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Column: Poor initial planning led to costly mistakes

When Charles Lawton replaced John Harris as the Quincy Mining Company’s superintendent in December 1905, he had already managed several managed several mines and had brought with him years of experience. A graduate of the Michigan College of Mines, Lawton was thoroughly educated and experienced as a mining engineer. But nothing had prepared him for the surprise that awaited him, which he would first experience just two months after he became Quincy’s new mine manager.

On the morning of Feb. 9, Lawton included in his report in the Report of the Directors of the company for 1906, a series of air blasts “occurred throughout the mine, mostly in the upper nearly finished workings, continuing intermittently until in March.” The air blasts created extensive damage to that area of the mine, pushing some levels upward, others down and collapsing some completely, along with several stopes. The damage also extended to skip tracks on the level floors, compressed air pipes, drinking and fire water pipes were shattered, electric trolley wires, and generally the electrical system was wrecked. Shaft numbers 7,2 and 6 were crushed in places, Lawton reported, that skips could not be operated in them.

As if anyone would be surprised to hear it, the underground workers were not very happy.

“The men were frightened and became very timid,” Lawton reported. “Many who had spent years in they Quincy, though they have since returned, left for other fields, the greatly handicapping the work of restoration.”

Lawton, of course, knew what had caused the air blasts. While the company had always left rock pillars in place to support the ceiling of the levels, or the hanging wall, not enough of them had been left. “The cause was insufficient pillars and hanging wall supports,” he reported.

While repairs and restoration continued throughout the next years, more needed to be done. Lawton reported that “yet, the results of the steps already taken appear to be of a permanent nature and encourage us to view the future with increasing confidence.” The optimism was short-lived.

Although he didn’t go into detail in his report for 1909, he mentioned, as if in passing, of another event that occurred in Nov. 1908.

“The assurance heretofore given of averting unfavorable underground disturbances remains about the same,” he wrote, “though the troubles of November encourage us to go still further with the measures that have so largely met the exigencies during the past few years.”

Most of the damage from the “troubles of November” seem to have occurred in the No. 2 Shaft, where large chunks of the hanging wall fell around the 38th level, tearing up the skip road and the timber to about the 46th level, where they completely clogged the shaft and “considerable damage was done to the depth of the 49th level.”

The Quincy began mining on the Pewabic Lode in 1856 and the company’s management was always more concerned with profit than anything else. Too many corners had been cut over the years, too much copper rock had been removed from the levels leaving not enough rock in place to adequately support the weight of the mine above the lower levels that were mined later. The result was that when the air blasts began in earnest, in 1906, they would continue.

The air blasts were, simply put, the caving in of the mine, which started in the area of the 47the level, then up and down.

March 25, 1914, began a 10-day-long series of air blasts that, again, crushed the No. 2 Shaft, between the 40th and 50th levels. Between the 51st and 58th levels, the No. 6 Shaft was crushed.

At the same time, the crosscuts at the 57th, 64th, 65th and 66th levels were crushed and the levels north of the No. 6 Shaft were also crushed. Not only was the mine becoming more dangerous, it was becoming more costly to repair.

“About five hundred feet of the crushed section of the No. 2 Shaft had to be entirely recovered and re-timbered at an expense nearly as great as that of sinking a new shaft,” Lawton wrote.

During the year, reported Lawton, the cost of re-opening and repairing the shafts and damaged levels totaled $57,200, while another $21,500 was spent in preventing as much as possible, further damages by air blasts.

“In earlier days, when air blasts were little understood,” Lawton reported in 1914, “it was the custom to stope out the lode irrespective of the shaft. If the lode was rich in copper, it was stoped out close over or under the shaft; where the shaft was in the lode, the latter was stoped right up to the shaft without leaving shaft pillars. Going through the upper portions of No. 2 and No. 6 shafts is like going down through open stopes, with practically no pillars left to protect the shafts. It was in the lower part of these sections that caving and crushing took place, with serious results.”

Those expenditures were made at the time that Quincy was still suffering from the economic losses incurred from the strike of 1913. But just as the repairs had been made and the mine was set to move forward with increasing production (and, of course, profits), the outbreak of the war in Europe created an immediate downturn in the copper market, compelling the company to reduce its working force and production.

In the Quincy Mine’s defense, it must be said that it was not the only one to have not systematically supported its hanging wall. According to a Historic Research Study, prepared by Larry Lankton for the National Park Service in 2005, by the 1890s, The Calumet and Hecla company’s Calumet Conglomerate Lode had begun to experience similar problems.

While C&H had always relied far more heavily on timbering to shore up the hanging than had Quincy, C&H, in previous years, had not placed much emphasis on rock pillars. The extensive use of timbering left the mine prone to devastating underground fires, which had happened twice in the 1880s, compelling the company to increase the number and thickness of rock pillars, particularly near the shafts.

C. Harry Benedict, in his book Red Metal, blamed the practice on a lack of capital.

“As soon as a shaft was deep enough, drifts were started,” he wrote. “When commercial ore was found, stoping was begun, partly to determine values but largely to get the funds to keep operating.”

In the upper levels, he continued, in most mines, the hanging wall was solid and rock pressure was limited, so there were no serious losses.

“With increasing depth caving of the hanging was excessive,” Benedict wrote, “so that timbering costs became much heavier. Ore dilution and occasional loss of small ore bodies also occurred, as well casualties among the workmen. These losses were serious in the Tamarack Conglomerate operations that they became an important factor in its failure to operate a profit.”

According to the Report of the Tamarack Mining Company for 1915, the damage of the mine, mentioned by Benedict were, by at least one stockholder, blamed on C&H and submitted a request to the Tamarack directors that the company file a lawsuit against C&H for its mismanagement of the company. In 1917, C&H purchased the Tamarack Mining Company holdings and dissolved the company.

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