Danger in the Mines


Hard rock mining was hard, dangerous work where death was a constant companion. Before caged elevators came into use miners were lowered hundreds of feet into the murky depths in a big steel bucket powered, by a “burro engine” which lowered the bucket on a long cable. A broken cable could send helpless miners tumbling hundreds of feet to their death. Cave-ins trapped them causing a slow death. The poisonous gasses that drifted through the tunnels were a silent killer. Since canaries couldn’t live long in the foul air, miners brought them down into the mines. When the bird died it was time to make a hasty exit. Rats also had a keen sense of danger. Like leaving a sinking ship, “when the rats turned tail so did the miner.”

Mules could be prophetic. One time a mule headed out of the tunnel before the ore car was filled and when the miner went out to retrieve the animal the tunnel collapsed. The strike from a miners pick might open up a cavern of scalding water. Fires were common and the thing miners feared the most. When a miner started his shift he never know for certain if today might be his last.

Men who work where danger is a way of life have a tendency to embrace superstitions or habits that might seem strange to an outsider. For example miners believed it was bad luck for a woman to go into a mine. If a man’s clothes slipped off the hook in the change room he was going to fall off into a hole. Or, if a man’s lamp didn’t burn bright underground it meant above ground his wife was stepping out with another man.

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