Friday, December 27, 2019

Operating a Silver Mine by Zina Abbott

It is possible to find internet articles and information in books about mines. Much of it has to do with where mines are located, the types of minerals found in mines, and brief histories of mining towns. I found it difficult to find details about how mines were operated in the 1800s. My best sources, so far, have been from my own notes, photographs, and recollections of two mine tours I've been on, and a You-Tube recording of a mine tour.

In 2018, I toured the Broken Boot Mine, a gold mine, although it (like many mines) contained other minerals. In fact, during World War II, most gold mines were shut down because of the war effort. The Broken Boot mine was worked to extract lead needed for bullets. It is located near Deadwood, South Dakota.

In 2019, I toured the Lebanon Tunnel, a misnomer, since it did not have two openings, see my mining definitions post from last month by CLICKING HERE. The Lebanon Tunnel Silver Mine is located in Silver Plume, Colorado.

Many mines had two ten-hour shifts. The first shift started at 6:30a.m. A notable exception in Silver Plume was the mine known as the 7:30 Mine. The owner chose to start that mine an hour later than most mines. The mining day started when miners reported to the "Warm Shack" or "Warm Room" where they changed out of their street clothes and into clothes they wore in the mines.

Reconstructed Lebanon Tunnel Mine warm shack heater, and dynamite boxes like those used in the mine. (The tour guide assured us that when the mine was in operation, at no time would the dynamite have been kept anywhere near the warm shack.)
The end of the day brought them back to the warm room to warm up. (Temperature inside the Lebanon Tunnel Mine, for example, was a continuous 44 degrees Fahrenheit.) On some days, it probably also gave their eyes a chance to adjust to light, since they spent that ten hours in the mines with only candlelight or perhaps a carbide lantern for light.
When it comes to drilling into the rock wall, or working face, of a mine, I have heard two kinds of hard rock drillers described. One is a single driller who uses four-pound hammer and a steel drill bit.

Drill bit and hammer, left, and drill bit left in working face, right, Broken Boot Gold Mine.
Then there are drill teams. One holds the drill bit (heavier than the type used by a single driller) and gives it a quarter turn each time the end is struck by a the other miner who wields a nine-pound hammer. Because the candles in the helmets of the two drillers provide the only light, the one holding the drill places his thumb over the end. The light from the candle reflects off of the thumbnail. This is done to (1) signal the quarter-turn has been completed, and (2) give the one holding the hammer a target to aim for.

It was important to stay coordinated. A smashed thumb not only seriously disrupted a friendship, in some cases, it put the team out of work until the injured miner healed sufficiently. Many silver miners in the Rocky Mountains originally came from Cornwall and brought their centuries worth of mining traditions and practices with them.

Cornish boys started work in the mines as powder monkeys at about the age of seven or eight. They did the "fetch and carry" chores for the miners, plus they were the ones who carried the boxes or bundles of dynamite to where the charges were to be placed for the day. Once the ones in charge of setting up the day's blasting were finished and the mine was cleared, it was usually the powder monkeys who set the blaze to the fuses. Because of their youth, they were able to run out of the mine, including up and down raises from the working drifts of several levels, before the dynamite exploded.

Mannequin in Lebanon Tunnel Mine dressed to represent a powder monkey.
Miners on the two shifts did not perform the same tasks. To best describe what took place, I am including an excerpt from one of the chapters of my most recent book, Nathan's Nurse. This conversation takes place in the mine office between one of the mine owners, Royce Bainbridge, and Herbert Price, brother to the hero in my book and a less-than-stellar miner:

Reconstructed warm shack, left, and mine office, right, for the Lebanon Tunnel Mine, Silver Plume, Colorado
"…Tell me your understanding of how things work in the mine.”
         Wearing a bewildered expression, Herbert shook his head. “What are you getting at? You own this mine. You ought to know how it works.”
         Royce sighed. This was going to be harder than he thought. “We work the mine in two shifts, right? You were hired to work second shift as a mucker. What did your job entail?”
Muckers who haul rock and ore out of the mine.
         Herbert shifted back and forth from one foot to the other. “We…uh…we used our shovels and loaded up and hauled out all the rock in the mine.” He tripped over his words as if he suspected Royce had asked a trick question. “Anything we could tell was slag, we put to one side. The rest went in a pile to get loaded onto the train.” 
Raise in Lebanon Tunnel Mine showing rock from mine blasting and ladders & hoist to carry material to the level where it can be transported outside the mine.
          Royce continued speaking with exaggerated patience. “And if you hauled the rock out every night, where did the new rock in the mine come from that was there each evening when you arrived at work?”
         “I guess from the men working on the first shift.”

Single drill miners in Lebanon Tunnel Mine
         “You guess? You’ve been working on first shift these past two weeks. After you drill your holes for the day, what happens?” Clenching his jaw in frustration, Royce watched Herbert shrug and look around the mine office, as if hoping to find the answer somewhere on the walls.
         “The guys in charge of blasting put the dynamite inside the holes we drill and string the fuse lines, then set them off.”
         “All right. And what happens in the mine before any blasting is done?”
         Another shrug. “Dunno.”
        “Are you, or any of the crew, inside the mine when the dynamite goes off?”
         “Naw. Declan sends us to the warm shack before the blasters light the fuses.”
         “Are any men left working anywhere else in the mine when it is time to blast?”
         “Dunno. Seems like there’s a lot of men in the warm shack changing clothes, though.”

Reconstructed interior of Lebanon Tunnel Mine warm shack with clothes hooks and benches for miners to change clothes and warm up after completing their shift in the mine.
         Barely hanging on to what little patience he still possessed, Royce stood up, placed his palms on the top of his desk, and leaned forward. “That’s because one of the jobs of the crew managers is to clear their men out of the mine first. All of the crews in all of the levels and all of the working drifts of the mine are cleared out of the mine before any blasting is done. With the men out, no one is at risk of being injured in the explosions, and no one is breathing the thick clouds of dust which are mostly settled by the time second shift has had their time in the warm shack changing before they enter the mine to work.”
         “Yeah, I got that. So, why are you telling me all this instead of giving me my pay?”

Nathan's Nurse is now available. To find the book description and purchase link, please CLICK HERE.


Broken Boot Gold Mine in Deadwood, South Dakota
my notes from a tour of the Lebanon Tunnel Silver Mine

1 comment:

GiniRifkin said...

Dear Zina:
Thank you for post. The photo's are wonderful and really bring the words to life.
Enjoyed the excerpt, sounds like a great read.