Michael Williams

“Notes from Underground: Remembering the Miners”


This photo was taken one year before I started working in the mine at Levack in northern Ontario, Canada. I was 19 years old. When I look at this photo, I am instantly transported back in time to a cold October morning when I began my first day on the job. I'd never been underground before. I remember walking into the mine and being given a hard hat with a light on it, which was attached to a battery pack on our utility belts. We also wore heavy steel-toed boots. For me, the worse part was being packed into the “cage” like sardines. The cage was a platform attached to a long cable. We had to place our lunch pails between our legs to make room for everyone. The cage door was shut, a signal given, and we dropped like a stone. My heart leapt into my throat. I wanted to throw up but we were squeezed in so tight together I dare not. Suddenly, the brakes came on and we slowed and stopped at the 1400 foot level. This is where we trained to be miners.

My mine was known as a “hard-rock” mine. We mined for nickel, although sometimes gold and silver were found. We were randomly checked to make sure we weren't smuggling out any precious metals. After two weeks of training, I volunteered to go to the very bottom of the mine – 3600 feet underground – to help open up a new shaft (tunnel). It was very hard work. I had to hold a large, heavy pneumatic drill and keep the six foot drill bit firmly in the hole of the rock face. I had to drill a lot of these before dynamite was placed in them and detonated. Of course, not before we were all safely in the bunker. We'd hear the blast and could see the shock wave ripple through the bunker and right through us. Then, when all was clear, I'd return to the rock face and begin shovelling rock into the ore cars, then start all over again. Sometimes, I had to crawl into small tunnels with a hand-held monitor to check for gases. I hated small spaces and was often very frightened but I didn't have a choice. Sometimes too, while we were shovelling rock, the stope where we were working would begin to flood with water and we'd have to make our way quickly to higher ground or radio for the cage so we could go back up to a higher level. We worked long hard hours and when we finished we'd have to crawl into these small carts, which were like a miniature railway train. This train would take us back to where we got into the cage and began our ascent to the surface. It made me feel just as sick going up as going down but at least I was headed back to fresh air and freedom. But it was winter, so by the afternoon, it was already dark. It was dark when we went down at 6am and dark when we came out at 3pm. I hardly saw the sun all winter.

One day, an older man who had worked in the mine most of his life, took me aside and told me I didn't belong in the mine. “But I work just as hard as anyone else,” I argued.

“Yes,” he agreed, “but you still don't belong here.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because the mine is no place for someone with an imagination,” he explained, “you belong up there,” he said pointing up through the mountain of rock above us, “You should be a journalist or a writer, not a miner.”

Several weeks later, I left the mine but not without gratitude for the experience and for the words of that older man who released me. And while it took me another long journey to become that writer and storyteller, I made it.

I learned a lot from my experience in the mine. It was my first time away from home. It was the first time living in a boarding house. It was the first time I roomed with an indigenous man, a man also called Michael. He was known as Big Mike because of his size and I was known as Little Mike. Big Mike came to the mine because it was the only job he could get where people didn't care that he was an “Indian”. He was big and strong and did what he was told. The money he earned, he sent back to his wife and children who lived on a reservation a thousand miles away to the west. His money also supported his parents and his in-laws. He only saw them once a year during his two-week holiday. I liked Mike because he was quiet like me and because he would protect me from other guys who got drunk on their nights off and would try to pick a fight. Mike's size and strength and the fact that he was handy with a knife, kept the other men away.

I have never forgotten Mike nor any of those men in the mine. In fact, all men and women who go down into the mines of this world have my respect. It is not an easy job. It's dirty, dark, and dangerous. But many people have no choice. I did.

So that photograph reminds me of how my adult life began – deep underground. It's where I learned about hard work, about the precariousness of life, and friendship. And it's where I was given permission by an old miner to be the man I was meant to be. I will always be grateful for that.

Michael Williams (C)  2020