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Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 14, October 1970

By Les. Morgan

It was early in 1924 and the Grand Junction mine having closed down I was one of the jobless.

A friend who worked underground in the Martha called at my home and told me that his mate was in bed with influenza, and if I would like a few shifts in the mine with him I could do so. I was happy to got a job, so I duly met him at the mine office that afternoon and was signed on. We went to the No.4 change house to go on afternoon shift, starting at 4 p.m.

The change house was a long corrugated iron building with a steam pipe running the entire length of it, and there was a frame built over the pipe, and pegs on it, on which to hang clothes The clothes hanging on this frame, belonging to the shift then underground were all very good, and one could readily understand the remark of one visitor to the town who, seeing the miners going to work, remarked that there must be a heck of a lot of office jobs up there, seeing the way the fellows go to work.

I got changed and went to the top of the shaft and then the 4 p.m. whistle went and the men started to come up from underground They were a very different looking lot from the men who would be walking down the hill in a short time - wet, dirty, and in clothes not of the best. The usual trousers worn by the miner were the dungarees or the Palmer Nap, at 4/3 or 4/11 per pair. They had metal buttons, and as the buttons did not last long with the garment being continually wet, I need say no more about appearances as they stepped from the cage and made their way to the change house.

When the call for No 10 level was made my mate and I stepped into the cage and the brakeman shut the half door and signalled to the engine driver to lower away. I had ridden in elevators before but never before had I experienced the sensation of the stomach coming up to the throat as the cage seemed to fall headlong down the shaft. I was thankful that it was dark so that the others could not see my face or my hand gripping tightly to the door. After falling some distance the cage stopped at a room cut out of the rock, which I learned was a. chamber, and we got out. There was an electric light burning there, and there were three or four drives running off it. They were pitch black. My mate produced a gadget called a spider which was used to hold a candle, and also a candle, and we lit up and proceeded into one of these drives. The blackness was so intense that it was amazing how much light one candle gave.

We proceeded some distance along the drive until we came to a place cut out of the side of it, a cuddy. We left our lunches and billy of tea there and went further on until we came to a hole in the floor down which there were two pipes and a ladder. My mate said that we had to go down the hole to our job. We climbed down about 40 feet and stepped on to some rough quartz and were in a great space. This I was informed was a stope.

At the foot of the ladder there was a rock drilling machine, a popper, and I then found that the two pipes were for air and water for the machine.

We took the machine and some drills along the stope, over broken quartz, to where the roof was lower, and my mate set the machine in place and turned on the air. The din was terrific, but I was very intent on watching the hole being bored and had been told to have the next length drill ready, so I soon got used to it.

About 8 p.m. we knocked off for crib and went back up the ladder to the cuddy. My mate proceeded to cut lengths of fuse and pointed to a box in the cuddy and. told me to get some gelignite from it and to pass him the detonators. I had to put the gelignite in a special tin to carry it to the stope, and never was any article handled with more tenderness and care than those first plugs of "gelly" that I handled there.

We returned to the stope, me carrying the tin with the "gelly" as if it was the most fragile article imaginable, and after boring some more holes my mate told me to take the machine back to the ladderway while he started to load up I watched the loading process with fear and trepidation, expecting each one of the plugs to go off as it was pushed into the hole, but all were safely loaded. The ends of the fuses were then cut to different lengths so that they would go off at intervals, and I was told to go to the bottom of the ladder way, place a piece of lighted candle on a stone there, wait with my candle until my mate called out, and then to go up the ladder and wait there with my light until he came up. When I received the call I climbed that ladder, and if there was a record for climbing 40 feet of ladder I reckon I created a new one that night by a considerable margin. I waited at the top as instructed, but as soon as my mate's head was level with the top I took off down the drive like an Olympic sprinter. I had not gone far when I heard the sound of laughter behind me, so I stopped, and when my mate caught up we strolled quietly to the cuddy, where we waited for the explosions from the stope. We counted them as they went off to make sure that none misfired.

I learned then and there that safety first was the principle, and an extra foot of fuse was a cheap way of making sure that one could get well away to safety before the blasts started.

We then went to the chamber, and when our turn came went to the surface. The ride up was not so bad, and it was real good to get into the warm change house, have a good hot shower and change to street clothes and go off home, my first shift underground completed and feeling that I was a miner.

The sick mate did not return to the mine, his cold turning to the dreaded miners' phthisis, and I worked many more shifts with my mate until he left the quartz mine and went to the coal mines. Before he left we had been joined by two other miners and I continued for some years with the others until I decided to seek a fresh air vocation, and left the mine. I always look back on that first afternoon shift undergound as the start of a happy period in my life.