Labor Day honors the labor movement and the contributions of America’s workers, concepts that have been driven home for me many times through interviews with old-timers who helped build this country. Typical among them was Floyd Bracey, a proud Lyon Mountain iron miner who passed away in 1993. Referring to my factory job back then as “work” seemed unfair after learning about Mr. Bracey’s daily routine of more than three decades.
What follows are excerpts from our conversation in 1980 at the Bracey home in Lyon Mountain, about ten minutes west of Dannemora.
“I began working in the mines when I was eighteen years old , and I ended up staying there for 35 years. I first started out on the timber gang, repairing broken timbers … building and repairing the chutes that the ore came down in. I worked on that for about six months, and then the bosses knew that I wanted to drill, so they let me go ahead and drill.”
“I drilled raises, some of them 300 feet up, all by myself, and I fired [used dynamite] every day. There were not very many men in the mines that could do that. I made a round every day, which means seven feet ahead into the rock each day of work. We had to build our own staging at the beginning of each day’s work in order to take up where we had left off the day before. My machine weighed 140 pounds, and I had to carry it up there to start work.
“I drilled a raise up at about 45 or 48 degrees, and then eventually slanted up to about 80 degrees. In order to fire each day, we had to drill 18 long holes, each about 7½ feet into the wall, and two short holes of about four feet deep. In the part that was hard going, you might make about $100 each day if you fired every day…. After you fired, the muck [loose rocks and ore] would be piled up waist deep sometimes, and you had to muck all of that out [hand-load it into wheel barrows] before you could start drilling on the next day.
“If you only advanced two feet that day, then that’s all that you got paid for, so the harder you worked, the more money you made. I always figured that I was in the mines to work, so I wanted my round every day.
“A lot of times I’d go to work at about 6:30 in the morning, because I had to climb up about 300 feet all alone and that took quite a while. The first thing that I had to do was either scale down the “loose,” or fire it down [with dynamite], whatever loose rock was on the roof, because that loose rock would be dangerous while I was working.
“One morning when I went to work, there was about a five-foot-by-five-foot slab of loose on the roof. I was up about 300 feet, and I gave it a kick. Well, the whole thing came down, and when it did fall it broke my pipeline, and I had to go way back down to repair it before I could work that day.
“Back in the earlier days, I drilled for two years when it was dry drilling. Instead of having water, we had to use the air hose to blow the holes out, and make sure that all of the dynamite had blown up.
“In the old days when we were dry drilling, the oil and dirt were about an inch thick on our lips, faces, and much of our clothes. You couldn’t see a thing in there. All we had were carbide lights, and we had a pocketful of carbide to use. We never wore masks of any kind in there.
“On those drills back in the dry days, there was a big “pumpkin” on the machine, and it held two quarts of oil. We’d drill a few holes, and then we’d have to shut the air off and fill the pumpkin back up with oil again. That was for our machine, but it all ended up coming back on us. The oil would come out of the drill’s exhaust and we’d catch it all.
“Your nose would be so plugged that often you had to stop and dig the dirt out so that you could breathe. The air hose would knock some of the dust down, but then you had all of the oil kicking off of the machine, and you’d breathe that in all of the time, too.
“In those days, they figured that about ten years was the limit for a driller. After ten years, if you weren’t dead, you would be soon, because for all of those years you’d been breathing that dust and oil into your lungs, and your body just couldn’t take any more.
“When they finally went to wet drilling, the water helped out a lot. It kept the oil down, so you didn’t get maybe only a quarter of what you used to get. They figured then that a driller would last until retirement age. Before that, ten years was a lifetime for a driller.
“It was strange in some ways working down in the mines, because there would be a guy somewhere on your level, and you wouldn’t even know him because you’d hardly ever see anybody. I worked alone most of the time, so there was a lot of fellows that I didn’t even know. We would see a boss once in a while, but not that often. It was so dark that you couldn’t see a man if he was working more than a few feet away.
“As far as the relationship between the workers and the company goes, a lot of the men didn’t like the company, because some of those men were given jobs that weren’t fit or safe for a man to be working on. There were so many dirty, hard jobs, but it was either do the work or get out.
“The union came here sometime during World War II. I tried to go to the war, but I was a driller, so I was needed here. The union really changed things for the better. If there was a dangerous job that you didn’t want to go into, you could go to the union about it, and they would make sure that it was made safe before you had to go in, or at least as safe as possible.
“Before the union came here, if you didn’t want to work on a job because it was unsafe, they didn’t want you here. They said that they didn’t need help like that.”
Photo: Lyon Mountain iron miner Joe Caska working in a raise (the steep tunnels that Floyd Bracey created for much of his career). Image courtesy of Rita Kwetcian of Lyon Mountain.