Clearing the grizzly – mining’s most dangerous job
October 16, 2007
Blasting required careful handling of explosives. Drilling was a silent killer from rock dust cutting up your lungs. But the really dangerous job was tending to the “grizzly” – and that didn’t mean chasing bears away.Mining is the business of moving quantities of heavy rock, and the more mineral content the heavier the load. A pile of mineral-bearing ore the size of a hay bale weighs about a ton. For this reason miners prefer to work using gravity rather than against it.
Large mines drive tunnels below ore deposits and then work their way up. Using this “caving” method, miners easily move tons of material from the ore source to waiting mine cars for transportation out of the tunnel. The connection is like a laundry chute, usually about 3 to 5 feet in diameter, and sometimes more than 100 feet long.Ore dumped into the chute from above, because it was basically in free fall, could do great damage if left to fall all the way to the waiting mine car below. The grizzly was a large grate, made of logs or steel, placed near the end of the fall to slow the flow.Because the grizzly was a grid of squares about a foot wide, larger rocks would get caught and eventually block the flow of ore. Men were employed to keep the grizzly free and to dislodge rocks stuck in the chute.
My father, 20 years old in 1926, decided to leave Aspen to “experience the world.” The Depression had already begun in the West. He was a skilled miner, having worked in Aspen’s mines in the summers and on weekends since he was 14, and he talked his way into a job at the copper mine in Miami, Ariz. It was a swing shift clearing the grizzlies, but he was lucky to find any work at all. The work, at first, was not too strenuous because the copper ore was soft compared to Aspen’s silver-lead-zinc ore. It was easy to break up the rock using a sledgehammer. It was hazardous because someone far above might push ore into the chute to fall on the unsuspecting workers below. In earlier years ore was sent down continuously; workers moved back and forth at the side of the grizzly, dodging rocks. It was not unusual to have teens doing this work, and injuries and fatalities were common.Clearing the chutes was even more of a challenge. The usual method was to climb up the chute, like bouldering today, wedging between the sides, carrying an explosive attached on the end of a 10-foot pole. Once under the snag you could push the charges between the lodged boulders. The explosive was 40 percent nitroglycerine in a gelatin stick form. You set it off using electric primer wires. A day of blasting would fill the tight air spaces with blasting fumes. At the end of the shift, pills were issued to deal with the headaches from the explosive smoke.
Being young with no fear of death, my father’s partner was placing the charges without using the pole. He would climb right into the tangled rocks. No matter how you did this job, there was always the chance that while setting the charges you might dislodge the rocks above you, many weighing much more than you did, and they would fall on top of you and force you down the chute.One day his partner went up the chute to free a stuck chute door from below. The door was in the middle, so after he opened it an unexpected amount of material rushed past him and then got stuck on the grizzly below him. There was no way for him to make his way up to the top of the chute, so he was stuck there for 10 hours until the grizzly could be freed and the material pulled out.Fortunately, after a few anxious days working the grizzly, my father was moved to tunnel timbering, a much safer and more skilled position. Miners at the time worked six days a week and were paid $5 a shift. There was a medical benefit, though: The mine had an unmanned underground medical station. Your chances were not much better than if you had been attacked by a grizzly bear.