1965: My Last Summer in the Wilderness: Merritt Open Pit Mine, Merritt, BC
As the Summer of 1964 ended, I thought my career as a Field Man in the Miining Industry
also ended. Was I waving a fond good-bye? Not a chance. Along came the Summer of 1965.
Marjorie now had a role which was misinterpreted as you will notice.
“Hello, Alan, is that you?”
“Norm Paterson here…need a man for a seismic job in BC…two weeks, maybe three.”
“Wait until I check with Marjorie.”
“Short job, Alan.”
“All clear, what’s up”
“Big molybdenum mine near Merritt B.C…worried about overburden slippage…need seismic
“Using the portable FS2 unit.”
“Yes, with some modifications…”
“Nothing big time…you can handle it I’M sure. Can you take the job?”
“Fly out to Vancouver tomorrow then short hop to BC interior.”
“Sounds great, count me int.”
That call came from out of the blue about August 10, 1965. This was our summer vacation as public
school teachers. Hardly a vacation for us since somehow I got Trench Mouth in early July. Trench Mouth?
Not many people have even heard of trench mouth. Lucky for that. It is a super painful mouth infection
Mouth…a series of ulcers in mouth and throat…super painful. Cause? Gums got infected with Trench ]
Mouth bacteria from some source. Rare disease dates back to soldiers in the trenches of World War I.
Knocked me out for month of July so the Seismic call from Dr. Paterson was a welcome return to normal life.
But I had a few questions…reservations. What is molybdenum? What are these ‘modifications’ to the
FS 2 portable seismic unit? Where is Merritt? How big is the open pit mine? And finally a questions
best not put to Dr. Paterson” “Can Marjorie come along on the job?” Of course, the final question was
the really big question. And it was already answered.
“Marjorie, pack a couple of bags for two weeks…light, one bag each.”
“Where are we going?”
“Wish I knew…place called Merritt.”
“Another bush job?”
“Nope, sounds like a job at a mine site.”
“Where will we live?”
“Not sure…I will fly in first and then you follow a couple of days later.”
“Because the mine manager expects an expert…this job is serious business…if the open pit is on verge of collapse…
they do not expect a husband and wife team on some kind of junket.”
“Where am I to stay then?”
“Stay in Vancouver for a day or two in some cheap hotel and then take a bus to Merritt…by then the job should be well
“How do I get there?”
“By bus…should be a nice ride.”
“I’ll book you into a an East Vancouver hotel,…”
“What is molydenom?”
“It’s a mineral often found assoiated with copper.”
Never heard of it.”
“Not many people have…important mineral though…alloyed with steel makes steel harder.”
“Who needs harder steel?”
“Military. One inch thick steel plating of steel and molybdenum is as good as 3 inch think ,metal. Make
tanks ligher…makes ships lighter…”
THE NATURE OF THE JOB: COMINCO OPEN PIT MINE PROBLEM
One wall on The Cominco Open Pit Mine was unstable and seemed about to collapse which would tumble hundreds of tons
of soil and rock into the open pit mine. Like a mountain landslide. Geologists and mining engineers became aware of the danger when slight rock falls began
to happen. Could the whole massive open pit mine be compromised? Maybe. Maybe not. There was a chance that deep
underground the rock was quite stable. Maybe there might even be some kind of intrusion underground that would inhibit any
It was worth finding out. If stable then the profits would be secure. If not then drastic action would have to be taken. Action that
might even bring about the closure of this partciular open pit operation.
“You can do it, Alan,” said Dr. Paterson which was comforting. I was not so sure as I had graduated from U. of T in history and philosophy.
Philosophy gives a person confidence. History made me aware of my ignorance. One cancelled out the other.
No matter, we were committed and picked up the portable ‘modified’ seismograph. Marjorie and I flew to Vancouver the next day. She was booked into a modest hotel in Vancouver while
I caught a plane to Kamloops and rented a snazzy red convertible for the trip down to Merritt. Then Rented a room in the local motel which was very close to the mine itself.
On arrival I met a company geologist and the mine manager
and we sleuthed out the site. Explosives and blasting caps were purchased and we got down to business. Plan was to start the job the following morning.
That sounds very business like. Very efficient.
Unfortunately events did not go that smoothly. Let’s start with the car rental. Nice red American made convertible. Luxury car was only car available so I motored joyfully
south through the desert landscape of sagebrush and Ponderosa pines. Pulled the car up near the mine admin building…sort of a wooden temporary structure. Lots
of huge earth movers were busy stripping off the overburden then loading up with the blasted fragments of copper bearing ore…very low grade…with molybdenum and tiny traces of
silver and gold. Needed huge load of ore to get small amounts of copper or molybdenum. Gold and silver even less so.
Earth movers have a blade about midway down the body. The blade is a mouth…once dropped it scoops up loose soil and rock…then the mouth is lifted and
the pile of soil and rock is hauled to a dump site. These machines are often driven by devil may care cowboy kinds of people. Shake the shit out of drivers. Certainly true in this case. As soon
as I parked the car a cowboy tried to see how close he could come to the car. He got very close…too close. Sheared off the passenger side and back bumper. Had to
rent another car, less luxurious. Funny thing was that neither the mining people nor the rental agency got their underwear in a twist.
Later I heard that heavy alcohol consumption in the area led to many car accidents.
Imagine this rental car with the side sheared away.
An earth mover, called a tractor scraper, identical to this one took a swipe at my rental car…ripped the passenger side and tore off the back bumper.
Driven by a young man about my age or younger…maybe even only18 or so. I have no idea why he did it. Never met him
and he did not stop just kept hauling his load to the dumpsite.
The Cominco (later Highland Creek) Open Pit copper and molybdenum mine in 1965
Current picture, circa 2018, of the Highland Creek open pit mine near Merritt, BC. When I worked there back in 1965, the pit
was not nearly tis deep. The place where we did the survey may have been somewhere near the central road way
but up on the former surface. Then again it could have been a nearby open pit that was subsequently abandoned.
SO YOU WANT TO KNOW ABOUT THE FS2 PORTABLE SEISMOGRAPH?
I learned the business from the bottom up. My first job in New Brunswick was the ‘hammer man’ job. Dr. Paterson gave me
a heavy sledge hammer and small steel plate.
“Hit that plate as hard as you can wherever and whenever you are told to do so.”
“Must I know how to run a seismograph?”
“You do not need to know a damn thing…just follow orders.”
“Bottom of the learning ladder kind of job, right Dr. Paterson?”
“Right…if you are lucky, you come back as a field man for the company…capable
of running a seismic survey. If you foul up, well, you can figure what that means…”
“Who is my boss?”
“Dr. Abul Mousuf, a professional geophysicist…nice guy.”
Description: Sledge hammer pounded on a steel plate sent sound waves to
the portable seismograph at clearly defined spatial intervals. Some distance
from the Seismograph it was necessary use explosives. Sound waves travel at
different speeds in different material…i..e. air, overburden soil, bed rock.
So My first job we used an MD-1 portable seismograph. All I had to do was hammer a steel plate with heavy steel headed sledge hammer. Abul Mousuf was my boss on that job.
Just the two of us were sent to New Brunswick to confirm the future lakebed of the St. John River Valley was going to hold the huge amount
of water from the Macktaquack (sp?) dam.
Abul was the first moslem I ever met. Very patient
and generous guy. He ran the portable seismograph while I provided the sound wave vibrations which were picked up by the machine in milliseconds..tiny
fractions of a second. I pounded the steel plate at measured intervals…usually around 50 foot intervals. The more distant I got from Abul the
harder I had to hammer that steel plate. When hammering was no longer readable, we started to use force… explosives…Explosives!
“Alan, cut the Forcite sticks into quarters and halves.”
“Slowly with a knife…the sticks are quite stable…
“plastic C4…needs big shock to detonate…That’s where the caps come in.”
“These little metal tubes with wires…electric firing caps.”
“How are they charged?”
“Slide the metal tube slowly into the Forcite…quite safe.”
“And the wires?”
“Attach to this cable that goes back to the firing switch…
“Any danger of error?”
“Always a danger if more than two people get involved…safe is we work together.
You set the charge…bury it so some of the force will go down… then get back out of the way…Signal me…wave your arm…yell, ‘All clear’
and I’ll detonate the charge. usually only need quarter sticks.
We worked out a routine…once the charge was buried and wires connected I signalled Abul, then moved out
of the way, and he pushed the firing button. Wham! A small geyser of dirt snd debris flew into the air. And beneath the ground a sound wave raced
to the seismograph. Sound waves move faster in hard surfaces so it is possible to ‘read’ what is beneath the ground…and do a profile of the depth to bedrock.
That is a very simple explanation. Forgive any errors. Remember I was just the hammer and explosives guy. The kid on the
The greeting by the professional staff at the mine site was a little disconcerting though. They had set up a demonstration test just to be sure the company, my company, knew what we we’re doing.
At least that’s the way I interpreted them gathering around the FS2 on the first working day. They assigned a hammer man to work with me, a man who was a little familiar with frociete explosives.
Really just a kid a few years younger than me. We walked along the edge of the huge open pit mine. Walked carefully. But not carefully enough for the hammer/explosives man. He slipped over
the edge carrying the box fo Forcite sticks. Fell down about ten feet or so, regained his footing and popped up again. Forcite does not explode when dropped. A most stable explosive…can be needed
and wrapped around a bank vault as they show in the movies. So there was no real danger although the boy who fell had misgivings.
Let me set the stags for the next critical incident:
We are standing on the edge of the open pit Molybdenum mine. A Great circular road weaves its way down to the pay dirt at the bottom. Huge Euclid mine trucks are going and coming
while equally large excavators are at work far below. The officials from the mine are interested in seeing the Seismograh at work. They are professional people…a geologist and the mine manager
are among the 5 or 6 people present.
I set up the console and mark off the intervals for a) the hammered plate and then, once hammering cannot be done b) the intervals for the electrically fired quarter snd half stick of Forcite. The hammer man
has been instructed how to slowly side the electric firing caps into the Frociete then use the lead wires to make the explosive secure.
I am nervous. What if nothing happens? What did Dr. Paterson mean when he said certain adjustments had been made to the FS2. Let me describe what happened next in dialogue form.
“OK, we’re all set up, FS is on.”
“Hammer the steel plate…NOW.”
“That’s odd, no reading…no milliseconds indicted…Do it again!”
(Nothing happened…I had my heart in my mouth…was there something I did not know…was it my fault?
Keep calm, Alan…be confident.”
“Sorry, must be a defective board…may have shaken something loose en route.”
Dr. Paterson had given me two or three spare “boards” filled with complicated soldered resistors and what not.)
“Just do a replacement…slide this board out and put a new one in…happens all the time.”
“OK, now take a good song with the hammer:
“Bingo…working fine…measures time vibration gets to the seismograph in milliseconds…
te more distant the hammer or the explosives get from the seismograph the closer we get to finding
what is underground. What you want is a stable rock base…or a rock knob to prevent any more slippage.
That will take s lot of readings…(no need for an audience is what I really meant)”
“My credibility had been established…by pure luck…well, more than luck, let’s say guts…Dad always
called me a ‘gutsy bugger’
GUESS WHO ARRIVED THAT FIRST DAY ON THE JOB?
Once the board was replaced all went well. Firing box for Explosives worked perfectly. All I had to do was push the button and then
write down the milliseconds it took for the sound wave to reach the seismograph. Simply add up the little twinkling lights. At least that
is what I remember. Things became routine.
My next shock was when I returned to the motel.
Marjorie was unpacking her suitcase in our room.
“Marjorie, I thought you were going to wait a couple of days?”
“Not in that Vancouver hotel. I was scared so I caught the night
bus to Merritt…arrived this morning.”
“Strange men…noise…drunks…did not want to stay around.”
“Glad to see you…perfectly safe here…”
A little later, the mine geologist showed up to make me feel welcome. Me?
He was surprised to find an attractive young woman in my room with me.
Wore a kind of lopsided grin when I introduced Marjorie to him.
The next day I got the scuttlebutt from our hammer man that the execs thought I had
brought a hooker in from Vancouver. They were certain of that. No matter how many
times I introduced Marjorie as my wife, they figured I was leading them on.
“Marjorie, these guys think you are a hooker…can’t dissuade them…”
“So, let’s leave it at that then Alan.”
Pictures: Marjorie…I know these were taken a few years after the BC venture…but they seem to fit.
As the days wore on, I think they came to realize Marjorie was my wife but we were
never sure that fact was believed. There is an old story about mining that I picked
up when working on the Elliot Lake uranium job. Our liaison man on that job said
“The best way to tell if a mine is going to be operational is the arrival of the hookers.”
Maybe Marjorie was a good luck omen.
WHAT WAS THE RESULT OF THE SURVEY?
I was only the field man. The interpretation of my results was done by professional geophysicists like Dr. Paterson back in Toronto.
The execs from Cominco would have liked me to tell them if the unstable north wall of the open pit was on the verge of collapse
or whether it would stabilize due to a tilt in the bedrock. I never did know the results. That was true of all the jobs except for
the Southern Irish job where Dr. Stam and geologist John Hogan were on site for the duration of the job.
When we finished our seismic readings and the results were sent back to Toronto, the job was over.
So here we were in Central British Columbia with s few days before school started back in Toronto. What should we do?
Fly home right away? I never liked doing that on any job. Seemed an absolute waste because most of the places we surveyed
were distant from Toronto. Some were fascinating places like Anchorage, Alaska…Keno City, Yukon Territory…Bunmahon, County
Waterford, Ireland. It would be stupid to rush home. And it would be costly since two airfares were involved only one of
which was covered by the company.
So we booked ourselves on a cross Canada tourist train both
of us in a Lower birth.
dec. 29, 3033