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GOSSAN MINES: A dangerous place to work

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Mining dangers included falling down shafts and fires sparked by combustible materials.

By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

Moving a mountain with steam shovels and explosives and hollowing out the earth below through tunneling presented danger and challenges at Gossan Mines in Carroll County.
Work was periodically interrupted as various kinds of emergencies would occur.
Newspaper archives on the mines held by the Carroll County Historical Society Museum contain articles on different kinds of problems that arose at Gossan Mines.

“Tragedy struck in the Galax area Friday afternoon when two Carroll County men — Guy Ring, 60, and Paul Savage, 30 — were killed when they fell from the mine elevator at the Gossan Mines operations, a few miles from Galax,” a June 18, 1951, newspaper report said.
Both men were employees of the General Chemical company mine.
“According to information obtained by The Gazette from Fred E. Johnson, mine superintendent, there were no witnesses to the accident.
“As far as could be ascertained, the men fell to the bottom of the mine shaft, said to be 175 feet below the surface, about 2:15 o’clock.
“The men were known to have been on the elevator with acetylene welding equipment, and it was surmised, by at least one mine worker, that welding lines might have caught on a protruding object, pulling both men from the lift,” the article said.
Another emergency described in an undated Gazette news article was an underground fire that burned away for eight hours.
“Tuesday morning saw the second fire in as many weeks in the Iron Ridge community, with a blaze in a storage area in the Gossan Mines,” the newspaper reported.
“The fire, discovered about six o’clock, was about 30 feet underground, in one of the mine shafts.
“It is thought that it started from spontaneous combustion in material with a high sulphur content stored in the bins. The sulphur gave off fumes that hampered the work of the men fighting the fire to a great extent.”
Galax firefighters had assistance from Hillsville to bring the flames under control.
“The miners donned firefighting gear and with the firemen used five hoses on the flames, pouring tons of water into the shaft.
“Damage to the property was estimated unofficially at several thousand dollars. Only a temporary halt in the mining operations was caused, however.”
Johnson lived through at least three brushes with fire while he worked at the Virginia operation.
“One day, [sulphur dioxide] fumes in the mill led to fire in the waste bin beneath the mill floor,” as the former mine superintendent wrote in his mining memoirs. “Fire hose was brought in and a strong stream directed through the manhole. Time passed with no results.
“Finally, Fred called the Galax Fire Department. A man came out, bringing with him a ‘cellar nozzle,’ which could direct a stream horizontally when placed in the manhole. Soon the fumes ceased; the fire was out,” he wrote in a rather calm account of the incident.
On another occasion, sulphur fumes emanated from the mine. After a call went out for a Bureau of Mines response team from West Virginia, Johnson went to the source of the disturbance himself, according to the memoirs.
“Fred was drafted to lead the squad to the probable source of the conflagration,” Johnson wrote, referring to himself in the third person. “He was furnished with a gas mask.
“Following the fumes, the squad reached a spot in a worked out stope [a steplike part of the mine] between two levels where a wooden staircase had been placed as a manway between levels. The old stope was being filled with mill tailing [material left over from ore extraction], which had a small content of sulphur.”
As it turned out, the reaction between the tailings, the dampness and the wood led to the combustion, but Johnson indicated it was easily dealt with by dowsing it with the fire hose.
The Johnson family rode out a Christmas Eve forest fire in the superintendent’s residence.
“The back and roof of the garage were soaked by a garden hose and the flames stopped their advance,” Johnson said.
He then had to go out with a rake and shovel and fight a brush fire near the mine’s water tank.
“Fred got home just before dawn, removed his shoes so as not to wake the youngster and crept up the stairs to the landing between the two bedrooms,” the superintendent wrote. “A small voice piped up ‘Merry Christmas, Daddy.’”
Johnson evoked a more peaceful Christmas image when he recalled that a six-inch blanket of snow then fell and covered the charring of the brush fire.
Besides the immediate safety concerns in the mines, the Gossan operation had a lasting impact on the environment, most notably the quality of the water in Iron Ridge.
A 1984 newspaper article reported on findings of a Virginia Water Control Board in Richmond regarding the mining company, now known as Allied Chemical Corporation, and its responsibility to clean up the polluted water in the community for “discharging the untreated waste water from Huey Pit into state waters.”
“Beginning in mid-March of the year, the board said, Chestnut Creek began to turn orange because of iron precipitating out and coating the stream bed,” the article noted.
An Allied spokesman at the time told the newspaper that the company had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on reclamation of the mine since it had closed.
Today, the mine property is off limits due to safety concerns and various hazards, like perilous drops into old mine pits and contaminated soil and water.