Under the Ocean in a Coal Mine, Published 19 September 1942The first thing I wanted to do when I got to Sydney was to go down a coal mine. I approached H. J. Kelley, vice president and general manager of Dominion Steel and Coal Company, told him my story, and the result was that next day they sent me out to Glace Bay, to go down the famous Colliery I B. They fit you out with a tin-like hat, give you old clothes, hand you a stick and then strap a miner's lamp on you. The battery bounces over your hip as you walk along. Then we were felt for matches, and the next thing I knew, we stepped into the cage and dropped 700 feet. I was down in a coal mine.
When I got out with Dr. Gray, my bodyguard and guide, there was an electric trolley waiting for me. I got aboard and she started to roll. We went on in the cool darkness about eight miles an hour. The train would stop, the brakeman. who had been lying flat on his stomach to avoid overhead wires, would find the switch in the blackness, throw it, and on we would go again. Far down the line a light would appear, and a train would pass, dragging a long line of coal cars. The two men would wave at each other, and then the other train would disappear. On and on we went, now far under the sea. Perhaps above us lurked a German submarine, possibly passing right over our heads at the moment was a British man of war. Yet oblivious to everything but blackness, we rode on. Then finally, we came to the end of the line, and got out, after a more than three miles trip.
We walked now, down a narrower passage, as if we were the only people in the world. Then suddenly out of nowhere a figure would emerge, you'd hear "Good morning Mac" and listen to his "Good morning Joe" and wonder how Mac knew Joe in this darkness. Once, there was the unmistakable smell of horse. And a moment later, a bobbing light appeared. It did not beam steadily as the locomotive headlights did. but seemed to move less evenly. Pretty soon a horse came galloping by with a car load of coal, driven by a lad who sang some sort of song. It was the first time I ever smelt a horse before I saw it. Not long after, the horse and boy came back with an empty cart.
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We trudged now along a single track line, and then came to a junction. I could hear a drill at work, and knew I must be near the coal. I was right. We went behind a curtain, designed to divert a current of air. and there was a solid wall of glistening black. A chap with enormous biceps was drilling into the coal, getting ready to plant his powder and blast off his coal. There is no more pick and shovel stuff in this part anymore. Mining is done wholesale. The wall of black revealed little oozes of water. I was told to go and taste this water, and I did. It tasted saline. It was seawater that had seeped down all this way It was harmless, but it had travelled almost 1000 feet down into the mine from the sea just the same.
There was no point in watching this mining at the front wall, and I would only be repeating myself if I went elsewhere. So I started the trudge back. This time I had time to notice the thousands and thousands of dollars worth of work that had gone into these mines to make them safe. I marvelled at the concrete and cement work, at the shoring, the props, and the spaciousness of the mine. I had always thought they were pretty dismal affairs. At least this one was neat and spacious like the hall of a palace.
Again the figures would materialize out of nowhere, and you would hear Mr. Le Gallant, the mine boss ask: "How's the going Dave?" You might hear "Slow, slow" or the answer might be "Going better now." Mining is not like a Ford assembly line. Apparently you never can calculate ahead what you are going to be able to do that day.
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When I got back on the car again, we once more rode the double track, passed odd little traffic control rooms, saw the brakeman exhume switches and turn them in the darkness, and in due course we landed back at the foot of the elevator. I had been four miles at sea, and now I was back under terra firma again. I saw the coal cars come in. get tipped, and the coal con veyed upwards. Then later, on top, I saw the coal pouring endlessly into coal cars, going out to try and keep feeding, the insatiable maw of Mars. For the war has sent coal demands spiralling, and if the Dominion Coal Company could produce twice as much, there would be plenty of use for it all.
I shed my overalls, stick and miners hat. put out my lamp, and stepped again into the outside world. I can truthfully say that few experiences in my far from routine life have proved as interesting as my visit down a coal mine.