by Jane Gaffin
The Whitehorse Copperbelt and the companies that explored and mined the 17- to 18-mile-long crescent-shaped strip of ground west of the Yukon’s capital city have been noted for several unique features over the years.
First, Yukoners can claim fame to the existence of a rare mineral identified as valleriite, or vallerite, in their own backyard. The occurrence of the brassy-coloured sulphide mineral of iron and copper is so unusual as to be found only in about seven locations in the world. One of those places is the Whitehorse Copperbelt.
While locals can boast of the copperbelt hosting an anomalous mineral, it actually was not a welcome sight for metallurgists. Valleriite, graphitic in texture, played hell with ore-treatment techniques used in the milling process until the minor mineral mysteriously dissipated in the ore mined at depth.
Additionally, Whitehorse Copper Mines, a marginally-profitable company reconstituted from New Imperial Mines in 1972, had to be a trend-setter in its approach to keeping the purchase and maintenance costs of heavy underground machinery to a minimum.
The company, operating close to the bone on three-year ore reserves, instituted innovative applications for tackling cost problems while simultaneously looking at future diversification and expansion plans in an effort to keep 200 employees working when sufficient blocks of mineable ore reserves were depleted.
As mechanical parts became more scarce, and the waiting time for delivery of mine machinery lengthened, the adroit Whitehorse Copper employees put their minds together to instigate imaginative master plans.
General Manager Vic Jutronich liked to brag up his happy workforce rowing in the same direction as well as bringing special attention to a newfangled contraption created at the property. The hydrastatic Clark Mobile, an underground service vehicle, was a legacy of Clark Van Steinburg, the mechanical shop superintendent who invented and designed the brainchild.
Van Steinburg staunchly believed heavy equipment should never break down or wear out if well-maintained. He bought traded-in machinery, worked hard for more than 10,000 hours, that most other industrial complexes would shun as fatigued junk.
Not Van Steinburg, a mechanical wizard. Sharing his sentiments was a long-term steady staff of 26 mechanics, welders and machinists, like Jack Monet and John Millar, shop foreman Roy Watson, and drill doctors Jim Graham and Ray Osborne. They viewed the “worthless junk” as prizes.
The crew salvaged parts and pieces and built and rebuilt their own workhorses. On-site equipment designing and construction proved itself to be low-maintenance cost and outlasted some factory-built equipment.
Jim Graham, in charge of the drill shop where underground drills and pumps were repaired, and machinist Jack Monet put on their thinking caps and conjured up a money-saving suggestion that rewarded them with $1,700 each through the Suggestion Awards incentive program for an ingenious rock- breaker proposal.
The modifications saved the company $34,000 a year. The appreciative and economically-minded company granted 10 percent of what was saved within a calendar year to the employees who came up with the cost-saver.
If the employee’s idea went one step further and made money for the company, then the inventor received a certain percentage of those earnings. A money-reward system was a strong incentive for guys to keep their minds open and pencils sharp.
After rebuilding such mechanisms as diesel engines, power-shift transmissions and differentials, the mine could operate machinery such as 5-yard, front-end loader Scooptrams almost continuously without maintenance worries.
Van Steinburg and his converted-minded staff, in their contention that there’s a way to build heavy-equipment machinery that doesn’t break down, went about tenaciously fulfilling Van Steinburg’s theory in the completely-equipped, 15,000-square-foot workshop.
In the event that Whitehorse Copper exhausted known ore reserves within three years, manager Jutronich contended there was no reason for the Whitehorse Copper facility to crumble and perish. He promoted the structure as solidly established to shift gears and transform into a mine-related business. (He also promoted seeding the rich, mineral-laced tailings ponds for conversion into a community golf course.)
His far-reaching strategy was for the company to stay in business and keep jobs in the Yukon by concentrating on building and repairing mining equipment for other companies and farming out five-star underground miners to work in other locales.
For instance, engines could be rebuilt for Cantung (Canada Tungsten) on the Yukon-Northwest Territories border. It would preclude the inconvenience of the mine wasting extra time and expense sending key overhaul jobs to major cities. Those jobs could stay in the Yukon. He had a crackerjack staff capable of undertaking those specialty tasks.
And, for sure, Whitehorse Copper could contract out experienced crews to other underground operations. If Whitehorse Copper owner Hudson Bay Mining had a job at its MacMillan Pass Mactung (tungsten) deposit that would, for instance, cost $2 million, Whitehorse Copper’s personnel could be contracted for half the price, a proposal that maybe jolted Jutronich’s Hudson Bay boss.
Unless new reserves were found, though, ore reserves outlined to last Whitehorse Copper roughly three years were finite. That indisputable fact meant the mine would come to a screeching halt. The manager knew it and the 200 employees knew it. But did anybody else know it? Or care?
In view of the looming dilemma, Jutronich reflected on what the company should do. Just shut up shop and sell assets and pay shareholders back? Or diversify and expand? Jutronich knew what he wanted to do but he didn’t have the sympathetic ear of immediate superiors who may have rejected his ingenious ideas as borderline lunatic fringe.
Yet, at the relevant time, Bobo LaRocque, a veteran underground miner, was teaching underground mining classes for the Yukon government’s Vocational and Technical Training School at a replica site tunneled into rock on nearby Grey Mountain that tapered off into low hills like a plucked eyebrow. Over half the total 252 graduates trained by the jovial Frenchman became experienced miners employed throughout the Yukon and Canada.
Another unexpected phenomenon happened in 1976. The 1971 Mining Safety Ordinance for the Yukon that stated no female could work underground was amended by the Yukon Legislative Assembly. It was proclaimed as law by Commissioner James Smith to allow women to work underground in the territory.
None of the Yukon’s three underground mines of the day — United Keno Hill Mines at Elsa; Carmacks Coal, owned by Cyprus Anvil Mining for producing fuel for the drying of lead-zinc concentrates at Faro; and Whitehorse Copper Mines — anticipated a flood of female applicants for the hard-labor jobs.
Whitehorse Copper Mines, seven road miles south of town, had one enthusiast, mine expeditor Trudy Vanderburg. The woman who actually broke ground as the Yukon’s first — and only — female underground miner was Janeane MacGillivray.
The Yukon’s Mining Safety Ordinance was designed to protect women and children from unfair working conditions existing in mining operations. Since politicians felt those conditions no longer existed in the Yukon, the bill was passed to show no discrimination in the practice of hiring male and female personnel in the mines.
The original bill was based on an age-old superstition that had prevented women from even visiting an underground site based on miners’ beliefs they would bring a cave-in, fire, ore depletion or other calamity to the tunnel.
A Glimpse at the Whitehorse Copperbelt is a compilation of historic materials, newspaper articles, personal interviews and photographs covering a period from 1898, when the copper mines were discovered, to 1982 when Whitehorse Copper Mines closed due to inevitable ore exhaustion.
The 350-page document mentions 33 old Crown Grants. Important mining claims like the Pueblo are detailed and their owners profiled.
From William P. Grainger and John McIntyre, who met tragic deaths, the historical account moves on with the invaluable help of copperbelt aficionado Dick McKenna to more pioneers such as James Whitney, Katherine Ryan, H.E. Porter, Tommy Kerruish, Robert Lowe, Sam McGee, and Captain John Irving.
One major historic copperbelt event was the tragic Pueblo cave-in on March 21, 1917. Of the nine miners trapped, only three were rescued.
Well-known underground miner, Ed Andre, and his colleagues paid tribute to the permanently entombed men by listing their names on a bronze plaque they anchored to a granite boulder at the minesite. On September 18, 2001, 84 years after the fact, they staged a ceremony that finally gave the miners a dignified burial service.
In the long term, the Little Chief deposit proved to be the jewel in the copperbelt’s Crown where mining was forced to go underground into the deep ore.
Whitehorse Copper Mines’ predecessor, New Imperial Mines, had used the open-pit method to excavated its series of mines. General Manager Ross Kenway and Chief Geologist Bob Hilker presented their glowing reports to an annual meeting of the Canadian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy in Vancouver, April, 1968. Kenway discussed large-scale mining of small open pits in the Yukon while Hilker stuck to outlining the geology of the Little Chief ore deposit.
During New Imperial’s tenure on the copperbelt, Armand Arsenault provided much of the extensive diamond drilling contracts.
When New Imperial morphed into Whitehorse Copper, Tony Caron of E.Caron Diamond Drilling was the prominent fixture on the belt where Andy Hureau served as the long-term exploration geologist and Dave Tenney as chief geologist. Both were “carry overs” from New Imperial days.
Whitehorse Copperbelters Part VIII portrays personality sketches of Pete Versluce, Harry Versluce and Chuck Gibbons, the prospectors who optioned the Little Chief and other claims to the mining companies; Paul White, a land surveyor who helped locate some old turn-of-the-century Crown Grant staking posts for New Imperial brass; Bob Hilker, New Imperial’s chief geologist; Dave Tenney, Whitehorse Copper’s chief geologist; Andy Hureau, Whitehorse Copper’s exploration geologist; and veteran underground miners Erich Stoll and Ed Andre, author of Heroes of Darkness, a little book commemorating underground miners.
And, of course, the picture wouldn’t be complete without showing off the governments’ true colours. The muscle-flexing city diligently counter-opposed the miners by appealing to the feds to declare a staking moratorium. Ultimately, the territorial government persecuted and the city prosecuted prospector Rob Hamel over his copperbelt War Eagle property, nicknamed the “dump claims”.
And, then, came the upbeat reunion of more than 200 nostalgists who reunited in the summer of 1995 to bid their final adieus to what most attendees heralded as “the best place I ever worked; if Whitehorse Copper were still going, I’d probably still be working there”.
See the whole miscellany of stories at Whitehorse Copperbelters.