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American Characters

July 2024
2min read

Western miners, the hard-rock stiffs, were as tough and horny-handed a breed of men as any in the world.

The man and the face are anonymous-and familiar. Familiar, because this man, propped up with the tools of his trade, was but one of the many thousands who over a period of about seventy years in the trans-Mississippi West spent the bulk of their adult lives wrestling with the brute immobility of stone. They were miners, hard-rock miners, though more often than not they called themselves hard-rock stiffs, as tough and horny-handed a breed of men as any in the world. At the peak of the goldand silver-mining industry in the nineteenth century, there were well over fifty thousand such men in the West, scattered from Grass Valley, California, to Tombstone, Arizona, from Coeur d’Alêne, Idaho, to Cripple Creek, Colorado. They far outnumbered the cowboys, whose image has come down to us as the definitive expression of that long-vanished time; the cowboy has had a good press, the miner almost none at all, but there is one strong similarity between the two: like the cowboy, the miner was a laborer, and he worked -worked as hard as men have ever worked.

Between 1849, when the California Gold Rush occurred, and perhaps 1910, when the search for treasure was no longer an important part of the region’s economy, men like our anonymous stiff muscled something over twenty billion dollars’ worth of gold and silver out of the mountains and deserts of the West. It was no job for striplings, claustrophobes, or cowards. For eight, ten, and sometimes twelve hours a day, such men were lowered hundreds and thousands of feet beneath the earth to work the moist, hot, dark tunnels, shafts, and drifts that had been carved out of the ancestral rock, drilling blast holes, stuffing them with black powder (and later dynamite), lighting fuses, crying “Fire in the hole!” then mucking and tramming (loading and hauling) the broken ore to shaft landings for lifting to the surface and processing in mills and smelters. Every shift, the “firstclass” miner was expected to drill and shoot one round; every shift, the lowly mucker was expected to load and haul two one-ton ore cars an hour—16 tons for eight hours, 20 tons for ten hours, 24 tons for twelve hours. Although the compressedair machine drill had come into general use in the 1880’s in many mines, for years before and thereafter the ancient handdrilling system prevailed-either “singlejacking,” in which one man swung a fourpound sledge at his own drill, turning the drill with each stroke so that it did not “fitcher,” or stick, or “double-jacking,” in which one man held and turned the drill while another hammered at it with an eight-pound sledge. Both the sledge and the drills in use at the time can be seen with our man here, and some idea of the strength, endurance, precise control, and arctic nerves required can be gained from the statement of one George Whitwell Parsons, who went to work in a Tombstone mine in 1881: “Holding the drill is something not too easily acquired to do it properly. The terribly cramped and strained positions at times and strength required to manage a hole … enforces a great physical strain and much nerve when the swinger of the heavy sledge hammer has to aim over and draw in to prevent hitting you and sometimes will graze the edge of your moustache in striking a hundred pound blow upon a piece of steel % of an inch in diameter.… My poor hands and arms are in a terrible state.”

The hard-rock stiff endured silicosis, caused by exposure to rock dust; pneumonia, induced by the monstrous difference in temperatures between the surface and the depths of a mine; falls; fires; explosions; cave-ins; and all manner of dangerous situations behind which lay the shadow of ruin, and for most of this seventy-year period he endured them for the munificent sum of three dollars a day. A singularly rotten way to make a living, you may think. Perhaps. But there was a pride in it, a fierce and wondrous pride that glitters in the eye of our anonymous miner. It was the kind of pride that would cause a man to have his photograph taken in the clothes he wore to work and surrounded by the steel with which he functioned every day-all of this to show the folks back home how he was making his way in the world. He was a professional-a hard-rock stiff-and what that implied cut close to the heart of what it meant to him to be a man.


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