This post originally appeared in Ancestry Magazine, September-October 2007.
The work was dangerous. The hours long. And the slim portion of the paycheck that made its way home at the end of the month? It never seemed enough.
Mining. It seems that on any given family tree, at least a few branches are reserved for miners. And rightfully so. America, its residents, and its immigrants have long been drawn to life underground. More than 300,000 men flocked to California to mine gold in the 1850s. In the 1880s, 10,000-foot-high Leadville, Colorado, boasted a population of more than 50,000 thanks to the discovery of silver (it’s home to only 2,500 residents today). During the greatest periods of immigration in American history, people from across the globe flocked to America, securing jobs in the mines—at times, mine operators were even offering to pay transatlantic passage in exchange for work. And by the time America entered World War I, more than three-quarters of a million men were digging coal from deep below America’s mountainsides.
Farmers of a different type, these men harvested minerals to make ends meet. Regardless of whether they mined coal, copper, gold, silver, lead, uranium, or something else entirely, the workers on those branches spent their days in a constant struggle to get Mother Nature to part with her precious commodities. And the work they did had a lasting, yet at times tragically terminal, impact on each of them as they shaped the futures of their communities, their families, and each of us today.
Digging Beyond Ethnic Boundaries
They don’t call America the Melting Pot for nothing—ethnic issues came close to the boiling point before the young country’s diverse groups could get along. Underground was no exception.
English and Welsh miners were among the first on the scene, bringing with them knowledge and skill acquired from their own mines back home. Irish miners, and animosity, arrived shortly thereafter.
Around the turn of the century, a wave of Italian, Greek, and eastern European immigrants joined the mining industry. They were met with intense persecution. Idaho’s Caldwell Tribune said of the area’s Mediterranean additions, “They are filthy … and meddlesome … and unless something is done, they will make life impossible for the white man.” Chinese miners, primarily in California, and black miners across the United States also experienced hostile conditions.
Each group, however, dealt with discrimination in its own way. Chinese workers formed ethnic enclaves—San Francisco’s Chinatown being the oldest. The fighting Irish held true to their name and formed militant groups, including the Molly Maguires. Finnish miners preached traditions of socialism stemming from Czarist upbringings. And immigrants who weren’t used to fighting in their homelands, like the soft-spoken Slavic miners, quietly went about their business.
Mine owners began taking advantage of ethnic tensions underground. They started by hiring Slavic workers, who accepted lower wages, which in turn helped undermine already-weakened labor unions. And with each ethnic group so adamantly opposed to the next, no union was unified enough to make much of a difference.
That was until John Mitchell came along—the Abe Lincoln of miners. Mitchell was an expert organizer, traveling to mining communities and embracing each culture. He spoke numerous languages and ingratiated himself with the workers. Ultimately Mitchell helped organize the United Mine Workers Association—the first labor union to succeed nationally—by forming ethnic branches.
With an Italian American Club and a society for the Irish, Mitchell was able to unite each group against a common enemy—the mine owners. And it worked. “The coal you dig is not Slavic coal, or Polish coal, or Italian coal, or Irish coal,” Mitchell said. “It is coal.”
Mineral mined: Copper
Population peak: 1,400 in 1930
Population today: 402
Today: Recreation destination
It started with a gold miner named Lemons … who never found quite what he was looking for.
In the summer of 1843, Lemons discovered what he thought was gold. In actuality, it was the red oxide of copper. Still, that find set in motion a flurry of events similar to those of the California Gold Rush. First came prospectors, then land speculators, and then investors and companies formed to get the copper ore from the ground.
Companies recruited professional miners from England, Wales, Germany, and Tyrol. However, it was the local farmers-turned-miners who helped make the fortunes, although they didn’t get rich themselves. In 1872, a laborer could expect to earn around 75 cents a day for an eight-hour shift; skilled miners took home more—$40 to $45 a month. It wasn’t uncommon for a worker to never see a paycheck, spending it all on necessities at the company store.
In 1860, Ducktown boasted more than 700 miners and 300 woodcutters, copper haulers, and supporting laborers. Records show that nearly every male from the age of 10 and up was employed as either a mine hand or miner.
But during the Civil War, Ducktown’s mining industry changed: mines were confiscated by the Confederacy to supply copper to Confederate troops. Toward the end of 1863, however, Federal troops occupied nearby Cleveland, Tennessee, and copper ingots were shipped north instead.
After the war, Ducktown again enjoyed a period of productivity. But just a few years later, in 1879, mines were closed due to reconstruction and litigation. Subsequent worldwide competition in the industry and modern mining methods made it increasingly less lucrative to continue copper mining in Ducktown. Finally, on 31 July 1987, the last load of copper ore was extracted from the mine.
With the closing of the mines, the dismantling of the smokestacks, and the vast array of equipment left rusting deep in the earth, quiet returned to Ducktown. Many miners moved on; the ones who remained took jobs in nearby towns or resumed their small-scale farming.
Today, however, the scenic Copper Basin draws thousands of visitors each year to raft the wild Ocoee River—the spot of the 1996 Summer Olympics whitewater events—or to hike through the Cherokee National Forest.
Kudzu vines and young pine trees now almost cover the former barren hills and deep gullies on the 32 thousand acres of land that were stripped of vegetation by sulfuric acid fumes during the years that the mines open-roasted ore. And, while mining is far from the town’s livelihood today, an occasional red hill or copper-colored gully peeks through, defying reforestation efforts and reminding us of Ducktown’s colorful past.
—Marian Bailey Presswood
Did They Really Owe Their Souls to the Company Store?
An miner in America in 1900 might make around $3.00 (U.S.) per day for a 10- to 12-hour shift, depending on the miner’s job and the commodity being mined. While mining wages tended to be somewhat higher than those paid to workers in other industries, $3.00 a day still wasn’t much, particularly considering that a pair of shoes could cost an entire day’s wages. And a family might have eight pairs of feet to cover.
To make ends meet, families wore clothes fashioned from scrap material, grew gardens to share among families, and sent their sons to work in some capacity in or around the mine. And, whenever necessary, the company store was always ready to help get the family through to the next payday.
The concept of a company store was born from mining camps that sprang up long distances from cities and towns. In order to provide certain goods and necessities to families, mining companies would run a store where their workers could get needed household items. Payment for goods was usually made either from payroll deduction or through scrip—tender given to miners in lieu of cash.
Unfortunately company stores were notoriously overpriced. They lacked competition, so miners and families would pay whatever was necessary to get the items they needed. Since company stores worked on a very basic system of credit and provided miners with a way to get the goods they needed before their paycheck arrived, miners’ families were regularly indebted to the store. And that regular state of debt could turn into a vicious cycle that kept miners from getting financially ahead.
While a miner may not have owed his soul to the company store, he did owe a portion of his paycheck—sometimes quite a big portion—and it would come straight off the top before the miner ever saw the money. Factor in housing costs that were also often paid to the mining company, as well as payment for the coal required to heat a house, and a miner might be left on payday with little more than a few bills and some change in his pocket.
Mineral mined: Gold
Population peak: 2,000 in 1906
Population today: 0
Today: Part of Denali National Park
I learned about the Kantishna Gold Rush my first summer in Alaska, when I took a job at at a lodge on the banks of Moose Creek—90 miles and a six-hour bus ride from the entrance of Denali National Park. Shortly after I arrived, I learned what all visitors to the area quickly find out: mining was a major part of Kantishna’s history.
The first white people to travel into the Kantishna area arrived in the early 1900s. They were trappers and hunters, and, like the vast majority of Alaskan pioneers, they were prospectors. James Wickersham arrived in 1900 to fill the role of judge of the Third Judicial District. Shortly thereafter, he decided he’d be the first man to climb Mt. McKinley.
His attempt at the mountain failed. But his expedition there had a lasting legacy—the discovery of gold. In June 1903, while on their way to climb Mt. McKinley, Judge Wickersham and his party stopped to check out creeks along the way. They found enough gold to warrant staking claims in the area.
Less than a year later, prospectors had followed the rumors. A miner named Joe Dalton and his partner discovered encouraging amounts of gold on the Toklat River. By spring of the following year, Joe Quigley and Jack Horn, veterans of the various other gold rushes, had also arrived to stake claims. But since claims weren’t official until recorded, they then returned to Fairbanks to record their claims.
It was the gold they took with them to Fairbanks and the stories they told that created a new gold-rush fever. The rush in Chena, near Fairbanks, was waning, so prospectors were antsy for new territory to explore. By that summer, an official stampede had begun. Miners flocked to the Kantishna area. Outfitters jockeyed for the best places to set up shop. Boomtowns sprang up: Roosevelt, Diamond City, Glacier City. And a tent camp that developed at Eureka Creek would eventually come to be called Kantishna.
How many people inhabited the Kantishna District at the height of the boom is still up for debate. One estimate puts it at 2,000 inhabitants; others say it was only in the hundreds. But there is something that all accounts agree on: by 1906 there were as many miners leaving Kantishna district as were arriving. The easy pickings were gone, and the boom stopped almost as quickly as it started.
A few remained, and mining continued in the Kantishna District for decades. Today, while there are no year-round residents of Kantishna, the hills in the area are crisscrossed with the roads, trails, and legends of those early prospectors.
Aside from the inherent dangers associated with a job that involved heavy equipment, explosives, and the underground potential for bad air, mine workers also earned more than their share of industrial diseases—some fatal, some not.
Between 1911 and 1997, more than 100,000 miners in the United States died from injuries associated with on-the-job accidents. Explosions and cave-ins resulted in the greatest number of disaster-related deaths. Single-person accidents involving heavy equipment and unsafe work environments were also to blame.
Work-triggered health concerns extended beyond industrial accidents. Long-term effects of mining underground played out in diseases, including the following:
Miner’s Consumption – Any of a number of respiratory diseases, including silicosis and black lung associated with hard-rock mining; also called miner’s asthma, miner’s con, miner’s lung, and miner’s puff.
Silicosis – Disease caused by the inhalation of fine particles of hard silicon dust; miners would often grow a miner’s mustache in an attempt to catch particles before they could enter the lungs.
Black Lung – Respiratory disease associated with long-term inhalation of coal dust; also known as coal lung, coal miner’s phthisis, anthracosis, and black spittle.
Miner’s Anemia – Disease caused by the presence of an intestinal hookworm that leaches blood from its host and thrives in dank tunnels and mining shafts; also known as ankylostomiasis and tunnel worm.
Miner’s Nystagmus – Condition causing uncontrollable side-to-side or rotational movement of the eye resulting from working long hours under improper lighting.
Miner’s Back, Miner’s Elbow, Beat Elbow, Beat Hand, or Beat Knee – Cumulative trauma disorders associated with working in cramped, awkward environments; some conditions could be resolved with the use of padding, while others had long-lasting effects including pain, poor posture, and backaches.
Mineral mined: Lead
Population peak: 14,000 in 1845
Population today: 3,500
Today: Artist community
When Ulysses S. Grant brought his young family down the Itaska gangplank onto the bustling levee at Galena, Illinois, in April 1860, he was greeted by steamboats waiting to reload their holds with lead and grain. The man who would become a celebrated Civil War general and a two-term president was moving to Galena to work in his father’s leather-goods store.
At the time, Galena was the upper Midwest’s center of commerce and industry. But the story of Galena—Latin for “lead sulfide”—begins with the land. Thousands of years ago, glaciers thundered down from the north, leveling everything. But when glaciers reached northwest Illinois, southwest Wisconsin, and northeast Iowa, they divided and detoured, leaving lead and zinc fields untouched.
Sauk and Fox Indians traded surface-mined lead to voyagers and fur traders as early as 1690. Not until 1818 was the first permanent home built here, and in 1825 there were 200 inhabitants. Within three years, that number was in the thousands. Galena experienced the first mineral rush in America’s history.
The vibrant lead trade also helped establish Galena as a regional port. More than 4 million pounds of smelted lead annually moved through the port at its peak in the 1850s. Galena was the busiest Mississippi River port between St. Louis and St. Paul in spite of the fact that it lies 3.5 miles from the mighty Mississippi on a tributary—the Galena River.
Then the railroad came. Trains replaced riverboats, the Illinois Central bypassed Galena, and the Galena River silted in. With the mine fields all but played out and the demand for lead decreasing, efforts to dredge the river were futile and unwarranted. After a half-century, Galena’s days of prosperity were ending.
For the first half of the 20th century, Galena slept like Rip Van Winkle. The population dwindled. Main Street shops were few—drugstores, grocery stores, and clothing shops were all that remained. There was no urban renewal effort and no demand for the mining-era mansions to be subdivided into apartments.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that Galena was rediscovered—this time by artists and visionaries. Today, it’s the second most popular overnight destination in the state of Illinois (Chicago is first). Eighty-five percent of the city is on the National Historic Registry. Main Street is once again vibrant, now with art galleries, boutiques, and gourmet restaurants. Mansions have become bed and breakfasts, and more than 1 million people visit Galena for rest, relaxation, and a healthy lesson in history each year.