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NORTH COUNTRY AT WORK: Blasting rock for iron ore at Benson Mines near Star Lake

August 10, 2018
By AMY FEIEREISEL - NCPR correspondent , Lake Placid News

STAR LAKE - Jim LaParr was only 16 years old when he started working at Benson Mines in August of 1951.

He'd graduated in the spring, graded sidewalks for the summer and then landed a coveted position at the open pit iron ore mine through his godmother, who was the nurse there.

When LaParr started out, business was booming, especially for steel in the post World War II years, and the mine employed more than 700 workers. He remembers Star Lake as a bustling community with lots of new and beautiful houses.

Article Photos

People at work in the open pit of Benson Mines, operated by the Magnetic Iron Company until 1910, when it was bought by the Benson Mines Company. Writing on photo reads “mountain of ore - Benson Mines, NY,” c. 1910. Benson Mines, NY. Photographer Henry M. Beach. Photo: courtesy of the Town of Clifton Museum


Early years

LaParr was from Harrisville and had to commute 21 miles each way, every day, from his home there. But he says it was worth it because at that time Benson Mines in Star Lake and the paper mill in Newton Falls were the major employers of a lot of communities, including Cranberry Lake, Tupper Lake, Edwards, Hermon and DeKalb.

But while LaParr could drive to the job, he was still too young to go down into the mine at 16 years old. He spent his first year and a half working in the office building as an engineer's assistant.

"And at the point that I turned 18, then I was transferred down to the engineering department in the pit."

LaParr's work included surveying inside and outside the mine, establishing property lines, and planning where next to drill and blast.


A step up

At the age of 25, after having worked at Benson Mines for nearly 10 years, LaParr says he caught a lucky break when the drilling and blasting supervisor retired. An assistant manager named Art Peterson had noticed LaParr's work ethic (he was doing clerical work in the pit), which he describes as "if I do something, I'm going to do it well."

LaParr remembers: "Out of the blue he just came in one day and he said 'would you be interested in that position?' My mouth dropped open."

Just like that, LaParr was the new drilling and blasting supervisor. The job was exactly what it sounds like blowing rocks up for a living. LaParr and the 30 men he oversaw were the first step in the mining process. They broke up rock faces into chunks of mineral-rich rock. Then the "muckers" came in and transferred the pieces to the ground surface, where the chunks were was crushed into small pieces, then processed and concentrated into iron ore sinter, which look like small bumpy chunks of coal.

LaParr had to coordinate a lot of explosions - sometimes up to three in a day.

"There'd be three in one day and then none for a week. At times there were five shovels running in different faces, but as soon as a face was cleaned out, that one would have to be blasted. And it just so happened that by coincidence you'd have three clean rock faces within the same 24-hour period."

He got to know different types of explosives very well. Dynamite was used for secondary blasting, and a blasting agent called ANFO - Ammonium Nitrate Fuel Oil Mix - was used for large diameter blasting, and came in dry pellets or water resistant tubes. If this sounds dangerous, that's because it was. Injury and death were not uncommon in the mines.

LaParr's uncle was electrocuted by an electric shovel, and he remembers a blasting accident that left two dead and one crippled and disfigured.

"The safety director at one time jumped from the top of one of the silos in the fine crusher, pretty bad. There was very little. Safety was kind of a thing that had to be done. Nobody really gave it a lot of emphasis."

LaParr says the level of danger present in his working conditions only really hit him after he spent time as a federal mine inspector.


Railroad and the last day

Although his workplace was always referred to as Benson Mines, it was more than that. It was a mine and a processing center. Above ground, the mineral rich rock was crushed into small pieces, then processed and concentrated into iron ore sinter, which look like small bumpy chunks of coal. This is where the railroad came in. It quickly moved thousands of tons of iron ore sinter from Benson Mines straight from the plant to steel mills in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

"It came out of the sinter plant hot, like coals. It'd burn out the sides of railcars."

LaParr says when business was good for both the iron ore industry and for the nation's railroads, this wasn't an issue. In fact, the steel mills wanted the sinter warm, so they could start working with it immediately. But when the railroad was running less frequently and started putting railcars off track to sit and wait at rail yards:

"... By the time they [the sinter] got there, it was solid. So they had to develop a thawing process and so forth. It snowballed so that neither the mining of the material nor the shipping of the material was economical."

LaParr worked right up until the mine's closing on Oct. 22, 1977, at which point there were only about 200 workers. He remembers vividly:

"Middle of the afternoon, several people from the personnel department came around, and they had those enclosed bulletin boards with the glass doors, and they put up a notice saying that the afternoon shift would be the last shift until further notice. It was sort of indicating that it would be a temporary thing."

It wasn't temporary. The mine never re-opened. LaParr went on to work inspecting mines for the government, in processing for LTV Steel in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, and as the manager of a waste disposal company in his "retirement."

LaParr is 83 this year, and still consulting. He says work has always been a hugely positive part of his life.

"I tell people that I'm probably in the vast minority in that I've worked all my life, I still work, and there have been very few days when I've not enjoyed going to work."

(This story comes to you from North Country Public Radio's North Country at Work project, which explores the working lives and history of our region. To see all the stories, check out



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