Images of miners in American folklore, especially of those in the West, are of a prospector with a pan and a shovel accompanied by his faithful burro. Such a picture has often been portrayed in the movies about the Old West.
In Eureka County though, back in its mining heyday, it was the hard rock miner that was the norm, not the placer miners of the gold fields in California.
As explained by Prof. Phillip Earl, former director of the Nevada Historical Society, the hard rock miner in Nevada was a different breed, and there were plenty to be found in Eureka County.
Of foremost importance was the need of physical strength and endurance to work in the deep mines at temperatures over 100 degrees. Also the ability to swing an eight-pound hammer in cramped quarters and manage a drill accurately in poor lighting.
A miner had to be able to judge the number of shots that would be needed to bring down a load of ore from the wall or ceiling in front of him, where to put the holes, and how deep to drill. His life may depend on that as well as that of any partners or fellow employees working in the mine as well.
If the miner was working alone, or even if he wasn’t, the need to recognize the waste rock, the strength of the surrounding walls and to be able to determine the type of timbering needed to keep everything from crashing down overhead was essential.
Miners usually worked an eight to ten hour shift for a wage of $3 to $5 a day. It was hard, hard work. As noted above, temperatures often rising to 150º F in the deepest shafts.
When necessary, the men were stripped to the waist, usually just a light breech-cloth and thick soled shoes to protect their feet from the scorching heat of the rocks and streams of hot water that might be flowing down the mine shaft walls.
Keeping hydrated was of most importance. That usually is never spoken of in the movies, but hard rock miners drank lots of water, and it there were conduit pipes carrying water to other parts of the mining operation, he might dunk his head under a place where there might be a bit of a leak.
Ventilation was also key in the mines, and some of the companies were pretty good about developing such systems, but certainly not all. Delamar in Lincoln County is a prime example, as the stories of the famed Delemar Dust could attest.
Heat exhaustion was of course a serious problem. The shock of coming up out of a stifling hot mine shaft into much lower temperatures at higher elevations and in the winter, caused many to develop pneumonia.
Professor Earl notes that eventually “the establishment of change rooms where the men could shower and put on dry clothes” before going home came about.
Another problem, not understood much at all in the 19th century was the differences in air pressures above and below ground level. Many a miner had a case of the “bends,” like deep sea divers experience if they don’t get into a pressure chamber. It too, can be fatal.
Accidents in the mines in whatever county they might be in, was an almost daily occurrence. “Some,” as Earl notes, “can be attributed to the fact that there were no standards for mine evacuations and so safety inspection programs, but others came as the result of overconfidence, absentmindedness or sheer carelessness.”
Sometimes miners in the cage being hoisted out of the tunnels would be injured by the dizziness they experienced coming out too quickly from the depths. Careless handling by the hoist operator or falling tools caused injuries, too. And once in awhile, a miner might simply walk off the end of a shaft and bounce off the walls on the way down or be scalded to death when he hit the sumps at the bottom.
And certainly blasting accidents occurred. Those might come at any time, in any form.
But it wasn’t just the miners who faced the dangers of working underground, the muckers who loaded the ore cars, the carmen to run the cars out, timbermen to brace up the shafts, engineers and mechanics to operate the machinery, blacksmiths who reforged the dull drills and picks and the messengers to carry tools, orders, water and ice were all part of the hard rock mining operation.