Josef Sönser's Story

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Delia Garrido & Peter Russell 


On  December 6, 2007 Josef Sönser was interviewed about his experience in Canada and Ireland where he worked in mines and collected beautiful mineral specimens throughout his career. In December 2007, Mr. Sönser donated his collection to the Royal Ontario Museum and the  Earth Sciences Museum at the University of Waterloo.  

Josef Sönser moved to Canada from Austria in 1951. Josef is from the province of Salzburg in the Tennengebirge mountain range. Salzburg translates to, “salt castle” in German. That area was known for its bountiful salt mines. Josef traveled with his brother and a friend. They believed that there was no future for them in Austria. When asked what drew them to Canada, Joseph responded, “Well let’s say it was the adventure”. The three young men began their adventure in Quebec City. Josef was immediately sent to the Toronto-Ajax immigration camp, which was originally a POW Camp. He was to stay there temporarily until suitable employment could be found. In Austria, Josef was originally trained as an orthopedic shoemaker. Prior to leaving Austria, Josef was promised that with his previous profession he would be able to find a job in a hospital. He soon learned that this was not a possibility. They gave him two choices, he could work on the CN railroad or work as a lumberjack. 
He decided to work for the railroad. He began work with 98 Italians and 1 English man. Fortunately Josef had stayed in Italy for six months, and was able to learn a few words, enough for basic communication. They worked on the route from Toronto to Muskoka and up to Kirkland Lake raising the tracks. The living conditions were quite dismal. They lived in old cattle cars, called “bunk cars”. With just a couple of cots and mattresses, they lacked the comfort of having pillows or blankets.  
After three weeks, Josef became seriously ill with diarrhea. He said the reason for his illness was simple; he was being fed very rich food, like fat steaks and pork chops that his body was not use to. Josef explained that in the war years in Austria they did not have access to this kind of food, and in fact had very little food. He lost 40lbs in three weeks. His Russian foreman suggested he clean out his system with castor oil. He did, and it definitely cleaned him out; it nearly killed him! 
Malcolm Back of the Royal Ontario Museum, Josef Sönser and Peter Russell

Malcolm Back of the Royal Ontario Museum, Josef Sönser and Peter Russell.

After his illness, and spending a few more weeks on the railroad, Josef decided that working on the railroad was not for him. He walked from the CN line to the CP line where he boarded a train back to Toronto. He knew that he was not supposed to be back at the camp, as he already had a job with the CN. He was hiding out in between all the people in the camp, but eventually they noticed him and put him in isolation. After hearing his story they were convinced that he was sincere and had good intentions, so they gave him a second chance. He was now given another choice, working building construction or working in a mine. Josef chose to work in a mine; he figured that a mine was just an inverted mountain. And in Austria, living in the Alps, Josef had grown to love mountains and rocks. 
His first mining job was in Timmins, Ontario. He worked as a Ditch Cleaner in the Paymaster Gold Mine. His job entailed digging ditches and preparing the water flow at different levels. After he proved himself as a competent worker in this position they promoted him to work with the timber man. They put square timber sets in the tunnels that would help to support the roof of the tunnel from any rock fall. He worked only with the timber man and together they completed three sets in one day. This was a record for the most sets completed in a single day. He was paid $0.74, which according to Sönser was better than not having a job. 
Josef was now living in a private home, much better living arrangements than the ones he had experienced working on the railroad. Josef started to become familiar with the English language. He learned most of it while working, and subsequently learned quite a bit of inappropriate language. Josef was unaware that he was not learning proper English and he began practicing it outside of the mine. Some of these instances left Josef quite embarrassed. He was apologetic, not fully understanding what he had said.  The family he lived with in Timmins finally told Josef exactly what these words meant. Josef was careful not to use those words outside the mine again. Now he refers to the English language he learned as “underground”. 
Josef remembers one particular instance when he was on the bus, at the Porcupine Station. He had given up his seat for a woman that was 7 or 8 months pregnant. She was very thankful, and told him that he was quite the gentleman. Josef responded enthusiastically, and said “ You ——- right I’m a gentleman!”. The woman quickly looked down and her face flushed with embarrassment. He knew he had said something inappropriate. After that, Josef never sat in front of the bus, always in the back in hopes of avoiding a similar situation. 
Josef received mail from his mother, sharing with him news about his brother. He had gotten a job as a machinist in the East Sullivan mine. In Austria his brother was a certified Tool and Dye maker. Josef got in contact with his brother once again, and asked if it were possible to help him get a job. Josef’s brother was able to get a job for him in Val d’Or, Quebec. He quit Paymaster and left for Val d’Or.  He was happy to be heading to a new job and to be reunited with his brother. 
Josef Sönser underground at the East Sullivan Mine

Josef Sönser underground at the East Sullivan Mine

Again, Josef began in the entry position as a Ditch Cleaner. His co-workers gave him the nickname of “crooked nose”.  It didn’t take long until he became a certified miner. In 1953, he became the mine shift boss. This allowed him to improve his English, but he now had the daunting task of also learning French. He was Shift Boss for two years. During his time as Shift Boss, there was an accident in the mineshaft. He greatly assisted in the rescue efforts. After that, he was promoted to Mine Captain, a few years later to Mine Superintendent. Finally he was promoted to General Superintendent, which meant he was in charge of the mine. All of the departments including Engineering, Geology, Mechanics as well as the mill where the materials were processed, where all under his direction. Meanwhile, Josef had met his future wife through mutual friends. She was a German girl who was visiting her sister in Canada. As Josef put it, “It clicked – so we got married”.  On November 4, 1954 the couple was married. Josef remembers his wife learning English quite easily, but having a harder time with the French language. 
The average age for a miner in East Sullivan was mid-20’s and there were about 300 employees, Josef recalls. East Sullivan had the lowest grade in North America, 0.54% in Copper, and 0.5% in lead and zinc. But Josef remembers the vast quantities of copper-ore they would extract, upward From 3,000 tonnes on a daily basis. In other words, the East Sullivan mine made their profit by the quantity of ore extracted rather than the quality in each deposit. 
Josef remembers the 1958 strike at East Sullivan. Management closed the mine for three weeks. The workers did not believe they would close it for  such an extended period. After the closure everyone was hired back, but for $0.20/hr less than they had made before the strike. 
At 32, Josef became the youngest non-professional Mine Superintendent in the region of Quebec. He knew that the days of the mine were limited; and in 1967 they finally closed the mine.  
Josef was under great pressure to find his next job as he had a wife and five children to provide for. Patrick Harrison, the Shaft Contractor, then hired him on. He moved his entire family to Thompson, Manitoba. He worked at the Falconbridge Mine, “T2” they called it.  
Josef became the Night Shift Superintendent, working 6pm to 7am. Usually not getting home until 9am.  He spent most of his time working or sleeping. He realizes now that this was not the best situation for his family. He became ill, which put him in the hospital for two weeks. He lost 40lbs once again. This was a result of him drinking the water underground. This water was lake water pumped down for drilling. Josef explains that when you are thirsty, you have to drink what is available. And what was available made him terribly ill. As payday came along, he noticed two weeks of unpaid work. The manager of the unit, George Babcock heard from furious Josef first.  Patrick Harrison had guaranteed him in Toronto that in case of illness he would still get paid continuously. But since this was not the case, Josef quit immediately. Keep in mind that he had just bought a house in Manitoba, and he had a family to take care of. 
He left to go back to Val d’Or to see if any of the other had openings for employment, but there was nothing. So he went to Chibougamau, where many old co-workers were employed. The Sönsor clan was well known in the area. He was hired on as Senior Mine Captain at the Copper Rand Mines, where his brother had worked previously as a mechanic. The family settled and his children went to school there for quite a while. 
Almost all conversations in the mine were spoken in French. It was only in the supervisory levels that English was spoken. Josef became quite fluent in both languages, and still is to this day. 
After a year and a half he decided that this was not the job for him. He saw an ad in the “Northern Miner Newspaper.” It read: “ Mine foreman or superintendent sought for Canadian company working in foreign land”. He applied and 3 days later he received a letter, requesting an interview with him in Toronto. He went in for the interview, and an hour later was hired. He and his family were now headed to Ireland, to the International Mogul Mines. 
The mine manager of the International Mogul Mines in Ireland was at one point the manager of a mine neighbouring East Sullivan. They knew each other quite well. Josef explained that in mining circles, especially within the upper tier you know everyone. They know you and are aware of your capabilities. 
The Sönser family stayed in Ireland for almost six years. This is where Josef collected most of his rock specimens. In the mine there were three different areas being mined simultaneously. They used the Elliot LakeDenison Mining method, the topslicing method as well as benching. You start off underneath with a tunnel and an access to the ore body, then you drive up a vertical raise to the top of the ore body. Then a drive a tunnel all the way across the ore body and one going up along the ore body in the same inclination. At that point in time you drill from that one access of the drift or tunnel and you blast everything down to the original access. This is where the rock is now collected scraped down, and hauled away. You now establish the top size. And that goes all the way up the ore body, you drill and blast all the material to the bottom.  
As a Mine-Foreman, Josef was always present. Not only to witness the progress of his Miners but also to collect whatever he could in rock specimens. He had been fascinated with rock collecting since he was a boy of 10 or 12 years. He remembers how it began in 1942, with his involvement in the Mountaineer Youth Club. As young boys they were taken up to the mountains to search and collect “mountain crystal”. From that trip, he was hooked on rock collecting. 
Josef believes geologists do not have the foresight or interest in collecting specimens. Their main duties in the mine were to make sure that all mining was done in the ore zone. In some mines, especially in precious metal mines, collecting specimens was discouraged. If you were in a supervisory position you had a better chance than the ordinary guy of getting away with these actions. Josef promised that once he left the mine it would shut down within two years and he was correct. 
When the Sönser family came back to Canada in October 1974, they settled in the Waterloo region. Josef Sönser and his family continue to live in this area today. Josef continues to be fascinated with the “gifts that nature brings us” he says, and still enjoys learning about rocks and minerals.
Galena, Silvermines, Ireland.

Galena, Silvermines, Ireland.

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