the dangerous business of mining -- 12/16/19

Today's selection -- from The Bonanza King by Gregory Crouch. Mining in the 1800s was one of America's most important businesses. It was also one of its most dangerous, as evidenced by accidents at the country's single largest precious metals mine, the Comstock Lode:

"[Miners] wore felt slouch hats to keep dirt out of their hair and eyes, and at shaft stations far below the surface, they stripped off their shirts and went to work in trousers and boots. Streaming sweat in the feeble light of candles and lanterns, they drove the work forward with picks, shovels, hand drills, sledgehammers, and the recently invented dynamite and they earned every penny of their four dollars per day, for the work was both physically hard and astonishingly dangerous.

"Enterprise local Dan de Quille marveled at the 'new and unheard-of ways' in which miners were 'constantly being hurt and killed.' Fatalities, maimings, major injuries, or hair-raising close calls occurred every day. 'Hundreds upon hundreds' of accidents occurred in the Comstock mines, and they happened 'in every way imaginable.' Miners always thought the accidents ran in streaks, that if they'd had two or three they'd likely have a dozen, up to half of which would prove fatal. On average, the Comstock Lode suffered one death per week and one serious accident per day.

"Nor were the only hazards underground. Mining made the whole dis­trict dangerous. Sampling just a tiny smattering of the accidents that had occurred on the lode in the ten years since its discovery: A boulder falling from a drift face in a Gold Hill mine broke a man's leg and collar­bone; a thirsty mill worker took a swig of a clear liquid he supposed to be water and cored-out his gullet with nitric acid used by prospectors and assayers to prove the presence of silver. A freight wagon ran over a child. A miner tamping a black powder charge with an iron rod struck a spark that touched off the blast -- a rock put out his eye. A collapsing pile of shoring timbers crushed a teamster's skull. A popular stagecoach driver trying to control a runaway team died when the stagecoach capsized and smashed him beneath.

"Mining on the Comstock," depicting the headframes and mills of the various mines, and mining technology used at Comstock,
most prominently the method of square-set timbering developed there to work the veins.

"A man trying to drive a buggy through a drove of hogs lost control of his horses, fell from his seat, and broke his thigh. A sill timber being lowered into a mine slipped from its harness and killed a man below. Two men on the surface stepped into an ore bucket attached to a horse whim without noticing that the horse had been de­tached from the whim. They shot 230 feet to the bottom of the shaft 'at the run' and would have died except for the ten feet of water in the shaft sump and the drag of the rope spooling off the whim, which slightly slowed their descent. Coworkers fished them out unharmed. An eight­-year-old boy was found dead at the bottom of an abandoned forty-foot shaft. Nine-year-old Freddie Cowles toppled into a privy and drowned. The brake of a loaded ore freighter going down Gold Canon failed. The runaway wagon crushed and killed four of the team's six horses. A man working in a Gould & Curry ore chamber fell one hundred feet through the timber sets and died impaled on a collection of picks at the bottom. A mill worker trying to dislodge stuck amalgam poked his finger through a pan's drain hole and had it chopped off by a passing 'muller,' one of the rotating iron bars that stirred the pulp.

"A surprise jet of steam severely scalded the back of a man adjusting amalgamating pans in a mill. A miner brought home a quantity of amalgam, put it in the oven, then left to run an errand. Mercury vapors killed his child and rendered his wife and their German lodger 'insensible.' In the Chollar-Potosi hoisting works in the spring of 1868, a bolt connecting the brake lever to the brake shoe broke. The cage -- which didn't have safety catches -- plummeted down the nine-hundred-foot-deep shaft, and the braided iron wire cable spun off the twelve-and-a-half-foot-diameter hoisting reel with 'fearful rapid­ity.' Men tending the equipment scattered for their lives as the immense centrifugal force disintegrated the woodwork frame of the hoisting reel, sending heavy pieces of wood, bolts, and iron banding flying about the hoisting works. The end of the cable whipped off the reel, smashed a ten-foot trail through the ceiling, darted through the shaft house like an angry steel snake, wrapped around the crossbeam of the gallows frame and nearly wrenched it from its foundation, then slithered down the shaft after the fallen cage -- which was empty, thank God.

"A cage in the Kentuck crushed a fourteen-year-old pick carrier named Kennedy against the shaft timbers. He survived severe injuries. A boy named Miles working as an engineer's assistant in the hoisting works of the Yellow Jacket's South Shaft got his left thumb caught in an engine valve. The valve tore it off.

"John Russell and a gang of other nightshift miners working in the Hale & Norcross shaft in the spring of 1868 dodged a mass of rock and dirt falling from above. Several of them sought safety in different compart­ments of the shaft. Those sheltering in the pump compartment heard Russell call out, 'I'm all right! I'm all right!' But just at that moment a cage came whizzing up. A few seconds later, a man at the station one hundred feet above saw a headless figure atop the passing cage. The man recovered from his fright and rang for a stop. Miners wrestled John Rus­sell's body to the station. The only evidence of his head was a flap of skin with an ear and some hair stuck to it. Russell's head had been torn off by the passing shaft timbers somewhere beneath. Adding to the gloomy, candlelit nightmare, searching miners couldn't find the severed head.

"Twenty-eight-year-old Chauncy Griswold got tangled in the machin­ery of the Pacific Mill below Gold Hill. A rapidly spinning drive shaft broke his leg and wound his torn and lacerated muscles around the shaft."




Gregory Crouch


The Bonanza King




Copyright 2018 by Gregory Crouch


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