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Hard Rock Miners Died Young

Hard rock mining in the West was dangerous. It was more dangerous than any other occupation. A miner’s life was not worth much to the mine owners and it was commonly said that miners were cheaper than timber. Danger existed in any task — a carelessly swung hammer, lack of timber or a poorly placed timber, a poorly loaded charge. Probably the most dangerous aspect of mining was silicosis.

Americans and Chinese were experts in placer mining (above ground), but most lacked the expertise to be hard rock miners. The mining companies always sought out the miners with hard rock mining experience. They had been hard rock mining for tin in Cornwall, England for centuries and when a severe depression in the mining industry in Cornwall started in the 1850’s, many of the miners immigrated to Canada and the United States. Whenever mine owners were fortunate enough to have a miner from Cornwall apply for a job, they were hired immediately. They always asked if they knew any other experienced miners who might be interested in employment. Frequently the miner stated that he had a cousin Jack who might be interested. This is how the miners from Cornwall came to be called “Cousin Jacks” and their wives as “Cousin Jennies”. These strong, wiry men were the backbone of the larger mining operations. They had the knowledge and expertise to properly timber, blast and follow the vein. In the larger mines, such as Vulture, Great Southern, Jumbo Copper, due to experienced miners, almost all of the adits are still intact and have not caved. In small mines such as Course Gold and S. W. Higley Pat., many of the adits are caved. While some of the caving is due to water infiltration most were the result of improper construction by inexperienced miners.

Drilling, prior to the advent of the pneumatic drill, was accomplished by a man wielding a four pound hammer and a drill. This was known as single-jacking (it was called this because it was usually performed by “Cousin Jacks”).

Single Jacking
Single Jacking

Two miners working together, one wielding an eight pound hammer and the other holding the drill was known as double-jacking. To be effective the drill was struck up to 50 times a minute. The drill used to start the hole was about a foot long. As the hole deepened, the holder would switch drills, the subsequent drill would be longer and slightly narrower so it would not stick in the hole. The final drill would be four to five feet in length. After each blow, the drill was turned a fraction of an inch to keep the drill from binding in the hole. It would about an hour do drive the drill to a depth of thirty inches. This drilling process soon became a matter of pride and drilling contests were held all over North America. Large sums of money were waged on these contests often the purses were thousands of dollars. Contestants trained for these contests like Olympic contestants since these contests could bring them much more money than they could earn in the mines. By 1900’s the pneumatic drills were quickly replacing the older methods.

Since silicon is the most abundant metal in the earths crust, the pressurized air of the pneumatic drills stirred up huge amounts of silica dust. This razor sharp dust cut into the miner’s lungs causing a hard cough and eventual death and they began to die by the score. Their death was horrendous as during their last days they would cough up pieces of their lungs. These pneumatic drills became known as “Widow Makers”. This hazard was greatly reduced once they discovered that water injected through a hollow port in the drill would wet the silica dust and kept it from becoming airborne.

Candles were used for lighting underground.

Miners Candlestick Holder
Miners Candle Holder

In the 1890’s the carbide lamp was invented.

Carbide Lamp
Carbide Lamp

While this was a huge advance in lighting, it did have its down side. Beside light, candles gave warning of bad air by flickering when oxygen content fell and they went out when oxygen content went below 18%. Humans need an oxygen content of 15% to survive. This gave miners a 3% safety margin. Carbide lamps extinguish at 12% oxygen and would outlast their owners.


Don’t go near mines!! Many have high levels of arsenic, lead and mercury in the ground as the result of the processing of the ore. It is tempting to try to look down old mine shafts, but the way they weather here is in a bell shape, meaning that the ground near the shaft could be severely under cut and you might get a closer look at the shaft than you ever wanted too. Never go in a mine. Poisonous gases are not much of a problem in this area, but falling oxygen levels in some of the mines is a real danger. Another danger encountered in mines is an unseen winze. A winze is the term used to describe a shaft in an adit that connects it to a lower level of the mine. When a winze was not being actively used, a common procedure was to place planks of wood over the winze. Over the years, the cover had become covered by dust and debris; you can no longer see the winze. Many of these covers are over 100 years old and can no longer support a person walking on them. Another danger of going in old mines is that occasionally there will be some dynamite still there. Dynamite was made by mixing nitroglycerin with material such as diatomaceous earth, wood pulp, sawdust, flour or starch. This was then put in a paper tube and sealed with paraffin. As dynamite ages, the nitro “sweats” out. This means that the nitro is now free and very, very unstable. All it would take is a bump to set it off. On rare occasions, you will find small metal or cardboard boxes that contained blasting caps. While the caps are small, they have tremendous power. They will take off your fingers if they explode in your hand. Leave the box alone; sometimes caps are still in them. Old caps usually end up reacting with the metal forming explosive salts and they are shock, friction and spark sensitive. You shouldn’t even look at them funny!

Blasting Caps
Blasting Caps

A bigger danger if you are in an old mine is loose rocks falling from the back (ceiling), a shaft, stope or winze.

Last 5 posts by Scott Rogers

1 comment to Hard Rock Miners Died Young

  • Donnie

    Thanks Tommy Knocker

    Another Fantastic Story from the Past !

    Looking forward to the next look back
    in history.