to avoid a nineteen-year-old handling explosives. But Ted explained that the path to shovel operator was to be an oiler. Shovel operators were the highest-paid employees aside from the foreman, and they had the most demanding job on the site. He explained I had been selected to be an oiler because he thought I was smart enough to be a shovel operator someday, which was a surprise—it had never occurred to me at the time.

To collect water for the road, a small earthen dam had been built on Big Flat Creek. The road to the dam was not much more than a trail created in the woods by a bulldozer. You can see on the map it’s recommended only for 4WD vehicles today. Just before the small reservoir there was a large prospect cut, where a bulldozer had been used to dig a trench through the overburden to get to the underlying rock formation. I think it may have also been an exploration drilling site. You had to drive around the prospect pit to get to the dam. On the dam was a small gas-powered pump. You had to wind and then pull the starter rope to get the pump started, which could be hard to do. The input hose went into the water behind the dam, and on the other side I had to drag the fill hose up to an opening in the top of the water tank. It seemed to take forever for the tank to fill with the small pump. The Euclid drivers thought so, too.

One day Don McGowan hid his SUV in the prospect cut. I had seen vehicle tracks in the dust on the road to the dam, and was surprised at not seeing any vehicles at the dam site. I thought maybe the engineers were doing more prospecting in the woods and had driven off the road. I was getting a snack out of my lunch box when I sensed someone watching me.

“Are you sleeping on the job?” hollered McGowan.

“Getting a snack,” I stammered.

“Well, get your butt out here and get that pump started, and then eat your snack. The drivers think you’re asleep.”

I scrambled out of the truck and started the pump while McGowan watched, and then he hollered something I could not hear over the pump and disappeared into the trees. I saw more vehicle tracks on the road back to the open pit. From then on. when I saw vehicle tracks, I paid close attention and got the pump started right away. I was happy to be on the day shift. It was  scary in the woods at night, especially in the winter with the northern lights rippling across the sky.

Ted Maestretti told me a story about an encounter one of the water truck drivers had with a bear at the reservoir. It was dusk, the sun was sinking behind the trees, and the driver was having a hard time getting the pump started. He had left the door of the water truck open, with his lunch box on the seat. After starting the pump, the driver returned to the truck only to find a black bear attacking his lunch box. The driver tried to scare the bear, but it was not going to give up its newfound meal. The scared driver left the pump running and took off across the country for the open pit in the dark, with only the moon for light.

The night foreman got concerned when the water truck didn’t return, and went to investigate. When he arrived, the water truck was on the dam with the lights on, water pouring out of the tank, and no driver. Hours later, the driver stumbled out of the woods behind the open pit. He had found his way through the woods in the dark  by listening to the sounds of the mining operation for direction. He finished the week and then quit. He kept thinking the bear was waiting for him in the woods.

I worked in the open pit only from the end of June until the middle of October, but the experience has stayed with me all these years. In those four months, I discovered you could roll a water truck, learned to skin a Cat, oil a mechanical shovel, and blow up mountains with nitrate fertilizer . Not a bad start for a nineteen-year-old, but I wanted to be an engineer and was looking forward to attending Idaho State College in the spring of 1958.

This story was adapted from a chapter in the author’s book, Cobalt: Legacy of the Blackbird Mine.

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