A Pile of Rocks

During the 1970’s I worked at was then known as The Uranium Capital of the World, Grants, New Mexico. There was large sign just off of I-40 that told everyone that as they approached town. I don’t know if it was ever true but there sure is a lot of uranium buried close to Grants in a huge mineral belt that stretches for many miles.

One of the more productive pockets of uranium ore was found at Ambrosia Lake where there were over 100 mines. It’s not a lake at all but rather an ancient sea bed. Still, along with the uranium capital sign there was for years another sigh along I-40 that directed travelers to Ambrosia Lake, forgetting to mention that there is no lake. I told many a disappointed fisherman that fact until finally someone in the highway department thought to remove the sign.

Prior to the discovery of uranium in the 1950’s Grants was a very small town mostly known for carrot farming and the railroad. Grants is in an interesting spot in western New Mexico in the middle of a field of lava generated by Mount Taylor, a now dormant but not extinct volcano.

When uranium was discovered the town was overwhelmed with prospectors and mining companies large and small and miners from all over the country and the world. One thing about miners; they go where the money is and that means from one boomtown to the next as long as their careers last. As the uranium boom gained momentum the small companies were gobbled up by the much larger and well known outfits like Homestake, Kerr-McGee, Ranchers Exploration and whole bunch of others.

I happened to end up working for Kerr-McGee or as it was known then simply as Kermac. I worked underground in a few capacities until I finally became a certified miner. Miners are quite different from laborers or helpers underground and it takes a while to become one. I wasn’t aware of that when I started and it’s a good thing too because had I known what was required to become a miner I may never have gone underground. I’d assumed if I worked underground I was miner. I was way off on that one.

There’s nothing very interesting to me about uranium or for that matter any other metal or mineral. Well, if you own stock in gold, silver, copper or something similar I suppose the end products of mining become interesting in a way. I just never found a pile of rock that interesting, and really that’s what it is that’s extracted. It’s never pure uranium or solid gold or silver but just a pile of rock that contains a usually minuscule percentage of whatever is to be refined. Just a pile of rocks. What was interesting were the people that mined uranium and how they did it.

Kermac had an interesting system of paying miners that was based on how much they produced as opposed to a flat hourly rate. That kind of system leads to individually innovative mining techniques unique to specific miners personalities. Speed was of the essence so forget safety. While there were a hundred state and federal mine safety rules to be followed underground it cost money to follow the rules because they slowed down production. Some of the rules seemed to make sense like wearing safety glasses. Nobody did because they fogged up so fast they were useless. Take ventilation with you by means of large plastic tubing. Few did because hanging that stuff paid so little and took so much time it cost a miner a lot of money to do it. Always work under supported ground so as not to be crushed by a large slab of rock. Ore extraction paid by the carload so miners frequently ignored that rule. Don’t smoke underground. Why not? Well, it turns out that radon somehow sticks to the smoke from a cigarette and that’s bad for the lungs apparently. Oh, and there’s a lot of dynamite being used underground and having an open fire source like a lighter or a match around could be a problem. Nevertheless, I often saw miners smoking not only underground but sitting atop a pile of dynamite while they did it. Had a pile ever gone off that definitely would have slowed that miners production somewhat.

Kermac basically told miners how much they’d get paid for extracting x amount of ore, gave them millions of dollars of tools and equipment and let the miners figure out the actual mining part of it. There was no rulebook on how to do anything as far as ore extraction was concerned. That led to some really innovative work and what I found to be interesting stories.

So, when I think about underground mining I’m always thinking about what the individual miners, laborers, helpers, underground geologists and all the others down there are going through. I find their stories to be fascinating, as hard labor often is.

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