From the Archives · History · Holidays · Mining

Christmas on the Rock

Christmas on the Rock. One of my “One the Rock” columns which appeared weekly in the Northern Life, Sudbury’s community newspaper. This one, dated December 20, 1998:

The first Christmas of the new century dawned clear, cold and bright over the Nickel Range, and no one was more excited by the day’s prospect than Joseph Poulin, a fact that did his mother’s heart much good.

Since September she had watched Joey, a mere slip of a boy and only 13, trudge off to work each day in the rock house of the Canadian Copper Company’s new Creighton Mine. With the onset of winter and the shortness of days, this meant that Joey left home before sunrise, and returned long after dark each night.

He worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, picking rock from a stream of freshly mined chunks that flowed ceaselessly down the rockhouse conveyor belt. It grieved her deeply, sending Joey to a life of such drear, endless toil, at this tender age, but his services were much in demand among the mine owners, who prized the nimble dexterity of boys, believing their smaller hands made them especially adept at sorting waste rock from ore.

It sorrowed her, yes, but what else was she to do? Joey’s father, her beloved Louis, had been killed in a felling accident while working in one of Mr. Bell’s logging camps last winter, and now there was only Joey’s income, $1.60 per day, to support herself, her son, and her three daughters.

For his part Joey didn’t mind working. It meant an end to school, at which he had never been much good anyway, and it meant no longer having to put up with the airs of boys like Thaddy Coleman, stepson of company doctor Theobald Coleman, who enjoyed humiliating Joey and his chums from the shanties.

Being young and still energetic, Joey did not see, as his mum did, the change in him due to work, the pinched look that had set in around his mouth, or the grayish, unhealthy pallor of his skin. But he was still a boy, for all the time he spent in the brutish and unforgiving mines, and still capable of more than his share of mischief and practical jokes.

Joey’s dreams were full of the never-ending chunks of ore as they moved past on the conveyors, but this morning, the celebration of the Christ child, meant much to the lad.

It meant that, on this lone non-Sunday morning of the year, he could stay warm in bed until after the wan winter sun had risen, rather than venturing out into the stark, sulphur-blasted landscape of the Nickel Range, trudging the three miles to work in the icy pre-dawn stillness.

His mother did her best to quieten Joey’s younger sisters, who were eager to explore their Christmas stockings, so that the man of the family could enjoy his well deserved ease. But Joey’s mum was excited too, at the prospect of the present she had purchased for her son.

Finally, all was in readiness. The sun shone brilliant off the winter snow, and Joey had finished his morning bread and tea. Joey’s mum shushed the girls, who were fussing with their own presents, before reaching into her son’s stocking. She dug deep down into the toe and pulled out the piece de resistance. She proffered the treasure, cupped in both hands, to her son, who accepted it in stunned silence.

With fingers roughened by cuts and scrapes from a thousand jagged chunks of rock he stroked the smoothly pebbled surface, turning the orb over and over in his hands. The colour of it amazed him, its yellowish-orange so unlike the sere monochromes–sulphur blackened rock, sooty gray snow, lifeless brown tree stumps–that crowded his every waking hour.

“Ya means?” he queried in amazement. His ma’am nodded. “Ya eat it, silly. Ya peels it first.”

Joey stabbed unavailingly with grimy fingernails before at last fishing his jackknife out of his pocket and piercing the outer skin of the fruit with the blade. An aroma wafted from the slit, taking Joey aback. He lifted his hands to his nose and took a deep breath. The smell, unlike any he had ever experienced before, stirred something deep inside him.

Any innate ability he might once have possessed at thinking in the abstract had long since been beaten out of Joey by school mar’ms with willow switches and shifters with quick, malicious fists. The rich, citron odour failed to remind him of summer sunshine, and he did not wonder, even fleetingly, if this might be the smell of the frankincense and myrrh that the Three Wise Men had transported to the Baby Jesus 1,900 years ago this day.

Instead, with clumsy fingers he peeled the outer skin from the fruit and then sectioned it, the juices stinging the freshest nicks on his fingers. One by one he popped the sections into his mouth while his sisters watched in silent envy. As his teeth closed against the inner membrane the juice exploded in his mouth and ran down his chin.

Joey thrilled at the tart sweetness of the thing, and his eyes closed, the better to ward off all other sensation but the wonderful taste inside his mouth. His lips formed an involuntary smile as Joey’s mother watched in joy, gazing with pride and love at her only begotten son. Her Christmas was now complete, and it is doubtful if even the Virgin Mary herself looked upon her newborn babe with more grace or hope than did Joey’s mother that cold Christmas morning so long ago on the Nickel Range.

* * * * *

Mrs. Poulin’s hope for her son would prove short-lived. On Dec. 21, 1901 the conveyor belt at the Creighton Mine rock house broke down, as it often did. To kill time, a bored Joey Poulin began dancing, first on the conveyor belt, and then across from it, near the workings of the machines that turned the belt. The capering Joey was caught in the machinery when the belt began moving again without warning, snapping his neck in a trice.

He was just the second worker to die on the job in the long history of Creighton mine, where 147 employees have been killed as of this Christmas. Joey remains the youngest worker ever killed in the line of duty in Sudbury’s nickel industry. But at least he did not die without tasting an orange.

Merry Christmas, Sudbury.

Click on the image below for a PDF version of the original publication.

"Christmas on the Rock" Northern Life, December 20, 1998
“Christmas on the Rock” Northern Life, December 20, 1998
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