Ironworker's story bridges the past and the present

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Dave Millne has been an ironworker for 61 years. When he was 17 years old in 1953, he was working weekends and feeling like he wasn’t getting anywhere. He had heard that the province was going to expand and there would be a big need for labour to build major projects. His mother worked with the wife of a union business agent, who arranged for him to meet the union rep on the street. He was sent the next day to a job site. Armed with a slip of paper from the union, some gloves, a hard hat and boots, Millne was immediately put  to work.

He said, “The first day, I sorted bolts. The second day, they said, ‘Okay kid, get up there.’ We didn’t have apprentices and school in those days. We learned on the job. So you had to do your work as an apprentice and learn to be a journeyperson. And that’s how it all began.”

Over the years, Millne was sent out on many memorable jobs. “I worked on bridges all over the province. One bridge, I worked a hundred miles north of Stewart in the bush, and we cut trees down to make the falsework (temporary support) over the river. We had bears all around us, and we spread honey on the foreman’s window for the bears. And another one was at Hudson Hope, which was built by a German contractor and was the only concrete suspension bridge in North America.”

Millne has seen dramatic changes in technology and safety protocols in his trade. In the early days, ironworkers did not have access to the big cranes and equipment in use now. “When I started, we didn’t tie off, you climbed and you walked the iron. We’d have to leap from beam to beam, and you’d slide down cables on suspension bridges and it was just wild.”

Millne saw co-workers hurt and killed as a result of employer disregard for safety. He worked on construction of the Second Narrows Bridge in 1957, but left the job for a week in 1958 to take work in Prince Rupert. While he was gone, several of the bridge spans collapsed, plunging 79 workers more than 40 metres into the water. Eighteen of his co-workers were killed in the incident and another 20 were seriously injured. It was the worst industrial disaster in B.C.’s history.

A Royal Commission inquiry into the collapse attributed the cause to mistakes made by the bridge engineers who designed a falsework pillar that was not strong enough to support the span. Millne lost many good friends in the tragedy. “It was very traumatic when I had to go to more than one funeral,” he said. “We have a memorial every year so they’re not forgotten.”

(Ironworkers Local 97 and WorkSafeBC will hold the annual commemorative ceremony at 1 p.m. at the memorial site near the south end of the Ironworkers Memorial Second Narrows Crossing on June, 17, 2015.)

Millne went back to work on the bridge and recounted one close call. “I was inside the cord when they were rebuilding it and the whole bridge crashed and shook. The line on the derrick had broken and the cord smashed into the side of the derrick, and everything shook. I was inside this cord and I hollered out to my partner “What happened?” and nobody was there. There wasn’t a sound anywhere. And I’m inside the steel girder, so I got out and found out it wasn’t going to fall down this time.”

By the time the bridge was completed in 1960, there were 23 deaths in total.

Millne’s fearless attitude earned him the nickname Davy Crockett. He said he appreciates that his union has continually worked to improve safety and training. “The union was important because there was a future there. We had security and training. We are a family and we stick together for each other. And it’s been that way all through.”

The living wage that Millen brought home as an ironworker allowed him to support his family, which now includes grandchildren and a great-grandchild. He is still involved in his union, attending all their meetings, running riveting shows, 50-50 draws, and whatever else is needed.

Millne recommends that young men and women looking for a career in the trades consider becoming an ironworker. “It’s given me a feeling of worth to be a journeyperson, and it’s given me security, and a pension. Ironworkers are fantastic people to work with and all the jobs are interesting, one way or another. You will never be doing the same thing, and never working in the same spot.”

Article By Claudia Ferris

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