The Dome School of MinesThe mine near Timmins, Ontario has been a fixture on the Canadian mining scene for over a century. At the end of December miners there will work their last shift
The Hocevar family has worked at the Dome mine in the famous Timmins-Porcupine gold camp for nearly 70 years. Joseph joined up after emigrating from Slovenia in 1949, working as an underground miner, and was followed by his sons Edward, a maintenance supervisor, in 1981 and Bill, a mining engineer, in 1984. Edward will be the last Hocevar to work at Dome, which will close its doors and tunnels on Dec. 31.
The Hocevars are just one of many mining families that have long and deep ties to Dome. “There are families that have had multiple generations working at the mine from when it first opened,” said Bill Hocevar, who left Dome in 1992 and is now a business development superintendent at Glencore’s Sudbury Integrated Nickel Operations. “It’s quite different from most places, where sometimes you see the discovery, development, mining and closure all within one generation.
“Dome is one of the exceptions. It had longevity.”
Dome was opened in 1910 and, but for a hiatus in the 2000s, has been mined continuously since. It is 107 years old – making it one of Canada’s longest operating gold mines. It produced an impressive 73 million tonnes of ore and 15 million ounces of gold in its lifespan. Its discovery and the two following ones that led to the Hollinger and McIntyre mines were the pillar operations that built the Timmins area.
But on New Year’s Eve, operations will come to an end at the underground mine. Goldcorp announced the decision in August, after extending Dome’s life by 18 months in July 2016.
“It’s always tough to know when to close a mine. However, in this case, we’ve made many attempts to keep it going. It just doesn’t make financial sense anymore,” Marc Lauzier, the mine’s general manager at Goldcorp’s Porcupine Gold Mines (PGM), told CIM Magazine. “We’ve been struggling to keep the mine going since roughly 2000. After 100 years of mining, we’re scraping to mine the remnant pillars and the remnant couple of areas that haven’t been mined out.”
While the underground has been effectively depleted, Dome may get yet another life. Goldcorp completed a pre-feasibility study for its Century project – further mining Dome’s old Super Pit and Pamour pit – in October. The company reported on Oct. 25 that it had converted 4.7 million ounces into Mineral Reserves at Century, increasing the Proven and Probable Mineral Reserves of gold at Porcupine to 8.1 million ounces, up from 2.3 million last June. “We are working aggressively to bring Century to production in the next four to five years,” Lauzier said.
Ask anyone who has worked at Dome and they will tell you: its ore body is remarkable, both in size and complexity. It would, of course, take an impressive one to sustain 107 years of mining and then get ready to go another round.
“If you’re starting as a young geologist or a young engineer, you’re working in an ore body that’s basically coded in every ore reserves book around the world,” said Lauzier. “It’s a historical body. And it’s been so consistent over its 100-plus years of operation.”
The body’s complex geology meant that it had ore bodies in different dimensions and sizes, and you could chase a quartz vein from the underground workings above ground and all the way to the employee bus stop. Mining that kind of deposit required multiple methods, and everything from narrow vein mining to room and pillar to bulk and longhole mining was employed.
“This is what was totally unique about Dome. It’s very unusual to see such a wide number of mining methods being employed,” said Brian Robertson, CEO of Mexican Gold Corp and a former Dome employee from 1972 to 1990. Robertson started at the mine after graduating and worked his way up from mining engineer to general superintendent. “There’s generally one main method, maybe two. Most of the mines I’ve worked at have had one.”
But its ore body is just one reason Dome will occupy a special place in Canada’s mining history. Former employees of the mine recall it for its familial spirit, a place where multiple generations of families worked at the mine, and where people could spend their whole career, moving up through the ranks from miner to mine superintendent. It was a mine that, thanks to its geology, history and experienced workforce, was the training ground for many young engineers and geologists fresh out of university, and turned out an impressive number of mining CEOs.
It was a place that has always kept one foot in the past and one in the future, allowing new technologies and processes to inform it but tradition to keep it grounded, modernizing in fits and starts over its long life.
Let’s go back in time to the Porcupine Gold Rush. In June 1909, one of two prospectors, Harry Preston or Jack Wilson, slipped on a rock and scraped off its moss covering. The stories vary on who actually did the slipping, but what they found is not disputed: a ledge of quartz covered with gold. That ledge became the Dome mine. Preston and Wilson were followed soon after by prospecting partners Benny Hollinger and Alex Gilles, who discovered the Hollinger mine, and Alexander Olifant (known as Sandy McIntyre), who discovered the McIntyre mine. The “big three” mines brought more prospectors to the Porcupine camp, and led to the creation of the town of Timmins in 1912.
Dome began as an underground operation and was mined as such for decades. As the mine developed and the workforce grew, the owner company, Dome Mines Ltd., built houses for its employees at Dome Extension. The community had a school for employees’ children, a grocery store, recreational facilities, two ice rinks and an on-site doctor. “My girls went to school down there and we shopped down there,” recalled Irwin Parrish, a retired geologist. Parrish, 84, worked at Dome from 1959 to 1965. “It was a very close-knit community. On Halloween the mine security officers would dress up in costumes; instead of just walking around Dome Extension in uniform they chose to take part.”
Many of the Dome’s early generations of workers were veterans of the two World Wars who came back to Timmins and settled their families, as well as former farmers. “The mining industry created jobs and livelihoods for those families,” said Lauzier, a Timmins native whose father was a geologist and father-in-law was a miner. “A lot of us came to mining not by chance but because our fathers and grandfathers had established themselves in Timmins for mining reasons. That’s why it’s not uncommon to see entire families who’ve worked at the mine.”
With the gold prices fixed at around $35/ounce in the late 1950s and into the 1960s, the mine was “static” for a number of years, Robertson said. Ron Colquhoun, a former mill superintendent, added that for decades Dome had “very, very tight capital expenditures.”
But then, in August 1971, United States President Richard Nixon unhitched the U.S. dollar from the price of gold. Dome Mines, being Canada’s largest gold producer thanks to its ownership of the Red Lake mine, became a very profitable company when the gold price started moving up, and the Dome mine benefitted.
Sitting by the bus stop, waiting to be found
“We found a two- to three-foot wide quartz vein that no one knew was out there. It looked like barren or bull quartz but when we sampled it, it had a hell of a lot of gold in it. Much of the gold at Dome, when it was in quartz, was quartz with tourmaline, a black mineral. This had no tourmaline but it had a green mineral, mariposite. This turned out to be the 81 vein. The 81 vein I think became one of the richest veins ever found at the mine, at least in the second half of the century, and it provided much of the gold in the ‘60s into the ‘70s. We actually followed it from the 12 level, it went down further underground and then up, we chased it through the surface and we sampled some outcrops around the old bus station – there was a bus that ran along the back road to Dome Extension and up to South Porcupine – and we found the remnants of this quartz vein and actually found some gold on surface. It had been there for 60 years and no one had ever noticed it. The waiting shack for the bus was actually built right next to what turned out to be the 81 vein. It was a very significant find at the time.”
“There was a push forward to modernize the operation and introduce new technology,” Robertson said. Underground, the mine brought in drill jumbos and electric scoop trams – more than 40 years ahead of the curve – and micro scoops for narrow vein mining. The mining method changed in an effort to increase production. The #8 shaft was sunk to a depth of 5,400 feet and the old mill – an all-wood structure dating back to 1929 – was torn down and rebuilt with new technology. “We used to kid that we took the mill out of the Stone Age and brought it into the modern era,” said Colquhoun, who spent a decade at the mine after graduating from college in 1977.
It may be a familiar refrain for anyone who has worked at Dome. There was always, employees remembered, some tension between the traditional way of doing things, developed over decades, and new technologies and ideas.
“One of my earlier projects was to computerize mine records at all the mines,” remembered Joe Spiteri, a mining consultant and director who worked for Dome Mines Ltd. from 1979 to 1988, and completed a geology research project at Dome in 1978. “The response that came from lots of people at Dome was ‘What? Are you kidding? Computer? What the hell is that? You can’t possibly computerize that!’”
But as Paul Wright, vice-chairman of Eldorado Gold, pointed out, what could be perceived as stodginess could also be a benefit. “People nowadays would refer to [the culture] as excessive conservatism,” joked Wright, who joined Dome after graduating university in 1977, worked his way up from a miner to the mine superintendent, and left in 1987. “But things were done correctly. The mines were run to a high standard.”
And while there could be some initial resistance to new ideas, people were not completely unwilling to experiment. “We were always trying different things to find a better way, more economical way, of mining,” Hocevar remembered. “They had a lot of narrow vein type deposits, so they were pretty much in the forefront of trying to develop different methods to do that. It was a good place to learn what could work and what didn’t work.”
That duality was why former employees remember the mine as an ideal training ground. “It was a great experience for a young graduate,” Robertson said. “You couldn’t find a better place to work with people with that depth of knowledge.”
“Many of us who started at Dome referred to it as the Dome School of Mines,” Wright said, “because it’s there that you actually learned about mining in the truest sense.”
In which case, Robert Perry was one of its most eminent professors.
Perry graduated from university in 1958 and immediately began working at Dome as a junior shift boss. As he remembers it, the going rate was $400 per month, and the six-room house in Dome Extension he was offered along with the job cost him $11 a month in rent. He and his wife Norma raised their three children at Dome Extension, and over a 37.5-year career he worked his way up the ladder to the general manager position before retiring in 1996.
During his time at Dome, Perry, now 86, made big changes to streamline the operation, including helping to cut the mine’s cost per ounce and reducing the size of the workforce, and championed new ways of thinking. “I think there certainly was an element of the old guard that said, this has worked for decades, we don’t need to change. But to his credit, Bob Perry was very open and supportive of new ideas,” Wright said.
And, along with Robertson, Perry was a driving force behind Dome’s Super Pit. The mine’s underground production was lowered because of problems with the #8 shaft and Robertson, then the mine superintendent, needed to fill the mill. “I needed another source of ore so I went back to the old glory hole where the original discovery was in 1910, and saw some mineralization,” he said. The open-pit expertise from the Placer Development side of Placer Dome, the mine’s new owner, also played a role in the pit’s development.
The plans for the Super Pit expanded to include Dome Extension, Perry said, after a drill program in the late ‘80s. “We found out there was ore under all those houses, so we decided we would tear the houses down and turn the ore into an open pit. So we tore all the houses down except for the one I lived in, which we moved about a half a mile down the road.” The house, which weighed three times as much as initially calculated, broke the first trailer that was supposed to move it.
CIM past-president Michael Winship later lived in the same house, which was reserved for Dome’s general manager, during the late 1990s. “This is anecdotal, but they got it jacked up onto massive trucks and then at some point it got stuck,” he said. “I heard a lot of the town people came out and it was kind of like a parade to have this house moved.”
“It was a beautiful home,” Perry recalled.
Never mind the "Producer" credit
“It was a wintery day, I don’t know if it was January or February but the snow was lightly falling and I get a call from the gate house up in the office and they said, ‘There’s a request by Shania Twain and her film crew from CBS, they want to film a number of her singing on the mine site.’ I said, ‘Well you better put them on the phone and I’m going to do some negotiating here.’ Then I spoke to the producer and I said, ‘Why do you want to film on the mine site?’ He said, ‘We want to have a snowy mountain backdrop for her in this picture.’ Timmins generally is flat as a board but we had a big waste dump of rock and it was covered in snow, so it was like an artificial snow mountain. So I said, ‘Well okay we’re willing to let you do this shoot, on the condition that you’ll let me come down there and meet Shania and have my picture taken with her.’ So I go down in my mining gear and she’s doing her filming and then she came over and introduced herself and she was really friendly and chatty. She grew up in Timmins so that’s why they were filming the special there. So we had our picture taken and she put her arm around me. That was a good moment.”
“The open pit was really what saved us for a long time,” Perry said. The Super Pit opened in 1994, and Dome ran both the pit and underground operations until June 2004. The underground workings closed until April 2006 due to economic conditions and, according to Lauzier, work shifted to open pit mining at another Porcupine property, Pamour, in June 2005. Later that year, Barrick Gold announced it was acquiring Placer Dome. Placer’s Porcupine assets, as well as the Campbell mine and Musselwhite, were spun off to Goldcorp.
Work shifted back to the Dome underground in 2006 and has continued since. The infrastructure has aged and, noted Lauzier, “significant investment would be required to upgrade it. We’re having difficulty achieving productivities.”
When the mine closes, some of the employees will be re-trained and moved to other areas of PGM, and some will lose their jobs – a decision that is being handled through the collective agreement between Goldcorp and the employees’ union. The closure will affect 140 people, including employees and contractors. Goldcorp has been in touch with Service Canada and Ontario’s Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development, as well as College Boréal and Northern College in Timmins to set up information sessions for staff.
Over the years the sections of the underground workings that are no longer in use have been inspected and barricaded for safety, and some old tailings stems have been closed off. “I think they were fairly early pioneers in mine rehabilitation at Dome, because it was mined for so long and they had massive tailings ponds. They’ve done quite a good job at rehabilitating them,” Winship said.
The areas that are still open are being inspected by the operations, health and safety and environmental departments to make sure Goldcorp meets all its regulatory requirements, and then will also be barricaded. Most of the equipment at Dome is small and old, so what is needed will be redistributed to other PGM mines, and what is not will be left underground, with the fuels and oils removed. The mill and the tailings area are still used by the other PGM operations, and will remain open.
“We’ll do whatever is required, whether that’s resloping, seeding, addressing any historical problems that may have been left behind,” Lauzier said. “Because we’re only closing the underground in this case, there’s not a lot of rehabilitation required right now.”
The gold bar challenge
“We had a whole refinery and every bar of gold that we poured, it looked like a loaf of bread and it was stamped and numbered. I told people, if you could pick a piece of gold up with one hand you could keep it. Nobody could.”
The end of this year coincides with the end of Dome. For decades the whistle at the mine would blow when the New Year arrived, but the creation of the Super Pit in the 1990s saw the whistle removed. This year each of the mine’s employees will receive a small gift to thank them for their work, Lauzier said, but otherwise the last day at the mine will be a quiet affair. It will be the celebrations in Timmins, the town the mine put on the map, that will sound out Dome’s legacy.
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