Living legend lends engineering expertise

Northern Ontario Business

When Jack de la Vergne began distributing copies of his Hard Rock Miners Handbook, it was originally intended to be a complimentary gift from McIntosh Engineering to their clients.

But it’s taken on a life of its own.

The handbook has become a wellspring of knowledge for mining engineers, operators, executives and students everywhere. It’s a compendium of the been-there, done-that expertise gathered by the North Bay engineer over his 35-year career of building mines in 20 countries on four continents.

From initially releasing only a few hundred copies to distributing many thousands, the handbook has appeared in 113 countries and is also available in CD-ROM and via a downloadable version on the McIntosh Engineering website.

Professional Engineers of Ontario (PEO) recognized the semi-retired mine builder and author for his writing and publishing contribution by awarding him with the Engineering Medal for Excellence at their annual awards gala in Toronto last November.

In a PEO news release, the 69-year-old senior consultant for McIntosh was described as “being able to assess situations quickly, and then to analyze alternatives and develop solutions for complex undertakings. Industry-wide, he is recognized as an expert in mine shafts, hoists and mine infrastructure.”

“Times are good in mining now,” says de la Vergne, in explaining the genesis of the book, “but 10 years ago things weren’t so good.”

During a six-year period when McIntosh was scrambling for work, he suggested at a company meeting in Arizona about writing a mining handbook of practical knowledge as a way of reaching out to clients.

de la Vergne says he was determined to write a referral guide that was short on self-promotion but filled with solutions to help mining engineers with their daily problems at project sites.

He describes the publication as a throwback to the old mining handbooks of the 1920s and ‘30s offering sample solutions but with 60 years of new terminology added. His Rules of Thumbs and Tricks of the Trade have become staples in the industry and on the InfoMine website.

The Queen’s University civil engineering grad became a self-taught authority in sinking shafts, hoisting, ground control and building head frames while working on many overseas projects.

“Working in South America, you don’t have an electrical engineer to do your work for you, you gotta do it yourself. I’m a wide-scale miner,” jokes de la Vergne of his accumulated range of expertise, “because of my experience out of desperation in South America. I learned how to build a mill and how it operates.”

Over the years, he has worked for mining companies including Inco, the Iron Ore Company of Canada and Denver-based Harrison Western. He has participated in large-scale projects such as the massive Churchill Falls underground hydro development in Labrador as well as the set up and sinking of Inco’s Creighton Mine No. 9 shaft in Sudbury.

He also spent the better part of 10 years in South America, working for Harrison Western in Chile, Alaska and Colorado, acquiring and building mines.

In the early 1990s, he returned to his North Bay hobby farm and went to work for McIntosh until he retired in 2001 where he remains as a senior consultant.

After the first handbook printing was released in July 2000, de la Vergne says the response was “extraordinary,” with an avalanche of replies arriving from experts suggesting advice and revisions for future editions.

His newest book is The Hard Rock Miners Technical Spanish Dictionary, a self-published release out last July which translates 22,000 terms from the mining and petroleum sectors.

de la Vergne, who is fluent in Spanish, says the Spanish dialect varies from country to country.

The same mining term may have a completely different meaning from one Spanish-speaking country to another.

“If I wrote in Castilian Spanish nobody in South America would understand a word of it.”

An example is the word, Tronadura, which refers to blasting in Chile but means crushing in Mexico.

“An academic would recognize these terms from the different countries but the average guy really has a problem. That’s why it’s so difficult to translate something into Spanish.”

He has received a number of glowing testimonials from the 500 copies released so far.

InfoMine and Amazon.ca intend to sell the dictionary online.

“I also send away a lot of free copies to the mining schools across Canada.”

Aside from publishing, de la Vergne still keeps his hand in the industry.

He is currently working for Great Britain’s Intermoly (International Molybdenum plc) on a molybdenum project in Greenland. The mineral, which is in hot demand worldwide, is used with nickel as a strengthening ingredient in making stainless steel.

He is also working with legendary mining promoter Robert Friedland of Voisey’s Bay fame on a large copper and gold project in Mongolia. Locally, he is working with Inco on the re-opening of the Totten Mine.