Loader and bucker at 9 Room 5 Level North McGillivray Mine 1952.
Naturally it was the desire of every coal miner, immigrant or otherwise, to encourage their children to get a higher education than they themselves had attained and thereby escape the generation trap of the coal mines. Coleman Collieries had a policy of hiring summer students each year to aid their post-secondary education and it was a policy that all miners felt good about even if it meant that their mine would be periodically infested with greenhorns and stumblebums.
I was lucky enough to be one of those students and spent three summers working in and around various surface and underground operations of the company. It goes without saying that every cent made as a summer student was religiously banked for tuition and living costs the next year at post secondary institutions.
My first exposure to the inner workings of the Coleman Collieries operation came in the summer of 1967 when I went to work in Vicary Mine north of Coleman. There the whole infrastructure of how a contract underground mine worked was revealed to me in all its complexity. By the time I found my way underground Vicary had been developed for about ten years and its main entry was a somewhat unnerving 2 1/2 miles deep into the ridge. Along this entry they hauled the coal that was being contract mined and my first job was as a “bucker” working in the area referred to as “haulage”.
Haulage was responsible for getting the coal out of the mine in trains of three ton cars and my part of that task was to help the coal along in the quickest and most efficient manner. That's where the "bucking" part came in.
Firstly I should tell you how the system worked and why it necessitated bucking at times. In older style conventional coal mining at Vicary, pairs of miners drove "rooms" up the pitch of the seam at between 30 and 35 degrees every 100 feet or so off of the main entry. These rooms could run 2000 feet or more up the pitch and were about 10 feet wide and 10 feet high. The floor of the room had a chute that ran down half it's width to the entry and that chute was made of interconnected sheet iron slightly curved so it would hold some volume of coal when full.
As the miners dug coal it was shoveled into the chute and because of the steep pitch naturally slid down to the entry and the load out or "check board" located there. All this worked quite well except when the chute was allowed to fill up and become plugged. As the man at the check board loaded the coal into the cars it would stick in the chute in places up above him and wouldn't "run".
That's where I came in. There were two ways to get the coal moving again in the chute. One was to poke at it with your "bucking stick”. Once it started to run again you would run up the chute watching the flow of coal as you went and poking it when it stuck again.
The second way to get coal moving was to actually hop into the chute, sit down on the coal and "buck it" by pushing your feet ahead and pulling your behind and the coal under you along. This actually worked better in slower chutes but it had its hazards. Suffice to say a protruding nail or the torn edge of a sheet iron could be a real bummer, so to speak! And of course one took the occasional unplanned ride down to chute to the entry at high speed.
Buckers had to be fast and energetic, with legs of iron so that eight hours of running up and down 30 degree slopes wasn't a problem. What I wouldn't give to be in that kind of shape again.
The motivation to buck those chutes all day long came from the haulage boss who ate nail sandwiches for lunch. It also came from the contract miners themselves. Conventional room and pillar mining at Vicary used contract miners; pairs of men in each room that were paid by how much coal they moved each day. A full chute meant the miners couldn't move their coal out of the "face" and that’s when they'd get in my face, big time! Contract miners used a 60 pound "air pick" to dig the coal which generally left them with a right arm like a tree trunk. So when one of them would have to come down the chute from his "place" and holler at me in broken English, "How comes you don't pull my god dam chute?", I generally didn't waste any time getting a train to their check board to pull their coal! Happy miners usually meant a bucker with all his limbs intact and sometimes it even got us a round of beer after work, a subtle thank you for keeping his chute empty.
I kind of miss being there, underground. It wasn't as bad as one might imagine. You never had to deal with rain, snow or wind and the temperature underground remained constant most of the time. I think what I miss the most is the camaraderie, the fellowship. Underground everyone watched out for each other. And worked hard. You had to. Buckers, timber packers, brakey's , miners, pipefitters, mechanics, black smiths; they were all interconnected in a way that didn't allow for half hearted efforts. It might have been dirty and it might have been dangerous but it was rewarding work. You were part of a big team with a singular common purpose; to get that coal out.
It was the only job I've ever had where sitting on your behind was considered doing your job!