Living And Dying: Working In Newfoundland’s Fluorspar Mines
Part One: Setting The Scene
Mining is a cruel and hard profession. In North America during the 19th and early 20th centuries, it has taken its toll in the lives of those who worked the mines. Cave-ins and greed have resulted in catastrophes that ended the lives of those who worked there and destroyed their families. Yet, more insidious than this is the deliberate destruction of the lives of miners – and their families over time through disease. If you wander through the cemeteries of St. Lawrence, Newfoundland, Canada, you will find testament to a company’s desire to make profit at the expense of its employees. In this small community and others nearby, are found the graves of some 200 men who contracted Silicosis and other industrial lung diseases from working in the fluorspar mines.
What Is Fluorspar?
Fluorspar is a non-metallic ore. It composition varies. As a result, it may be utilized in the manufacture of various substances. In S. Lawrence, it was used mainly for:
The smelting of aluminum
The making of Freon
The manufacture of glass
- The production of aviation fuel for the American military
Other uses for the substance are:
- Acid etching
- Glass etching and polishing
- Metal Processing
- Polishing aluminum
- Fluoridation agent in organic chemistry
- Varnish used in paint-shops & printers
- Electronic Technology
- Nuclear Technology
- Insulation & refrigerant gas in electro-technology
- Propellant gas for aerosols
What Is Silicosis?
Silicosis is a respiratory health issue that develops slowly. It is caused by the inhaling in of small particles of silica which can be found in the dust disturbed by such activities as mining or sandblasting. It has been called the Miner’s Disease and the Potter’s Disease. Silica is a mineral found in several substances including sand, rock and a few varieties of mineral ores e.g. quartz.
St. Lawrence and the Arrival of Mining
St. Lawrence is a small coastal town located on the Burin Peninsula in Newfoundland, Canada. Townsfolk had originally made their livelihood through fishing and some farming. This way of life was adversely affected by a massive tidal wave in 1929. The loss of 27 people was significant for this town but add to it the advent of the Great Depression and the complete collapse of their livelihood – saltfish trade, and the community found itself in severe economic distress.
Entering into the picture was an American entrepreneur - Walter Seibert. A visit to the area in 1931 provided him with the chance to make money off of the fluorspar deposits in the area. He had purchased the land and its contents from a St. John’s businessman two years prior. For the region, it was the chance to make some money to support their families. Moreover, it would be permanent and not casual work.
Elliott Leyton. Dying Hard. Industrial Carnage in St. Lawrence Newfoundland. Boulder Publications, Newfoundland, 1975, 1978.
Richard Rennie “The Historical Origins of an Industrial Disaster: Occupational Health and Labour Relations at the Fluorspar Mines, St. Lawrence, Newfoundland, 1933-1945,” Labour/Le Travail, 55 (Spring 2005), 107-42.
St. Lawrence Heritage http://www.heritage.nf.ca/society/stlawrence.html.
St. Lawrence Fluorspar Mine Closer To ReopeningCbc News online June 16, 2011. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/st-lawrence-fluorspar-mine-closer-to-re-opening-1.1120349