Thursday, 21 February 2013

A Walk Beneath the Ocean

Bell Island Mine 1The Bell Island iron ore mine is the stuff of legends. Never mind the fact that it used to be one of the largest submarine mines in the world, or that it extends almost all the way across the bay to Harbour Grace, or that its lowest point is almost 5 km below the ocean. Never mind its on-again, off-again love affair with Germany (Germany was a big customer before the First World War, then not during the war, then a big customer again after the war, then not during the Second World War, then again after the war). While all of that certainly adds to the mystique of the place, it is the non-mining happenings that sets this mine apart from others.

Like the fact that Bell Island was the site of the only German direct attack on North America during the Second World War. So much for Germany being a valued customer!

Even after cheaper, surface-mined ore forced the mine owners to cease operations in 1966, the mine still occasionally made the news. In 1978 there was a massive explosion, which, according to rumour, was the result of a U.S. military high energy weapons test*. While I doubt the U.S. was involved in this explosion, certainly something extraordinary happened. The mine made news again in 2006 when a diver exploring the now-flooded mine died.

Yes, the Bell Island Mine has a certain notoriety for other reasons than being a mine.

The Number 2 Mine is now open for tours and my friend Carol, who was in Newfoundland this summer at the same time I was there, agreed to meet me in Portugal Cove where we took the ferry over to see the mine.

The Bell Island Heritage Society operates both the mine museum and the tour. The tour leaves from inside the museum and goes down the #2 mine shaft. It's a lot of work keeping the mine open for people to see. They have to deal with water, which is constantly seeping in through the mine entrance. Indeed, much of the mine is flooded.

They also have to take into account the different physical abilities of their visitors. To that end, they have added crushed stone and handrails to the main shaft, making it easier for tourists to get down and back up. The grade is deceptive, much steeper than it looks, and coming back up is certainly not as easy as going down.

Bell Island Mine 4

The other parts of the mine are pretty much as they were when it was a going concern. That is to say, it is not geared towards visitors.

Bell Island Mine 3

The tour group was small enough that we could all gather around and hear the guide relate colourful accounts of what the mine was like when it was operating. At one point, he turned off the lights to show how dark it was without any light. It was pitch black. Even after a few minutes, when your eyes usually adapt to the dark, there was only dense darkness. I could feel the mine closing in all around me. This mine tour is certainly not for anyone claustrophobic!

Bell Island Mine 2

Even with the lights on, it was still pretty dark. So much so that I had to rest my camera on something in order to take a picture. Even then, the exposures were so long that anything moving, like Carol, was blurred.

Bell Island Mine 1

Back up above ground, it was time to take in the exhibits in the museum. I found them to be better than many federally run museums. There were even a few Karsh** photographs, which was quite an unexpected find! While the museum exhibits were great, and I enjoyed seeing the Karsh photos, it was the lure of the mine itself that made it worth the hassle of getting to Bell Island. The experience of being down in a mine, underground and under the sea, was unusual to say the least.

Many of my images from Newfoundland are available to purchase as fine art prints from my web gallery.

If you would like to read some of my other posts about Newfoundland, click here and use the "Older" and "Newer" links at the bottom to scroll through the posts.

*I was in Carbonear at the time of the explosion, but I do not remember hearing it. I do remember hearing rumours afterwords about the explosion being some part of a secret U.S. military experiment. The rumours persist to this day, as you can see from this website. I guess some people will believe what they want to believe!

** Yousuf Karsh was a Canadian photographer. He was, IMHO, absolutely brilliant. Most people would recognize his portrait of Sir Winston Chuchill, even if they don't realize that he took it.

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