1999.295.3 | Near Thetford Mines, QC, about 1890

Near Thetford Mines, QC, about 1890
About 1890, 19th century
Silver salts on paper
11.4 x 17.8 cm
Gift of Mr. Alfred Penhale Estate
This artefact belongs to :© Musée minéralogique et minier de Thetford Mines
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Keys to History

By the 1890s, the asbestos pits were already quite deep, but still on a human scale. In 1906, however, they prompted a reporter from Le Soleil to write this sensational description:
"[Excavations] are two or three hundred feet deep, and the men that can be seen working down below look no bigger than rats. It is impossible to make out their features; all that can be seen is that they are moving, coming and going, and that they seem to inhabit another world. [. . .] These poor fellow go down in the morning and come back up at night. [. . .] Here and there, leading from ledge to the next, rickety stairs, ladders, or carved-out steps can be seen [. . .] It is terrifying to think that human beings can be condemned to go up and down perpetually this way."

It is quite plausible that, despite a certain romantic exaggeration, this description did indeed reflect reality.

  • What

    On the right, a worker is coming up from the bottom of an open-pit mine.

  • Where

    The workers didn't have to go far when their day's labour was done. If they didn't live with their families in one of the small villages that had sprung up around the mines, they stayed in shacks near the pits.

  • When

    This photo was taken in the first half of the 1890s, when the pit was still small enough that hand winches could be used.

  • Who

    Contrary to what might be expected, the unsigned article in Le Soleil was not written to denounce working conditions in the mines -- it accompanied advertising copy. A worker from Thetford Mines, Pamphile Couture, apparently wrote a letter thanking the Compagnie Médicale Moro (272 St. Denis Street in Montreal):
    "I felt sure that one day I would be carried out dead from the mine, and every day I wondered if I would have the strength to go back up top. When I got to the top of the stairs, I felt weak, I could no longer breathe. And the unbearable pains in my back, the outbreaks of [. . .] boils. That is all over now, thanks to your wonderful Moro pills."

    The wonderful pills may not have been quite so effective as they are made out to have been