When I was growing up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, I never knew there was a stigma to being a miner’s daughter. Aside from being a doctor or a dentist, or owning your own business, being in the mines was the best job in town.
My father left school when he was 16 so he could help his parents financially. Many teenagers did in those days. He took any kind of a job he could get. I know that one of his first jobs was “working in the woods” as a cook’s helper in a logging camp. I think that was the same job where he was part of the last log drive to go down the river in the Spring runoff.
Another job he had in the woods was the winter he spent running a survey line with an Indian helper. The work had to be done in the winter so they could travel on snowshoes. This was much easier than forcing their way through dense underbrush during the summer months. It also made living much easier; they were living in a tent for three or four days at a stretch and mosquitoes would have made their lives impossible any other time of the year.
There were other jobs before the job in the mine. He told me he once drove a delivery truck. I know he was a life guard at the County Park for several summers, and spent several other summers planting evergreen trees in a reforestation project of the WPA. Perhaps his steadiest job was as a body man in his brother’s garage, pounding dents out of fenders.
When WWII loomed on the horizon, the economy picked up. The iron mines in the area were put into super production and more men hired. After the variety of work my father had done, having a steady job in the mines was like winning the jackpot. Best of all, he was working “contract”.
’Contract” was a term used in the mining industry meaning that a team of four men had a contract with the mining company to develop a level of the mine. They would run an audit level off the main shaft, complete with shoring and tracks, and then take out the ore. They were paid hourly rates (known as "company account") during the development period. Once the team started sending ore up to the surface, pay checks were based on the actual tonnage extracted. During the years of World War II the mines operated 24 hours a day, with three teams of four men per level, each team being responsible for a particular 8-hour shift.
I never saw my father in his mining gear. The mine had a “dry”, a locker room with shower stalls where the men could wash and change into street clothes when they came up from underground. The mining clothing itself, bib overalls and heavy canvas shirts, was laundered on a weekly basis by a sub-contractor.
The only physical marks of an iron miner were the lack of a suntan in the summer (no sunshine underground) and red cuticles on his fingernails. Iron ore dust is red. It stains whatever it touches.
Our town didn’t look like a mining town, either, except for the river and the railroad line.
The mines were located several miles outside of town, deep in the National Forest that surrounded it. The constant discharge water that was pumped from the mines went into the river, which ran through the town. The water was rusty red.
All the ore was shipped by rail to loading ports on Lake Michigan. The railroad ran along one side of the town. Sometimes traffic would be tied up for half an hour or more as strings of empty ore cars passed through on their way back to the mines.
The mines are finished now. They have been allowed to flood. In many cases the headframes have been dismantled. Even the railroad track has been pulled up, along with the cross ties. The river runs clear these days.
After I left home and went to the city to work I learned to be careful whenever anyone asked what my father did. I always answered that he was an iron ore miner, not a coal miner. I had discovered that people look down on miners.