Oral Histories

Merv Lawton


Merv Lawton

So I went up to northern Saskatchewan to a little place on the reservation called La Ronge. It was way, way north and we could expect temperatures for a week or so each winter of about 650 below 00 F. It was cold. The winters were long, the summers were short. But we had a good time there. We were right on the shore of a lake with wonderful fishing and it was a big lake. Sometimes we’d take our boat from where we were living in town out to the mine which was almost on the waterfront, about 20 miles by sea…by lake from the little village of La Ronge and we’d fish on the way home. Wintertime we’d often drive on the ice across the lake from La Ronge out to the mine.

Q: So how’d you get transferred to Moab?

A: There was a law in Canada that said any company that was more than 50% foreign-owned could not open up a new uranium mine in Canada and we were 51% owned by Rio Tinto in London, England. So we could not open up the new mine in Canada but our company realized that the sales were generally coming down to the States. We did produce some that went East to Japan but most of it was coming down to the States. So they started to look for a property down in the States and that’s how they came to the States. They were able to get an ore body out in Lisbon Valley, checked it out, and decided it was a “go” operation. It was quite alarming to us as mining people because we’d been used to mining a very competent rock (quartzite), but down here we were going to be 3,000 feet down from the surface in sandstone.

Q: Did you get involved in building Rio Algom? Constructing it?

A: Yes. They were putting down two shafts here when I received a telephone message at La Ronge one Saturday morning saying, “Meet us in Moab on Monday.” I didn’t know why. I’d heard about Moab, about the temperature there, the depth, that it was sandstone which is not as competent as quartzite. Plus the fact that when you put water on it which we always have to do underground to allay the dust especially in a uranium mine – you don’t want people breathing the dust – what’s it going to be like? How are we going to mine it? So it was quite a problem but we managed it. So I came down here that Monday morning. The director of Rio’s underground operations asked, “Do you know why you’re here?” and I said, “No, I don’t.” And he replied, “Well, you’re taking over this operation to get it going.” So we were it. The major problem there being they’d finished sinking the shafts and they’d been coming across from the one shaft to the other shaft, to make a through connection, and they ran into a water fissure and the mine flooded. They decided that the manager who was in charge at that stage had not done his job so they brought me down and said get on with it.

Q: So you became the manager?

A: I became the manager here at the Lisbon Mine.

Q: How long did this last?

A: From 1957 until I reached retirement age and that was 1988. I retired in 1988. Well,1988 when I retired was the time when the existing three man County Commission was in favor of a toxic waste incinerator. The Commission was supporting the erection of a toxic waste incinerator up in the Cisco area.

Q: I thought you were one of the first..oh, three is what they had before they changed it.

A: They had three before. I was Chairman of the County Commission when there were three members.

Q: How did you happen to get into politics?

A: When people heard that I was retiring, those people that were against the toxic waste incinerator came to me and said “Please help us. Get onto the County Commission and squash the idea of a toxic waste incinerator there.” So the first thing I did was to make a tour of the country to visit toxic waste incinerators to see what they were like. I wasn’t the only one doing it. Some others if I remember correctly… Georgia Hamblin and some others had gone on the same type of a trip. Well, I had a look at them and I realized that it was not for us. They were not good. At that time all three Commissioners were Republicans so I thought, “Well, if I’m going to get on the Commission I don’t think I should go in as a Republican.” So I phoned up the Democratic Party and said, “Would you support me if I declare myself a Democrat?” I think they would have taken anybody, who’d got the experience that I’d got in mining and knew things that could happen if a toxic waste incinerator was erected.

Q: Now was Sam Cunningham your campaign manager?

A: To start off Bob Greenburg was my manager but he had to pull out after the primary election and he persuaded Sam to be my campaign manager.

The Commissioners were Jimmy Walker, Dave Knutson, and Dutch Zimmerman when I ran. Then it became myself, Fern Mullen (both running as Democrats) and Dave Knutson (Republican) and I became Chairman of the Commission. I stayed on for two years. After that, my health wasn’t that good so I thought it was necessary for me to pull out and when I retired from the County Commission Sam Cunningham was appointed by the Governor, that’s when she came on.

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