Into the Mine

Deep in the pitch-black bowels of a mountain where mines twist and turn, there are no stars or moon to light the way. Jagged rock lines the tunnel walls waiting to trip shuffling feet –or crash down on unwary heads. The belly of the mountain is a dangerous place for men, but the lure of gold, silver, and valuable ores is strong. Without fail, the miners come. They do their best to come prepared.

So what do these men need to enter a mine? How will they work and practically live there?

The answers to those questions change with time, but in the Colorado mountains of 1879, Kathy Henley discovers these items in the twisting tunnels deep beneath the earth as she races against time to fulfill her quest.

Lighting the way: The Miner’s Candlestick—
or the “Sticking Tommy”

At the time of Riddle in the Mountain, three forms of lighting were used in mines throughout the world: candles, oil wick lamps, and safety lamps. In the American West, the candle was preferred. Prior to the mid-1800s, miners secured candles to their caps or the rocky walls of the mine using a clump of clay. Sometime in the 1860’s, however, Comstock area miners invented the miner’s candlestick by bending the end of a spike to hold the candle. The spike then could be jabbed into wooden support beams or crevices in the stone walls to light the way. The first candlestick was patented in 1872 and sometime soon after a hook was added to the many emerging designs. Like the lump of clay, the hook on the candlestick enabled the miner to attach a candle to his cap, creating a 19th century version of a headlamp.

Miner's candlestick or sticking tommy
Miner's candlestick
The candlestick shown here has a simple design. Some can be quite fancy. For a diverse display of candlesticks and other pre-electric lighting devices, visit D. Johnson’s Mining Artifacts Website. For an overview of the history of lighting in mines, visit Lighting the Way and Mine Lighting.

Miner’s Hat

In the 1800’s, miners did not have hard hats to protect their heads. Instead they wore cloth miner’s caps like this one or simply used their everyday felt hats. Note the metal plate on this hat with a small hole at the top. The hook of a candlestick or an oil wick lamp would fit into the hole, allowing the miner to light his way while keeping his hands free for other tasks. Other styles of hats worn in the late-1800s can be viewed in two photos owned by the Colorado Historical Society. The first shows miners predominantly in felt hats and the second shows a mixture of hats. Both photos were taken at Rugby, Colorado sometime between 1880 and 1910.

Cloth miner's cap and miner's lunch bucket
Miner's hat
  Miner's lunch bucket

Miner’s Lunch Bucket

Like many elements of hard-rock mining, the miner’s lunch bucket came to America with the Cornish miners who left the failing tin and copper mines of Cornwall to seek new opportunities abroad. Containing two, and sometimes three, compartments, the lunch pail readily met the miner’s needs. The lower compartment contained tea that could be heated by the flame of a candle beneath it. The second compartment, created by a drop-in tray, held the traditional Cornish pasty, a mixture of meat, potatoes, and vegetables tucked inside a folded pasty shell. If a third compartment existed, created by a second tray, it typically held a dessert. Finally, in order to drink the tea, the miner attached a tea cup to the lunch bucket’s lid.

Ore Buckets

Ore bucket from Caribou, Colorado
Ore bucket
While some mines in the 19th century had tunnels entering the side of a mountain, many had shafts that went straight down. These deep and dangerous pits posed a challenge for transporting men up and down. Cages built on platforms were generally used in the larger mines. For the smaller mines, like the one Kathy Henley entered, the ore bucket was the ride of the day. Large enough for a man to climb inside, the bucket could conveniently carry more than one person by having an additional miner or two stand on the bucket’s rim. You can imagine how scary that would be if the ride was jerky.

The empty bucket shown here belongs to the Caribou Mine in Caribou, Colorado. The photo with the miners in the bucket was taken in 1895 at the Hubert Mine in Nevadaville, Colorado.

Men going down a mine shaft in an ore bucket at the Hubert Mine, Nevadaville, Colorado
Image, Courtesy Colorado Historical Society (CHS-B697, 20030697). All rights reserved.

Miner’s Code of Signals

In order to haul men and ore up and down the mineshafts safely, the hoister, or man in charge of raising and lowering the buckets and cages, had to be able to communicate with the miners below. For that purpose, a signal code using bells was adopted in each mine. Because the signal system was one of the many mining practices that came to the States from Cornwall, the codes used by the different mines were basically the same. To ensure uniformity, however, each state eventually adopted a Code of Signals in its mining regulations. The Code of Signals shown here is for the state of Colorado.

In Riddle in the Mountain, the signal code is used six times. Can you figure out what the message was each time?

Code of Signals adopted by the Colorado Bureau of Mines

Additional resources

If you wish to learn more about western hard-rock mining, I recommend:

Brown, R. C. 1979. Hard-Rock Miners: The Intermountain West, 1860-1920. Texas
A & M University Press.

Crampton, D. A. 1982. Deep Enough: A Working Stiff in the Western Mine Camps. University of Oklahoma.

Sagstetter, B. and B. Sagstetter, 1998. The Mining Camps Speak. Denver, Colorado: Benchmark Publishing of Colorado.

Young, O. E., Jr. 1970. Western Mining: An Informal Account of Precious-metals Prospecting, Placering, Lode Mining, and Milling on the American Frontier from Spanish Times to 1893. University of Oklahoma Press.

©2006 Daryl Burkhard. All Rights Reserved.