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US Mining History

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United States Mining is the History, Information, and Resource page for the country of United States of America in the North America Region.

It includes a Table of Disasters by State linking the Independent Disaster Pages. The Independent Disaster Pages include a list of those killed, survived or injured from which individual miner profiles may be created and honored or memorials added to those profiles existing on WikiTree.


History of Mining in the US

Mining History in the United States

By Albert S. Bolles in 1879

Gould and Curry Miners, Lawrence and Houseworth
The hope of finding mineral treasure was one of the incentives that led the early colonists to America and they were quite diligent in searching for metals. All along the Atlantic Coast, almost immediately after the first settlements, discoveries were made of silver, lead, copper, iron, tin, antimony, coal, and other valuable minerals; but, they were found generally in small quantities; and, in competition with foreign production, the working of mines was frequently found unprofitable. Then, too, the presence and hostility of Indians made such enterprises dangerous.

Iron ore was sent to England from near Jamestown in 1608, the year after Virginia was first permanently settled; and in 1620, 150 skilled workmen were sent to the colony to erect and operate ironworks. An Indian massacre two years later; however, put a discouraging end to the proceedings. Another discouragement grew out of such blunders as the supposed discovery of gold in Virginia by Captain John Smith. A shipload of the glittering dust was sent to England, and there, pronounced to be nothing but iron pyrites.

However, the plucky colonists persevered in spite of all depressions and obstacles, and made very creditable beginnings. was resumed permanently in in 1715. The metal was found in Massachusetts in 1628 and later, a company was formed to work it in 1643. Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania followed suit. Penn had discovered iron as early as 1683; but no forges are mentioned on his grants earlier than 1719-20. began in Missouri, then belonging to France, in 1720; and the old Southampton silver-lead mine was opened in Massachusetts in 1765. Copper mining is first heard of in Connecticut, the Simsbury mines being worked as early as 1709; but they were abandoned as unprofitable about the middle of that century. The Schuyler Mine, near Belleville, New Jersey, was discovered in 1719, and is historic as the scene of the building of the first steam-engine in America in 1793-94. Lake Superior copper was first mined by the whites in 1771, and in small quantities. In the early colonial days the settlers used wood for fuel, and charcoal for the forge and smelting-works. Coal, however, was found in Rhode Island in 1768, and mined for use. The great bituminous seam near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was struck in 1784. Previous to this time coal, was found in quantities in Virginia; and canals were cut, connecting parallel rivers to facilitate its transportation. By 1789, quite an export trade with adjacent colonies had been built up.

Savage Works Mill, photo by Timothy H. O'Sullivan, 1867
At numerous other points along the Atlantic seaboard, these and other metals were found prior to the American Revolution. Smelting works and forges were erected to

reduce the ores, some of which were exported. The home government discouraged the manufacture of metals in this country, though, at that period; which was a damper upon From these humble beginnings, slow advances were made for several decades. The Revolutionary War, by cutting off supplies from England, and creating a special demand for iron and copper ordnance and lead bullets, as well as other metal for domestic and other implements, gave a peculiar stimulus to mining, although the army so drained the country of men as to leave few for such occupations.

It was not the early 19th Century, that there were any marked strides in the mining business. In 1820 attempts were made to mix anthracite coal with charcoal in iron smelting, but the experiment was not successful until 1831, when the hot-blast was invented; then both the coal and iron industry took a tremendous start. In 1835, lead mining received a wonderful impetus in Missouri and Iowa from new discoveries.

Gold panning, Pinos Altos, NM, Russell Lee, 1940
Copper mining was revived along Lake Superior about 1842, and made a sudden jump. The California gold fever of 1849 was the beginning of the search and procurement of that metal on a considerable scale. Petroleum came prominently into notice for the first time in August, 1859, when the Drake Well struck oil; and the Comstock Lode was discovered in Nevada that same year, and laid the foundation of the silver mining business.

A review of the history of mining during this important period shows that our operations have been characterized by intense excitement and magnified speculative speculation, by gross blunders and by great waste. Says Kimball, the character of it "is an instructive narrative of fluctuating fortune, ranging through all the intermittent vicissitudes of prosperity and stagnation, of factitious inflations and calamitous recoils, of blind delusion and credulity, of stolid unbelief, of highest popularity, and general distrust."

Eldorado County, CA Miners

The possibility of making a great deal of money in a short time always crazes people; and the discovery of large deposits of metal, both the baser and the precious, affords just such inviting possibilities to the workman and to the capitalist. And so, in the case of each of the great discoveries of lead, copper, gold, oil, and silver, a large proportion of the country's population has been rendered frantic. An immense rush has set in toward the center of interest; fortunes large and small, often augmented by extensive borrowing from credulous friends and relatives, have been invested in land claims, and stock companies to work them; towns and villages have sprung up almost in a day, like Jonah's gourd. The hopes of but few out of many would be realized; disappointment and ruin ensued; and not only were poverty, sickness, and death often the result, but whole towns of the mushroom type have been almost as suddenly wiped out of existence.

In this mad rush of greed and excitement, other blunders besides those of investing in unprofitable lands were made. Furnaces for smelting were located without due regard for getting fuel; costly machinery for crushing ore was bought and forwarded to the scene of action, without knowing whether ore would be found at all, or whether the apparatus was suited to the kind of ore discovered; new processes for extracting metal were resorted to, without reliable information as to their value; and other such ruinous mistakes were committed by frenzied speculators.

There was also an enormous waste of valuable minerals in consequence of this same impetuous desire for wealth. In the lead regions of the Mississippi Valley, argentiferous galena, (an ore of lead), was quite common, and often the lead was entirely wasted in the extraction of the little silver. In the coal regions, especially before the organization of the large companies and their combination in monopoly, only the richer measures would be worked, leaving a large quantity of inferior, yet valuable coal on higher levels to be lost by caving.

Such recklessness in handling was practiced, that from a third to a half of the product was lost. The same state of things was found in the silver country. Mines were neglected as soon as the rich surface deposits were procured, and the accumulation of water and rubbish made it next to impossible to work what were really paying shafts. But, by the latter half of the 19th century, a reaction set in in these regards and the extravagances steadily began to decline.

A high mine in Inyo County, California

The two great causes, which, after the discovery of our great resources and the passion for wealth, have stimulated American mining, are the government's general policy of encouragement, and the advancement in mechanic and natural science. Under the old English laws, the crown was entitled to the gold and silver found on government lands, and a certain proportion of other minerals. But, in this country, although legislation was very slight until the late 1800's, the gold and silver miners of the Pacific Coast were ruled only by self-made regulations, the government has favored the free occupation and investigation of the rocks for minerals, and facilitated the cheap purchase and lease of mining lands. There has been a protective tariff, too, on foreign metals at times, the heaviest having been since 1861; and this has greatly promoted the development of our iron, copper, coal, and other minerals.

Among the most serviceable inventions in practical mining and metallurgy in the late 19th century were the California stamp mill for crushing quartz, the mercury amalgamation process for gold, the pan process for silver, the hydraulic process of gold mining in alluvial regions, the application of new explosives to rocks, new methods of drilling, new blast-furnaces, and new methods of converting iron into steel.

Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated September, 2017.

Gold Mining History

Gold Mining in America By Albert S. Bolles in 1879

Placer Miner, 1930
Although some specimens of gold were collected in North Carolina and Virginia previous to the American Revolution, no excitement about the subject arose until the discovery in California in 1848. Before then, the gold-miner had pursued his occupation quietly, and without ever dreaming of enormous riches suddenly acquired; but, with the discovery on the Pacific Coast, all was changed. Gold had been found in California prior to this time; for Hakluyt (in his account of the voyage of Sir Francis Drake, along the Pacific Coast in 1579) said, "There is no part of the earth to be taken up wherein there is not a reasonable quantity of gold and silver."

Although this statement was highly overdrawn, it probably contained a basis of truth; for the Mexicans found placer-gold near the Colorado River at various intervals between 1775 and 1828. Still, these discoveries were regarded as unimportant; and even so late as 1835, when Forbes wrote his History of California, he said, "No minerals of any particular importance have yet been found in Upper California, nor any ores of metals." Three years later, the placers of San Francisco, 45 miles northwest of Los Angeles, were discovered. The deposit of gold was neither extensive nor rich; but it was worked steadily for twenty years.

In 1841, the exploring expedition of Commodore Wilkes visited the coast; and its mineralogist, James D. Dana, made a trip overland from the Columbia River, by way of Willamette and Sacramento Valleys, toSan Francisco Bay; and in the following year he published a work on mineralogy, in which was mentioned the discovery of gold in Sacramento Valley, and of auriferous rocks in Southern Oregon. Dana did not regard his discovery as of any practical value; and, if he said any thing about it in California, no one heeded his words. Nevertheless, many persons believed the country was rich in minerals; and on May 4, 1846, Thomas O. Larkin, at that time United States consul in Monterey, wrote in an official letter to James Buchanan, who was then Secretary of State, saying: "There is no doubt but that gold, silver, quicksilver, copper, lead, sulphur, and coal mines are to be found all over California; and it is equally doubtful whether, under their present owners, they will ever be worked."

James Marshall

Seven years later, on January 19, 1848, ten days before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, and three months before the ratified copies were exchanged, --James W. Marshall, while engaged in digging a race for a sawmill at Coloma, about 35 miles eastward from Sutter's Fort, found some pieces of yellow metal which he and the half-dozen men working with him at the mill imagined were gold. Feeling confident that he had made a discovery of great importance, but knowing nothing of chemistry or gold mining, he could not prove the nature of the metal, or tell how to obtain it in paying quantities. Every morning he went down to the race to look for gold; but the rest of his companions regarded Marshall as very wild in his ideas, and continued their labors upon the mill and in sowing wheat and planting vegetables.

The swift current of the mill-race washed away a considerable body of earthy matter, leaving the coarse particles of gold behind, so Marshall's collection of specimens continued to accumulate, and his associates began to think there might be something in his gold mine, after all. About the middle of February, one of the party employed at the mill went to San Francisco for the purpose of learning whether this metal was precious, and was there introduced to Isaac Humphrey, who had washed for gold in Georgia. The experienced miner saw at a glance that the true stuff was before him, and, after a few inquiries, was satisfied as to the richness of the deposits. He made immediate preparation to go to the mill, and tried to persuade some of his friends to go with him; but they thought it would be only a waste of time and money, so he went with Bennett for his sole companion.

Arriving at Coloma on March 7th, he found work at the mill going on as though no gold existed in the neighborhood. The next day he took a pan and spade, and washed some of the dirt from the bottom of washing the mill-race in places where Marshall had found his specimens, for gold and in a few hours declared the mines to be far richer than any he had seen or heard of in Georgia.

He now made a rocker, and went to work earnestly washing for gold and everyday he found an ounce or more of metal. The men at the mill made rockers for themselves, and all were soon busy in search efforts of the shining stuff.

Everything else was abandoned; yet the rumor of the discovery spread slowly. In the middle of March, Pearson B. Reading, the owner of a large ranch at the head of the Sacramento Valley, happened to visit other Sutter's Fort; and, hearing of the mining at Coloma, he went there to see it. He said, that, if similarity of formation could be regarded as proof, there must be gold mines near his ranch so, after observing the method of washing, he went away, and in a few weeks was at work on the bars of Clear Creek, nearly 200 .miles in a northwesterly direction from Coloma.

A few days after Reading left, John Bidwell, formerly a representative of the northern district of the State in the lower House of Congress, came to Coloma; and the result of his visit was the organization of a party of Indians belonging to his ranch to wash for gold on the bars of Feather River, 75 miles from Coloma. Thus, the mines were opened at several distant points.

The following was the first printed notice, in a California newspaper published in San Francisco, of the discovery:

"In the newly-made Printed raceway of the sawmill erected by Captain Sutter on the American Fork, gold has been found in considerable quantities. One discovery person brought thirty dollars to New Helvetia, gathered there in a short time."

On May 20th, the same paper, announcing that its publication would be suspended, said, " The whole country, from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and from the seashore to the base of Sierra Nevada, resounds with the sordid cry of 'Gold, gold, gold!' while the field is left half planted, the house half built, and every thing neglected but the manufacture of picks and shovels, and the means of transportation to the spot where one man obtained a 128 dollars’ worth of the real stuff in one day's washing; and the average for all concerned is 20 dollars per day."

Towns and farms were deserted, or left to the care of women and children, while rancheros, wood-choppers, mechanics, vaqueros, and soldiers and sailors who had deserted, or obtained leave of absence, devoted all their energies to washing the auriferous gravel of the Sacramento River. Never satisfied, however great their profits, they were continually looking for new places which might yield them two or three times as much as they had made before. Thus the area of their labors gradually extended; and, at the end of 1848, miners were at work in every large stream on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, from the Feather River to the Tuolumne River (a distance of a 150 miles), and also at Reading's diggings in the northwestern corner of the Sacramento Valley.

Miners were always quick to "pick up" their homes and move to the next big mining strike.

The news of the gold discovery was received in the Atlantic States and in foreign countries with incredulity and ridicule; but soon the receipts of the precious metal in large quantities, and the enthusiastic letters of army officers and of men whose word was unquestioned, changed the current of belief, and created a wonderful excitement.

Oregon, the Hawaiian Islands, and Sonora sent their thousands to share in the auriferous harvest of the first year; and in the following spring, all the adventurous young Americans east of the Rocky Mountains wanted to go to the new Eldorado, where, as they imagined, everybody was rich, and gold could be dug by the shovelful from the bed of every stream.

Though the phrase "golden sands" is often heard, gold is found in a tough clay, which envelops gravel and large boulders as well as sand. This clay must be thoroughly dissolved; so the miner fills his pan, which is made of sheet-iron or tinned iron, with a flat bottom about a foot in diameter, and sides six inches high, inclining outwards at an angle of thirty or forty degrees, and goes to the bank of the river, squats down there, puts his pan under water, and shakes it horizontally. So as to get the mass thoroughly soaked; then he picks out the larger stones with one hand, and mashes up the largest and toughest lumps of clay, and again shakes his pan; and when all the dirt appears to be dissolved, so that the gold can be carried to the bottom by its weight, he tilts up the pan a little to let the thin mud and light sand run out; and thus he works until he has washed out all except the metal, which remains at the bottom.

The rocker, which was introduced into the California mines at their discovery, is made somewhat like a child's cradle. On the upper end is a riddle, made with a bottom of sheet-iron punched with holes. This riddle is filled with pay dirt; and a man rocks the machine with one hand, while, with a dipper, he pours water into the riddle with the other. Being agitated, the liquid dissolves the clay, and carries it down with the gold into the floor of the rocker, where the metal is caught by traverse riffles, or cleats; while the mud, water, and sand run off at the lower end of the rocker, which is left open. The riddle can be removed, thus enabling the miner to throw out the larger stones which are mixed with the clay.

Like a sluice box, the rocker box has riffles in it to trap the gold. It was designed to be used in areas with less water than a sluice box. The process involves pouring water out of a small cup and then rocking the small sluice box like a cradle, thus the name rocker box or cradle. Illustration by Henry Sandham, 1883.

The year 1850, two years after Marshall's discovery, was marked by a multitude of "rushes," or sudden migrations in search of imaginary rich diggings. The miners, although generally men of rare intelligence, compared ideas with the laborers in other countries, had vague ideas of the geological distribution of gold; and the marvelous amounts dug out by them (sometimes a single miner extracting thousands of dollars per day) excited their imagination so highly as to prevent the formation of sound judgment, even if they had possessed the requisite information upon which to act. Many believed that there must be some volcanic source from which the gold had been thrown up and scattered over the hills; and they thought, that, if they could only find that place, they would have nothing to do except to shovel up the precious metal, and load their mules with it. More than once, long trains of pack animals were sent out with the confident expectation of getting loads of gold within a few days.

No story was too extravagant to command credence. Men who had never earned more than a dollar a day before they came to California were dissatisfied when they were clearing twenty dollars, and were always ready to start off on some expedition in search of distant diggings which were expected to yield more abundantly. Decades later, the miners would have better ideas of the auriferous deposits and no longer count upon digging up the pure gold by the shovelful, yet they were, as they have ever been since the discovery of the mines, always prepared for emigration to any new field of excitement.

Of course, the chief want of the placer miner was an abundant and convenient supply of water; and the first noteworthy attempt to convey the needful element in an artificial channel was made at Coyote Hill in Nevada County, California in March, 1850. This ditch was about two miles long, and, proving a decided success was imitated in many other places, until, in the course of eight years, six thousand miles of mining canals had been made, supplying all the principal placer districts with water, and furnishing the means for obtaining the greater portion of the gold yield of the State. Many of the ditches were marvels of engineering skill.

The problem was to get the largest amount of water at the greatest altitude above the auriferous ground, and at the least immediate expense, as money was worth from 3-10% per month interest. As the pay dirt might be exhausted within a couple of years, and as the anticipated profits would in a short time be sufficient to pay for a new ditch, durability was a point of minor importance.

Sutter's Mill in Coloma, California, July, 2009, Kathy Weiser

There was no imperial treasury to supply the funds for a durable aqueduct in every township, nor could the impatient miners wait a decade for the completion of gigantic structures in stone and mortar. The high value of their time, and the scarcity of their money, made it necessary that the cheapest and most expeditious expedients for obtaining water should be adopted. Where the surface of the ground furnished the proper grade, a ditch was dug in the earth; and, where it did not, flumes were built of wood, sustained in the air by framework that rose sometimes to a height of three hundred feet in crossing deep ravines, and extending for miles at an elevation of 100-200 feet.

All the devices known to mechanics for conveying water from hilltop to hilltop were adopted. Aqueducts of wood, and pipes of iron, were suspended upon cables of wire, or sustained on bridges of wood; and inverted siphons carried water up the sides of one hill by the heavier pressure from the higher side of another.

The ditches were usually the property of companies, of which, there were at one time 400 in the State, owning a total length of 6,000 miles of canals and flumes. The largest of these, called the Eureka, in Nevada County, had 205 miles of ditches, constructed at a cost of $900,000; and their receipts at one time from the sale of water, were $6,000 per day. Unfortunately, these mining canals, though more numerous, more extensive, and bolder in design, than the aqueducts of Rome, were less durable; and most were abandoned, and allowed to go to ruin, so that scarcely a trace of their existence remains, save in the heaps of gravel from which the clay and loam were washed in search for gold.

As the placers in many districts were gradually exhausted, the demand for water, and the profits of the ditch companies decreased; and the more expensive flumes, when blown down by severe storms, carried away by floods, or destroyed by the decay of the wood, were not repaired.

The construction of hundreds of ditches within three or four years after the successful experiment at Coyote Hill created a fresh impulse to placer mining, and greatly modified its character. New inventions, though of the rudest description, were multiplied to facilitate the process of gathering the yellow metal. Among others was the introduction of an implement which had been previously used in Georgia, called by the short and unclassic name of " tom." This was a great improvement upon the rocker; yet it was soon superseded by a still greater, -- the sluice, which is a broad trough from 100-1000 feet long, with transverse cleats at the lower end to catch the gold. With a descent of one foot in twenty, the water rushes through it like a torrent, bearing down large stones, and tearing the lumps of clay to pieces. The miners, of whom a dozen may work at one sluice, have little to do save to throw in the dirt and take out the gold.

Ten mile long flume, Twin Springs, Idaho, W.E. Pierce and Co, 1898

Occasionally, it may be necessary to throw out some stones, or to shovel the dirt along, to prevent the sluice from choking; but these attentions cost relatively very little time. The sluice is the best device heretofore used for washing gold, and is supposed to be unsurpassable. It has been used in California more extensively than elsewhere; although it has been introduced by American miners into Australia, New Zealand, British Columbia, Transylvania, and many other countries.

The sluice, though an original invention here, had been previously used in Brazil; but it was never brought to much excellence there, nor used extensively ; and no such implement was known in 1849 in the industry of gold-mining.

The shovel could not bring earth to the sluice fast enough, and the wages of a dozen workmen must be saved, if possible. So, in 1852, Edward E. Mattison, a native of Connecticut, invented the process of hydraulic mining, in which a stream of water was directed under a heavy pressure against a bank or hillside containing placer gold, and the earth was torn down by the fluid, and carried into the sluice to be washed; and thus the expense of shoveling was entirely saved.

The man with the rocker might wash one cubic yard of earth in a day; with the tom, he might average twice that quantity; with the sluice, four yards; and with the hydraulic and sluice together, fifty or even a hundred yards. The difference was immense. The force of a stream of water rushing through a two-inch pipe, under a pressure of two hundred feet perpendicular, is tremendous; and the everlasting hills themselves crumble down before it as if they were but piles of cloud blown away by a breath of wind, or dissipated by a glance of the sun.

And yet, even this terrific power has not sufficed. When the hills have been dried by months of constant heat and drought, the clay becomes so hard, that the hydraulic stream, with all its momentum, did not steadily dissolve it; and often the water ran off clearly as ever through the sluice, and consequently was wasted.

The sluice could wash more dirt than the hydraulic stream furnished when the clay was hard and dry; and, to prevent this loss, the miner would often cut a tunnel into the heart of his claim, and blast the clay loose with powder, so that it would yield more readily to the action of water. Two tons of powder were been used at a single blast in some of these operations.

Adit at Nevada Lucky Tiger Mine

With the introduction of the sluice, the ditch, and the hydraulic process, the hiring of laborers began. The pan and the rocker required of every man to be his own master; but these new processes led to other modes of employment.

There was an abundance of rocker claims in 1849; but three years later, there were not enough good sluice claims to supply one-third of the miners. The erection of a long sluice, the cutting of drains (often necessary to carry off the tailings), and the purchase of water from the ditch company, required capital; and the manner of clearing up rendered it possible for the owner of a sluice to prevent his servants from stealing any considerable portion of his gold before it came to his possession. Thus, it was that the custom of hiring miners for wages became common in the placer diggings.

Since the discovery of the original home of gold, the extraction of it was carried on in a more scientific manner than placer mining.

There are other modes of obtaining gold, which almost became obsolete. The arastra, for instance, was used in the early days to pulverize the ore. It was a Mexican contrivance, rude, but effective. Winnowing, or "drywashing" was also practiced by the Mexicans and continued to be used in lower California, where the ore was found too far away from a sufficient supply of water to make any other practice possible. The wind bears away the dust and light particles of earth, and leaves the gold dust, which is heavier.

During the progress of geological surveys gold was found in many places, but nowhere in such quantities as in California. It was found in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, in Vermont, in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and in still larger quantities, in the has been remaining Southern seaboard States, as far as Alabama.

Gold mining contains more of the gambling element than any other regular industry; and this is one of the reasons why it has always possessed such a singular fascination for many. But quartz mining is robbed essentially of this uncertain element; for the business, if properly conducted, yields more regular profits than any other mode of gathering the precious metal.

Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated October, 2016.

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Silver Mining History

Silver Mining in the United States By Albert S. Bolles in 1879

Silver miners in Creede, CO, 1942, Andreas Feininger

Silver was one of the last of the mineral products to attain prominence in the mining industries of the United States. Prior to the year 1859 the silver produced in this country was utterly insignificant. Only faint traces of it had been found here and there, and it was rarely made the object of special exploration. The silver coin in was almost exclusively of foreign metal, as was also the plate in common use.

The early Spanish invaders of this continent found the Aztecs of Mexico, and Toltecs of Peru, possessed of great quantities of this precious metal, which the Spanish obtained from the great mountain-range, which, under different discoveries. names, extends from the southern to the northern extremity of the New World. Mining was carried on even more extensively under the new governments, and immense quantities of treasure were carried home to Europe in Spanish ships. But, that portion of this great treasure vault of nature included within our present boundaries remained almost entirely free from investigation until 1849, and for ten years, the search was directed almost exclusively to finding gold.

Silver was found, however, mixed with galena, or lead ore, in small quantities by the eastern colonists a full century before. Such a vein, for instance, was discovered in Worcester County, Massachusetts in 1754. Another was discovered in Columbia County, New York, as in New England as early as 1740. Near it was an iron forge for the reduction of metal obtained from Connecticut. The same year argentiferous galena was found in Dutchess County, New York and later in Westchester County; the former being worked by the Germans of that vicinity. In a vein of copper discovered in New Jersey in 1719, there was found silver in the proportion of four ounces to every hundred-weight of ore. The Swedes reported the discovery of silver in Pennsylvania in their day; and it was found in small quantities near Davidson, North Carolina, and in South Carolina along the Savannah River. Later, the great galena mines of the Upper and Lower Mississippi River were discovered to contain a slight proportion of this precious metal. In some of these several localities the silver was abundant enough to pay for extraction, but rarely. In the early colonial days, it was not possible to eliminate it as easily and successfully as now, and in most cases such experiments were soon abandoned. In later days it became more profitable, and yet in few cases were the results more than tantalizing. In the second half of the 19th century, the North Carolina mines were the only ones in the eastern part of the United States that were worked for this metal. No statistics were obtainable showing the exact amount of native silver produced in this country in 1850; but it is asserted, that, at that period of our history, 99 of every 100 silver dollars then in use in the United States were of Mexican or Peruvian metal.

Just previous to the discovery of the famous Comstock Lode, stock companies were organized in New York, Cincinnati, and many other cities, to explore and work abandoned silver mines in Arizona which had been ceded to the United States by the Gadsden Treaty. The Sonora Company of Cincinnati was the most prominent of these; but, when it began operations in 1858, it was upon a new mine, 75 miles south of Tucson, very near the Mexican border. Their works were at Arivaca, seven miles from the mines. Operations were also commenced 70 miles north of Tucson, Arizona in 1870, by the Maricopa Mining Company of New York, whose mines yielded an argentiferous copper ore. The outlet for the product of both these mines was by wagon to Guaymas, Mexico, on the Gulf of California. These mines are upon the Pacific slope of the silver-yielding range of Sonora and Durango in Mexico. Other mines were found and worked with profit in Arizona farther west, near the Gila River.

The greatest event in the history of silver-mining in America was the discovery of the richest deposit in the world -- on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada Range -- in 1859. The crest of the range runs along the eastern Comstock part of California; and in the Washoe country, 25 miles over the border into Nevada, this magnificent vein was found. All during the interval between 1850 and 1860, those tireless, even heroic investigators, the prospectors, had ranged the whole mountain-region of the West on foot, with knapsack, hammer, and blow-pipe. As they wandered from ledge to ledge they picked out specimens here and there, cracked them, and studied the appearance of the fracture, and now and then reduced a bit of the ore with the blow-pipe on a piece of charcoal. In 1858-59 a party of these prospectors was working its way up Six-Mile Canyon, in the Washoe country. There, they found some rich sulphurets of silver interspersed with free gold. Immediately Henry Phinney (or Fennimore) and Henry Comstock filed a claim to a mine. The former sold out his claim to the latter for a pinch of gold-dust, not realizing the immense value of the discovery; and Comstock himself soon parted with the property, although his name still clung to the whole lode.

Savage Works Mill, photo by Timothy H. O'Sullivan, 1867

Prospectors keep as close watch of one another's luck as so many coast fishermen. Before practical operations began, the great possibilities of this region began to be suspected, and a vast number of claims were filed all along these eastern foot-hills of the Sierra; and, as soon as mining was actually undertaken, it was realized that the richest accumulation of this precious metal ever known was beneath the feet of the Washoe operators. Tidings of the marvelous wealth hid away there spread like lightning, not over California alone (Nevada was not then a State, and had scarcely any population), and not over the United States alone, but over the whole civilized world. One of those periods of frantic excitement and wild sensation ensued such as Bret Harte has made us all familiar with in his " Roughing It." A most extraordinary emigration ensued. Several large new towns sprang up, notably Virginia City, Carson City, and Silver City; Nevada took a place among the States of the Union; and the Central Pacific Railroad was extended through the region, its nearest station to the point of first discovery being at Reno, on the Truckee River, twenty miles away.

In "The Great Industries of the United States" it is remarked, "There is, perhaps, no instance so striking of the promptness and daring with which American capitalists launch their money into an enterprise in which they have confidence as the development of this Comstock Lode. In 1861 this lode was a wall of black sulphuret, bedded primeval granite and quartz, on the steep slope of a lonely and barren mountain two hundred miles from roads and shops and wheat-fields, parted from them by the gorges and snowy peaks of the Sierras: four years afterward a city of twenty thousand inhabitants was planted on that wild declivity, and nearly two millions and a half in assessments had been paid to develop the mines."

Hoisting Works, Virginia City, NV 1890

The general excitement was increased by the discovery of silver deposits elsewhere in Nevada. Many thousand claims were located, not a few of which were large and well-defined, yet of little or no value. In the greater number of cases, however, they were contracted, and the lodes on which they were staked lacked the features of true veins, or proved poor below the surface.

Says Mr. Kimball, "Notwithstanding wide differences in merit, most of these claims -- the best as well as the worst of them -- passed at greatly inflated valuations into the possession of joint-stock companies organized upon the strength of extravagant expectations. During three years, while the excitement lasted, three thousand mining-companies were incorporated in San Francisco alone to work mines in the Washoe district, their nominal capital amounting in the aggregate to a billion dollars, though their market-value never exceeded sixty million dollars. Companies still more numerous, with locations in other parts of Nevada, were formed in Eastern cities.

Without waiting for the result of exploration or development, most of the companies hurried into enormous expenditures for mill and machinery, of which a great deal was unfit for any use whatever, even had machinery ever been needed; cities were built in an ambitious and luxurious style; and speculation in city and town lots was scarcely exceeded by the traffic in mining-claims. The furor, if anything, grew for three years, rather than abated. In the summer of 1864 a reaction set in, it having by this time become clear, that, in the Washoe region, the only mines of any considerable and well-established value were those upon the Comstock, and even those for a time were objects of distrust; while the other regions of Nevada, of which such high hopes had been entertained, had together failed to contribute more than five or six per cent of the total production of the State, the rest having been furnished by the Comstock Lode alone."

Among the more prominent companies at work on the Comstock Lode are Gould & Curry, the Ophir, the Savage, the Imperial, the Yellow Jacket, and Prominent the Belcher. Up to 1865, Messrs. Gould & Curry had built companies that rivaled all the other companies put together. To get an idea of the enormous profits of the business, it may be stated that it cost about ten dollars a ton to get the ore mined, and each ton yielded fifty dollars' worth of silver. An idea of the rapid development of these mines may be derived from the following figures. Wells, Fargo, & Company received and transported for these companies silver bullion amounting to $20 million in 1861, $6 million in 1872, $12.5 million in 1863, almost $16 million in 1864, and $15 million in 1865. Altogether some $70 million dollars’ worth of silver was taken from the Comstock Lode from its discovery up to 1866.

Thereafter, for a few years, there was a slight subsidence in the production ; the lowest point touched being in 1869, when the whole lode is credited with only $7,528,607 of precious metal. A new development ensued, however, which was very rapid between 1872 and 1875, in which latter year the yield was $26,023,036. It is estimated, however, that forty per cent of the value of the product of the Comstock Lode is in gold, which would make the proportion of silver for that year about $16,000,000. The $200,000,000 yielded from 1859 to 1876 is divided roughly into $80,000,000 gold and $120,000,000 silver. Within two years there have been rumors of still richer deposits having been discovered on this lode; but the facts are concealed from the public, probably for stock-jobbing purposes.

Central City, CO 1865,

Nearly ten years after the Comstock claim was first entered, silver was found abundantly in the white-pine district of Nevada. In some places the White-pine deposit was so rich, that, when the quartz had been mined away, district. sheets of almost pure metal, worth $17,000 a ton, could be torn out of the vein. This supply was limited, however, and the yield has not been steadily maintained. Silver has also been found in other parts of Nevada in smaller quantities.

Colorado in the Central City region, and Idaho and Montana, also developed silver-mines of considerable importance after 1865 but, they would never approach the yields of Nevada. By 1879, the the United States produced between $20 and $25 million of silver annually, which was about half of the world's product. At that time, three-quarters of the amount came from the Comstock Lode. yield. A contributor to The Atlantic Monthly magazine remarked that this country contained the largest proportion of silver, compared with other metals, of any in the world; that the production of silver was more steady than that of gold, and that the signs of our silver-supply holding out well for years to come were much more promising than those concerning gold.

Political influences, however, as well as the discovery of an increased supply, later depressed the price of silver considerably; so there was far greater variability in its value than in that of gold. Even before demonetization in 1873 it had fallen off. But, the removal of it from a place in our dollar coinage, and the similar action of Germany in 1874, had the effect of reducing it by degrees to nearly one-eighth of its former price. When the demonetization act of 1878 was enacted, however, there was a tendency toward recovery; and a large class of economists began to think it would regain its old value and place in the coinage of the world.

This; however, was not the case and would never again regain the high values of the 1860's.

Albert S. Bolles, 1879. Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated April, 2017.


The articles above are reproduced in their entirety, including photos, with the gracious permission of Kathy Weiser, owner/editor, Legends of America.

Kathy gives this information "About the Articles": The articles first appeared in a book written by Albert S. Bolles, entitled Industrial History of the United States, Volume IV, in 1879. Published by the Henry Bill Publishing Company, Norwich, CT. Bolles was a lecturer in Political Economy at the Boston University, editor of the Magazine, also lectured on banking and trusts at the University of the City of New York, and wrote several other books including The Financial History of the United States, The Conflict Between Labor and Capital, and Practical Banking.

My deep thanks to Kathy and the amazing Legends of America website. It is obviously a labor of love and an intensely comprehensive and entertaining portrayal of America and subjects of interest.

Copper Mining History

Copper in the USA: Bright Future Glorious Past

US History

The large-scale mining of copper had its origins in the late 1800's, primarily in the American West. Small mines existed around the country, particularly in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and in Arizona, but they were able to extract copper only from high-grade ores. The development of efficient flotation processes ¹ around the turn of the century opened up the exploitation in Arizona, Montana, and Utah of large porphyry ore deposits in which the copper-bearing minerals are widely dispersed throughout the host rock. Open-pit mining techniques were developed for these low-grade porphyry deposits and the United States quickly became the world's largest producer of copper.

The US brass mill industry has a longer history, beginning in the early days of the Republic. The industry was heavily concentrated in the Naugatuck Valley in Connecticut over a 40 mile stretch from Torrington through the center of the industry-Waterbury-south to Ansonia and Derby. The early mills made such objects as brass buttons and copper vessels, and later pins and clock brass, and developed melting and rolling techniques. Only since World War II has the brass mill industry been dispersed widely throughout the eastern half of the United States, and little of it remains in Connecticut.

The electrical wire mill industry started in 1877, when a Connecticut brass mill man named Thomas Doolittle developed hard-drawn copper wire strong enough to be strung overhead. Prior to that time, iron wire had been used in the telegraph system. The telephone system was commercialized quickly after its discovery in 1876 and both it and the growing electric power grid began to consume large quantities of copper wire. While these events were transpiring in the USA, similar developments in copper production and in the consumption of copper mill and foundry products were occurring also in the rest of the industrialized world. Annual growth rates over these periods have ranged from a high of 5.8% at the dawning of the electrical and telecommunication ages (late 1800's-early 1900's) to a low level of 1.3% in the period since the mid 1970's. Over this time period, annual world consumption has grown by about a factor of 30. In fact, despite copper's 10,000-year history of continuous use (and re-use), about three-quarters of all copper ever consumed has been produced in the period since World War II.

The Future

Copper's healthy maintenance of markets and its promise to gain new ones, such as superconductivity applications, new marine uses such as ship hulls and sheathing of offshore platforms, electric vehicles, earth-coupled heat pumps, solar energy (which will inevitably re-emerge at some point when oil supplies tighten), fire sprinkler systems, and nuclear waste disposal canisters, to name a few, must be balanced against its prospects of future availability.

Of the world's reserves of copper about one-quarter of the deposits are economically recoverable now or in the near future. Of this reserve base about 16% (198 billion pounds of copper) is in the USA.

Each year about 3 billion pounds are withdrawn from the earth as US mine production, a barely discernible amount. The copper already mined through history amounts to 700 billion pounds, most still in recycling use.

Interestingly enough, although copper is continuously mined and put into use, the estimated US reserve base has stayed relatively constant in recent years, and has increased fourfold from estimates made in 1952 as new deposits have been found and, even more important, because better extraction techniques have allowed leaner deposits to be added to the reserve base. There is every reason to believe that these dynamics will continue well into the 21st century.

Three other factors will also influence copper supply: US self-sufficiency, energy efficiency and recyclability.

The availability of major domestic deposits makes the USA self-sufficient in copper. This is in stark contrast to aluminum which, despite recent advances in domestic supply due to recycling of beverage cans, has only averaged 20% US self-sufficiency.

There are wide variations in the energy used to recover metals from the earth's crust. Copper ranks near the middle for energy required for extraction-higher than iron, zinc or lead, but at considerable advantage to aluminum, titanium and magnesium, which require much larger quantities of energy to break down the ore (or seawater and brines in the case of magnesium) into metallic form.

For all metals the recycling of scrap is considerably more energy-efficient than recovery from ores, and here copper's high recycling rate-higher than any other engineering metal-makes it the material of choice.

Each year in the USA more copper is recovered and put back into service from recycled material than is derived from newly mined ore. Copper's recycle value is so great that premium-grade scrap normally has at least 95% of the value of primary metal from newly mined ore.

The inescapable conclusion is that copper will continue its 10,000-year history of usefulness many millennia into the future.

Coal Mining History

Timeline of Coal in the United States

1000 A.D. : Hopi Indians, living in what is now Arizona, use coal to bake pottery made from clay.

1673-74: Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette discover “charbon de terra” (coal) at a point on the Illinois River during their expedition on the Mississippi River.

1701: Coal is found by Huguenot settlers at Manakin on the James River, near what is now Richmond, Virginia. 1748 The first recorded commercial U.S. coal production form mines in the Manakin area.

1762: Coal is used to manufacture, shot, shell, and other war material during Revolutionary War.

1816: Baltimore, Maryland becomes the first city to light streets with gas made from coal.

1830: The first commercially practical American-built locomotive, the Tom Thumb, is manufactured. Early locomotives that burned wood were quickly modified to use coal almost entirely.

1839: The steam shovel is invented and eventually becomes instrumental in mechanizing surface coal mining

1848: The first coal miners' union is formed in Schuylkill County, PA.

1866: Surface mining, then called “strip” mining, begins near Danville, Illinois. Horse-drawn plows and scrapers are used to remove overburden so the coal can be dug and hauled away in wheelbarrows and carts.

1875: Coke replaces charcoal as the chief fuel for iron blast furnaces.

1890: The United Mine Workers of America is formed.

1896:Steel timbering is used for the first time at the shaft mine of the Spring Valley Coal Co., where 400 feet of openings are timbered with 15-inch beams.

1901: General Electric Co. builds the first alternating current power plant at Ehrenfeld, Pennsylvania, for Webster Coal and Coke Co., to eliminate inherent difficulties in long-distance direct-connect transmission.

1912: The first self-contained breathing apparatus for mine rescue operations is used.

1930: Molded, protective helmets for miners are introduced

1937: The shuttle car is invented.

1961: Coal becomes the major fuel used by electric utilities to generate electricity.

1973-74: : Oil embargo by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Companies (OPEC) focuses attention on the energy crisis and results in increased demand for U.S. coal

1977: Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) passed.

1986: Clean Coal Technology Act passed.

1990: U.S. coal production tops 1 billion tons in a single year for the first time.

1995: The National Coal Association and the American Mining Congress merge into the National Mining Association, representing coal- and minerals-producing companies.

1996: Energy Policy Act goes into effect, opening electric utility markets for competition between fuel providers.

2002: Coal mining companies reclaimed 2 millionth acre of mined land.

2005: Congress passes and President signs into law the Energy Policy Act of 2005 that promotes increased use of coal through clean coal technologies.

Children in Mining

A Pictorial Walk Through the 20th Century - Little Miners

In the early years of the 20th century, children as young as eight years old worked in the coal mines. The work was hard and the "little boys" grew old and stooped before their time.

An 1885 law required boys to be at least twelve to work in the coal breakers and at least fourteen to work inside the mines. A 1902 law raised the age to fourteen to work in the breakers. Although child labor laws did not allow children under fourteen to work in the mines, some states did not have compulsory registration of birth. Boys were passed off as "small for their age".

The Children's Bureau was created within the Department of Commerce and Labor on April 9, 1912. It was transferred to the newly created Department of Labor on March 4, 1913. The first Federal Child Labor Law was signed by President Woodrow Wilson on September 1, 1916.

The following is a series of pictures and stories about children who worked long hours in this country's coal mines and the most common jobs they performed before child labor laws were passed.

Breaker Boys at Work

The coal was crushed, washed, and sorted according to size at the breaker. The coal tumbled down a chute and moved along a moving belt. Boys, some as young as eight, worked in the picking room. They worked hunched over 10 to 11 hours a day, six days a week, sorting rock, slate and other refuse from the coal with their bare hands. If the boy did not pay attention, he might lose fingers in the machinery.

The dust was so dense at times that the view was obscured. This dust penetrated the utmost recesses of the boys’ lungs. A kind of slave driver sometimes stood over the boys, prodding or kicking them into obedience.


Boys worked underground as nippers and spraggers. The boys holding the pieces of wood were spraggers. Only the fastest boys could be spraggers because they controlled the speed of the mine cars as they rolled down the slope. They worked in pairs. Each boy had about twenty or thirty sprags. As the mine cars rolled downhill the spraggers ran alongside the cars and jabbed the sprags into the wheels. The sprags worked as brakes, slowing the cars down. The job was very dangerous. The car could fly out of control and jump the track and crash into the mine wall if the wheels were not spragged properly.


The nipper was the door keeper. He was the youngest of the boys working underground, usually eleven to thirteen years old. His job was to open the heavy door when he heard a coal car approaching, then quickly close the door after the load passed through. The nipper sat long hours by himself in the dark with only his carbide cap lamp for light. He was often bored and sometimes whittled long pieces of wood into sprags or trapped the rats to pass the time.

When the nipper heard an approaching car, he opened the door to let the mule and the driver pass through with their load of coal. It was very important that the nipper did not fall asleep and allow the coal car to crash through the door. The door was vital to the mine's ventilation system.


The most exciting job for the boys was mule driver. The job was usually held by an older boy in his early teens. The mule driver traveled all through the mine coupling full cars together and leaving an empty car behind in the work chamber. The boy started out with one mule and then worked up to a six-mule team. When he was able to drive a six-mule team, he was given a man's wages. The mule driver sat on the front bumper of the coal car and used his voice to direct the mules. If the mule was stubborn, he used a black snake whip. A good mule driver was respected by both the miners and bosses. He had no problem obtaining a job as a miner when he was older.

The miners often felt the mules were more important than men were to the company. If a mule died, the company had to buy a new one. If the miner was killed or injured, they only had to hire a replacement.


Boy running "trip rope" at a tipple. The tripper is a device that discharges material from a belt conveyor.It has a double pulley that turns a short section of a conveyor belt upside down in order to dump its load into a side chute. The boy looked to be about 13 years old. He worked 10 hours a day at a Welch, WV, coal mine.

"Little Miners"

He never got used to the noise, the dust, or the threat of danger. He was proud to earn money to help his family. That was the life of a miner's son. Fathers and sons knew no other work.

Printed with permission through a FOIA request: Mine Safety and Health Administration - MSHA (* Most pictures in this exhibit were obtained from the National Archives, Lewis W. Hine collection and are on the MSHA website.)

Mine Rescue History

Mine rescuers play a vital role in mining disasters risking their own lives to save others. Many rescuers have lost their lives saving miners in the disasters listed on these pages, and they are to be honored.

In the Beginning...The Early Days of Mine Rescue

Throughout history, miners from all walks of life have labored both above ground and underground confident that should a disaster occur, every possible effort would be made to locate and rescue them.


In the pioneer studies of mine disasters and their causes, it was found important and necessary to examine conditions in a mine as soon as possible after an explosion or fire. This need led to establishing mine-safety stations and railroad cars. Although the original purpose of these stations and cars was to aid in technical studies, the courageous rescue work performed was so humanitarian and spectacular that the stations and cars soon were referred to as "mine-rescue" stations and cars.

When the Bureau was created there were four stations in the coal fields – at Pittsburgh, PA, established in 1908; Urbana, Ill., in 1908; Knoxville, Tenn., in 1909; and Seattle, Wash., in 1909. During 1910 stations were added at McAlester, Okla., and Birmingham, Ala. In 1913, a motor-rescue truck was provided at the Birmingham station to speed up the work, and in 1915 another was added at the Pittsburgh, PA, station.

During the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, in 1915, miners were trained at a temporary rescue station. Seven mine-rescue cars were operated during the first 2 years; car No. 8 was added on Nov. 25, 1912. The distribution of cars was as follows:

Car No. 1, in the anthracite field, with headquarters at Wilkes-Barre, PA

Car No. 2, in the coal fields of New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah, with headquarters at Trinidad, Colo., Salt Lake City, Utah, and finally with permanent headquarters at Burnham, Colo., a suburb of Denver.

Car No. 3, in the coal fields of western Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois, with headquarters at Evansville, Ind.

Car No. 4, in the coal fields of Wyoming, northern Colorado, and Utah, with headquarters at Rock Springs, Wyo.; this car finally was assigned permanent headquarters at Pittsburgh, Kan., in the Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas coal fields.

Car No. 5, in the coal fields of Montana and Washington, with headquarters at Seattle, Wash., and later at Billings, Mont.

Car No. 6, in the coal fields of western Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia, with headquarters at Pittsburgh, PA

Car No. 7, in the coal fields of southern West Virginia, western Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and eastern Tennessee, with headquarters at Huntington, W. Va.

Car No. 8, in the Lake Superior metal-mining region at Ironwood, Mich.

Stations and cars were equipped both with mine-rescue and first-aid equipment, much of which is the beginning came from England and Germany. The railroad cars were former Pullman sleeping cars purchased by the Government. Interiors were remodeled to include an office, training and workroom, and cooking, eating, and sleeping quarters. Each station or car was directed by a mining engineer of practical miner trained in rescue- and first-aid methods. Personnel of Car No. 8 included a mine surgeon in 1914, and later Public Health surgeons were assigned to most cars. Work of the stations and cars was under the immediate supervision of James W. Paul, mining engineer. For administration purposes the work was divided in July 1911 among various mining areas off the United States, first into 6 sections; in October 1912 into 9 districts; and in 1915 into 10 districts. These 10 districts were: the anthracite, the Pittsburgh, PA, Southern, Lake Superior, Southwestern, Central, Southeastern, Rocky Mountain, Northern Pacific, and California-Nevada.

Stations and cars were equipped both with mine-rescue and first-aid equipment, much of which is the beginning came from England and Germany. The railroad cars were former Pullman sleeping cars purchased by the Government. Interiors were remodeled to include an office, training and workroom, and cooking, eating, and sleeping quarters. Each station or car was directed by a mining engineer of practical miner trained in rescue- and first-aid methods. Personnel of Car No. 8 included a mine surgeon in 1914, and later Public Health surgeons were assigned to most cars. Work of the stations and cars was under the immediate supervision of James W. Paul, mining engineer. For administration purposes the work was divided in July 1911 among various mining areas off the United States, first into 6 sections; in October 1912 into 9 districts; and in 1915 into 10 districts. These 10 districts were: the anthracite, the Pittsburgh, PA, Southern, Lake Superior, Southwestern, Central, Southeastern, Rocky Mountain, Northern Pacific, and California-Nevada.

The chief work of station and car personnel was to investigate as quickly as possible the cause of a mine disaster, assist in the rescue of miners, and give first aid; and as ordinary routine, to train miners in safety, in rescue- and first-aid equipment and methods, and to examine safety conditions at mines and recommend improvements. The cars continuously visited mining centers in all States to present demonstrations, lectures, and training. When a mine disaster occurred near a station, the employee in charge, with available help and equipment, proceeded at once by train or other transportation to the mine. When a rescue car was used, it was moved by a special locomotive or connected to the first appropriate train available. In the initial 5 years, 300 mine accidents, including explosions, fires, and cave-ins, were investigated. In approximate totals, 290,00 people visited the stations and cars; 230,000 attended lectures or demonstrations; 34,000 were given training in rescue- and first-aid methods, and 11,700 training certificated were issued, increasing continuously from 509 in 1911 in 4,258 in 1915.

During the first five years, three of the five men who lost their lives while wearing oxygen breathing apparatus were Bureau of Mines employees. Many mine operators were induced to operate under a system in which safety was considered of first importance. In 1915 more than 170 mining companies (out of a total of some 3,000 large coal-mining companies and 12,000 smaller coal-mining companies) had individually, or through the association of two or more companies, established 76 mine-rescue stations at which there were some 1,200 sets of oxygen breathing apparatus besides the auxiliary equipment for first-aid and fire-fighting work. By then, there were also 12 mine-rescue cars operated by individual mining companies about their own properties. The Bureau of Mines endeavored to stimulate similar action by other companies.

The miners also began taking up safety work and appointing safety committees, particularly in regions that had been visited by Government mine-rescue cars. Representatives of States, mine operators, and miners all cooperated with the Bureau of Mines in safety work, and this cooperation, from year to year, became more and more an important factor in the progress of the safety movement.

MINE SAFETY DEMONSTRATION AND INTERNATIONAL SAFETY CONFERENCE The first national mine-safety demonstration was held at Forbes field, in Pittsburgh, on October 30, 1911. The demonstration was planned and managed by engineers of the Bureau, with the aid of miners and coal operators of the Pittsburgh district. It embraced exhibits that demonstrated the character of nearly every branch of the Bureau's investigative work in relation to mine accidents, including first-aid and mine-rescue work, coal-dust explosions, and also special coal-dust explosions at the Bureau's experimental mine at Bruceton, PA Approximately 15,000 persons attended the demonstration. The principal field exhibits were witnessed by President William H. Taft and many officials of both the National and State governments. Teams of miners trained in first-aid and rescue work from every coal-mining State took part in this stimulating demonstration.

1st. Convention, Forbes Field, Pittsburgh, PA - 30 Oct 1911

An international conference of representatives of mining experiment stations was held in Pittsburgh, Sept. 14 to 21, 1912, to discuss plans and methods of carrying on experiments relating to mine safety and the interpretation and comparison of the results obtained, to suggest special experiments that could be made to most advantage at a particular station, and to form a permanent organization to promote the exchange of information. In response to invitations sent to those countries having mine-experiment stations or contemplating the establishment of such stations, delegates present were as follows:

Austria-Hungary, Julian Cxaplinski, royal mining engineer;

Belgium, Victor-Wattayne, inspector general of mines;

Carl Beyling, bergassessor, director of the Dortmund experiment station. United States, Charles E. Munroe, consulting explosives chemist, and George S. Rice, chief mining engineer of the Bureau of Mines, represented the United States.

William O’Conner, a mining engineer of Wales, was invited to take part in the meeting as an unofficial representative of Great Britain.

J. Taffanel, director of the Lievin experiment station, who was to have represented France, was unexpectedly recalled just before the conference on account of a mine disaster.

Most of the time allotted to the conference was spent in giving papers, discussing investigations at the Pittsburgh experiment station, and in observing coal-dust explosions at the experimental mine. The delegates agreed that it was desirable to form a permanent organization; that approval by the various nations to forming of the organization, and the appointment of delegates be affected through regular diplomatic channels; and that the next meeting be held, in 1914, in England or Belgium. However, owing to the outbreak of war in Europe, the meeting had to be postponed for an indefinite period.


In the third year of the Bureau, interest among mine officials, operators, and miners in first aid led to a number of public first-aid contests in various States. The most important of these was the anthracite intercollieries contest at Valley View Park, PA, held under the auspices of the American Red Cross, and the contests held at Greensburg, PA, Birmingham, Ala., Knoxville, Ky., Gary, W. Va., and Toms Creek, Mich.

Such contests began to be held annually as a regular event; company and intercompany contests were followed by State and interstate contests. Most intercompany contests and all State and interstate contests were held under the auspices of the Bureau, which supplied personnel to take care of the arrangements and do the judging. In 1915,the Bureau aided in 47 contests. The hope of being first in these contests caused miners of each compering team to maintain their first-aid skill at its peak. These contests aided materially in creating interest in first-aid. Another result was the Bureau's work on preparation of regulations for mine-rescue maneuvers and first-aid and mine-rescue contests in which breathing apparatus, safety lamps, and other safety appliances were to be used. The plan was to rate the men according to their proficiency and give prizes.

From September 23 to 26, 1912, a conference on methods of conducting mine-rescue operations and of administering first aid to the injured was held at the Pittsburgh Experiment Station. A number of prominent mine operators, mine surgeons and physicians, heads of safety and mine-inspections departments, State mine inspectors, and various members of the Bureau were present. The conference covered first-aid methods, mine hospitals and their equipment, rescue training and safety devices, and resolutions regarding approved apparatus, equipment, and methods were adopted. An outgrowth of the conference was the organization of the American Mine Safety Association, the purpose of which was to cooperate with the Bureau of Mines and aid in the introduction of such safety methods as were officially approved by the Bureau and adopted by the Association.

“The History of Mine Rescue” A Journey Through Time…

Throughout history, miners from all walks of life have labored both above ground and underground confident that should a disaster occur, every possible effort would be made to locate and rescue them. The National Mine Health and Safety Academy’s exhibit“The History of Mine Rescue” focuses on that very tradition. Please join us as we take A Journey Through Time to explore the history of mine rescue and how it has transpired from the early 1900’s to present day.

Deadliest Decade in U.S. Underground Coal Mining

The deadliest decade in coal mining history occurred from 1900 to 1909, when a total of 3,660 miners died in 133 mine disasters. December 1907, known as “Bloody December”, recorded a staggering 703 miner deaths in 5 separate mine explosions. The Monongah Nos. 6 and 8 Disaster , which occurred on December 6, 1907, resulted in the deaths of 362 miners and is recorded as the worst mining disaster in U.S. history. In the wake of these tragedies, an Act of Congress established the U.S. Bureau of Mines within the Department of the Interior on July 1, 1910. Its primary directive was expressively clear – to reduce fatalities in the mining industry.

Dr. Joseph A. Holmes “The Father of Mine Safety”

In 1910, Dr. Joseph A. Holmes was appointed the first Director of the Bureau of Mines by President William H. Taft. Dr. Holmes is credited with making popular the slogan “safety first,” and was responsible for major improvements in mine safety.

In the early studies of mine disasters, particular attention was placed on the examination of a mine as soon as a fire or explosion had occurred. As a result, mine safety station railroad cars were established. With a constant focus on the improvement of mine safety, Dr. Holmes negotiated and obtained four Pullman sleeping cars for the Bureau of Mines.

These cars were internally remodeled to include first aid and mine safety equipment, training and work rooms, an office, as well as eating and sleeping quarters. These “mine rescue stations” or “mine rescue cars” not only visited mining centers in all states to present demonstrations, lectures and training, but were immediately dispatched to areas where a mine disaster occurred.

Mine Safety Demonstration and International Safety Conference

The first national mine safety demonstration was held at Forbes Field, in Pittsburgh, PA., on October 30, 1911 under the management and direction of the U. S. Bureau of Mines. Field exhibits were witnessed by President William H. Taft and many officials on both National and State levels. A coal dust explosion was also demonstrated at the Bureau’s experimental mine in Bruceton, PA. Teams of miners trained in first aid and rescue work from every coal mining state took part in the demonstration.

To Save Lives, Miners Risk Their Own

Mining laws require trained, properly equipped mine rescue personnel to be available at all mining operations. These personnel make up what is known as a “Mine Rescue Team.” These crews are usually made up of volunteers who, through their mine rescue responsibilities, risk their own lives in order to save their fellow miners. Today, local, state and federal governments may also have teams trained to respond in the event of a mine emergency or disaster. Within the parameters of underground mine rescues, a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) is used to provide breathable air while working in gaseous or otherwise dangerous atmospheres.

Pictured right: Rescue crew at Benwood, WV prepares to go underground after a mine explosion on April 28, 1924. The explosion killed 119 miners and occurred just thirty-five minutes after the workers entered the mine.

Pictured right: Underground mine rescue team (under apparatus), brings victim to the surface for emergency medical care.

“It has been said that occupational safety laws are written with the blood of workers who have died or been severely injured on the job. This is certainly a sad truth in the history of mine safety.” - Joseph Main, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health

Mine Legislation is Established for Nation’s Miners

“Despite continual calls for improvements in mine safety, stronger laws seem to be introduced only when miners die in large numbers,” continued Mr. Main.

For example, as a result of an explosion at West Virginia’s Farmington #9 Mine in 1968, which killed 78 miners, Congress passed and President Nixon signed the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, generally referred to as the Coal Act. However, the legislation did not protect metal/nonmetal miners.

An explosion at West Virginia’s Farmington #9 Mine in 1968, killing 78 miners, was instrumental in the passing of the Federal Coal Mine Health & Safety Act of 1969 (Coal Act).
Farmington #9 mine rescue efforts. Of the 99 miners working underground, only 21 managed to escape. 20 Nov 1968

In the aftermath of this legislation, unfortunately, mining tragedies continued. In May of 1972, a fire engulfed the Sunshine Silver Mine in Idaho, killing 91 workers. On March 9, 1976, two explosions occurred within days of each other at Kentucky’s Scotia Mine, killing 26 miners, including 3 rescue workers. These disasters laid the groundwork for the passage of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 (Miner Act). This legislation amended the Coal Act (1969) and consolidated all federal health and safety regulations of the mining industry under a single statutory scheme. The Mine Act also transferred responsibility for carrying out its mandates from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Labor and created the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

Thirty years later, in 2006, three separate tragedies at the Sago, Aracoma, and Darby mines claimed 19 lives. As a result, the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act of 2006 was signed into law by President George W. Bush. This legislation amended the Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 and contained numerous provisions to improve safety and health while implementing stricter emergency response protocols for our nation’s mines. It also authorized NIOSH to develop recommendations for mine health standards for MSHA, administer a medical surveillance program for miners, conduct on-site investigations in mines, and test and certify personal protective equipment and hazard measurement instruments. Undoubtedly, the MINER Act has caused significant improvements to the development of a safer mining environment.

Mine Rescue Team Training

Prior to serving on a mine rescue team, each member shall complete extensive training as outlined in 30 CFR Part 49.8 (a)(b) for underground metal/nonmetal mines and 30 CFR 49.18 (a)(b) for underground coal mines. A single rescue team should be made up of five such trained officers, plus an alternate or as otherwise specified under 30 CFR Part 49. Mine rescue contests are often seen as competitive, team-building events, but they also provide the necessary hands-on training required, should an actual emergency strike.

A mine rescue team prepares for competition in the burn tunnel located at the Mine Simulation Lab, Mine Health & Safety Academy, as part of the WV Mine Rescue Alliance Skills Competition.

Firefighting is always an important part of mine rescue training.

Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health’s Joe Main greets mine rescue team member during exercises at the National Mine Health & Safety Academy.

Emergency Response Plan (ERP)

Section 2 of the MINER ACT requires mine operators to follow an Emergency Response Plan (ERP) that has been submitted and approved by MSHA. It addresses both the evacuation of miners endangered by an emergency and maintenance of miners trapped underground.

Surface Arrangements

Mine emergency procedures cover a vast range of activities and require organized and coordinated efforts of many people. Surface arrangements include implementing the mine’s ERP, establishing a command center, providing adequate mine security, ambulance and fire department coordination, rescue team accommodations, obtaining and distributing necessary supplies and equipment, laboratory set-up, medical facilities, coordinating a waiting area for family members as well as a media center for press releases, family liaison functions, establishing a chain-of-command, drilling services (when necessary), establishing personnel, and delegating their required responsibilities.

Pictured on the right: Photo reproduced with permission from the Charleston Gazette, Investigators Struggle to Put Montcoal Timeline Together, Ken Ward, Jr., September 15, 2010 (Charleston Newspapers, Charleston, WV); Photograph by Lawrence Pierce, Copyright Charleston Newspapers. (accessed May 8, 2013)

Command Center

The Command Center is the hub of rescue and recovery operations and is typically staffed and controlled by a mine emergency “command group.” This group is generally comprised of mine management personnel, federal and state officials, and union representatives.

All decisions concerning the mine rescue teams are made by the Command Center. Command Center and rescue team communication is vitally important to the entire mine rescue operation.

The surface Command Center personnel receive, record, and analyze information from the underground fresh air base. Once this information has been thoroughly reviewed and evaluated, decisions are made and relayed back to the fresh air base, thus maintaining an open line of communication at all times.

Mine Rescue Team Exploration

Rescue teams must constantly review and mark mine map before proceeding further into mine

While the rescue of survivors is extremely important, the first priority must be to ensure the safety of the rescue team(s) at all times. Teamwork is crucial, therefore every precaution must be taken to complete the rescue mission in a safe and organized manner. Each member of the team serves a different function and carries out specific duties. The captain leads the team and is the chief decision maker. On many rescue teams, the captain may be assisted by a co-captain.

The captain leads the team and is the primary decision maker.

A fresh air base is set up at a location within the mine where rescue teams can safely breathe without using a breathing apparatus. Here, the team establishes a temporary airlock to keep any remaining toxicity within the mine. Communication lines are established, as the fresh air base also serves as a communication center for the back-up team, Command Center, and all support personnel. Usually, the initial fresh air base will be established and then advanced as the exploration proceeds. The “fresh air base coordinator” is responsible for establishing and maintaining orderly operations and constantly communicating information to the surface Command Center.

During exploration of the mine, the rescue team completes numerous tasks, some of which must first be approved by the Command Center. These tasks include assessing air flow, air conditions, and air quality, establishing temporary ventilation controls, structural examinations and corrections, eliminating possible ignition sources, marking the travel route, searching for survivors, and mapping and reporting all findings to the fresh air base. Please Note: Back-up teams should always be in place and ready to assist or replace active rescue teams.

Once the rescue team(s) returns to the fresh air base, the captain will confer with the fresh air base coordinator and the captain of the incoming team to exchange and review information. They will compare maps to make sure all markings correspond and are accurate.

Rescue of Survivors

Rescuing survivors may very well be the most rewarding and gratifying part of a mine rescue team’s responsibilities; however, locating survivors can be an extremely difficult undertaking. Rescue teams must look for signs of possible barricading, personal possessions such as hard hats/lunch pails, or the remains of a donned SCSR. They check refuge chambers or refuge alternatives and listen for noises, voices, tapping on structure, or any sound that may direct them to a surviving victim. What is the driving force behind these “heroes in hard hats”? Why do they unselfishly risk their own lives in this mine rescue tradition? What is the reward for their exhausting labors?

The answer is simple: The Recovery of Life…

Family Communication Center

Due to the delicate nature of a mine rescue emergency, it is important for the Command Center to designate a specific area for families of the involved victims to assemble. In most cases, this area will be isolated from the media and public. Because this can be such an extremely difficult and emotional time, “family liaisons” are provided to assist the families in any way possible.

Throughout the entire rescue operation, constant updates are provided by the Command Center to these family members. With respect and consideration, this sharing of information is provided prior to being released to the media. Every effort is made to answer any questions that may be presented, and to provide as much factual information as possible.

Media Center

Once the families have been updated as to the status and on-going efforts of the mine rescue process, the media must also be briefed. Appointed spokespersons, normally from the Command Center, seek to provide the most accurate and up-to-date information possible. During mine disasters of larger magnitude, briefings to government officials may become necessary.

Mine Recovery

The final portion of the mine rescue operation is the recovery of the mine itself. The main objective of recovery work is to put the mine or affected area of the mine back in operation as soon as conditions permit, following a mine disaster.

The Future

Today, mine rescue is moving toward skills training whereby each mine rescue member will be fully trained in all aspects of the mine rescue process. MSHA strives to continue its advancement toward the leading edge of mine rescue training and technology.

Final Thoughts

“Mine rescue teams are the best of the mining industry. While everyone is taught to evacuate and get away from an emergency, these brave men and women are travelling into harm’s way to help others.” Kevin Stricklin, Administrator for Coal Mine Safety & Health Administration

“Mine Safety” is part of this agency’s name. The term Mine Safety is used frequently in all aspects in mining and by personnel in all levels of mining. Mine safety is more than an agency name or term used by mining professionals. It is a way of life for all miners. At the heart of mine safety are the men and women who dedicated their time and talents to mine rescue. These are the people who sacrifice days and nights of their personal time to train for the time they might be required to put their lives on the line for the safety of others. We owe our gratitude and thanks to each and every member of mine rescue teams supporting Coal and Metal and Nonmetal mines in this country.” Neal Merrifield, Administrator for Metal & Nonmetal Mine Safety & Health Administration


This concludes the journey through “The History of Mine Rescue.” It is our hope that this presentation has provided you with exclusive knowledge of the extreme importance of what our nation’s mine rescue teams have historically done and continue to do. They are, indeed, a unique group of men and women who sacrifice of themselves for the lives of others. We appreciate their hard work, their dedication, and their exhausting efforts, and today we honor each of them.

Through a FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] request, permission was granted by the DOL MSHA for use of this article, "Little Miners", and The Early Beginning of Mine Rescue, and all information found on this site: for the purposes of education, information and honoring miners and mine rescuers of America in the Worldwide Mining Disasters Project.

Mining Glossary

Mining has a language of its own. This might help explain reports and investigations into mining incidents.

Specific to coal mining, this is a full text, online, searchable book:

Glossary of Mining Terms

From: "A Dictionary of Mining, Mineral, and Related Terms" Bureau of Mines, 1967. ,

  • arc. Islands or mountains arranged in a great curve. b. As applied to electricity, the luminous bridge formed by the passage of a current across a gap between two conductors or terminals.
  • back entry. The air course parallel to and below an entry.
  • barricade. Asphyxiating gases are formed when there has been a fire in any mine or an explosion in a coal mine. If miners are unable to escape, they should retreat as far as possible, select some working place with plenty of space, short-circuit the air from this place, build a light barricade or stopping, and remain behind it until rescued.
  • blown-out shot. A shot or blast is said to blowout when it goes off like a gun and does not shatter the rock- a shot which dissipates the explosive force by blowing out the stemming instead of breaking down the coal.
  • breathing apparatus'*breathing apparatus. An appliance that enables mine rescuers to work in irrespirable or poisonous gases. It contains a supply of oxygen and a regenerator which removes the carbon dioxide exhaled from the supply. *breathing apparatus'
  • bug dust. The fine coal or other material resulting from a boring or cutting of a drill, a mining machine, or even a pick.
  • cage. Mining term for elevator. b. The structure used in a mine shaft for the conveyance of miners and materials.
  • carbide lamp. Carbide cap light. A lamp that is charged with calcium carbide and water and burns the acetylene generated.
  • conveyor. A mechanical contrivance, generally electrically driven, which extends from a receiving point to a discharge point and conveys, transports, or transfers material between those points. b. The apparatus, belt, chain, or shaker, which, in conveyor mining, moves coal from the rooms and entries to a discharge point or to the surface.
  • cutting machine. A power-driven machine used to undercut or shear the coal to facilitate its removal from the face.
  • Draeger breathing apparatus. A long-service, self-contained, oxygen-breathing apparatus with an entirely lung-governed oxygen feed. It will enable a person to do hard work for a period of 5 hours; in doing normal work, the apparatus will last for 7 hours, and, in the event of a rescue brigade being trapped, it will sustain the men for 18 hours if they sit down and rest. It weighs 40 pounds, and is carried on the wearer's back inside a light metal protecting case with hinged doors.
  • entry. In coal mining a haulage road, gangway, or airway to the surface. b. An underground passage used for haulage or ventilation, or as a manway.
  • face. The solid surface of the unbroken portion of the coalbed at the advancing end of the working place. b. The face of coal is the principal cleavage plane at right angles to the stratification. Driving on the face is driving against or at right angles with the face. c. A point at which coal is being worked away, in a breast or heading; also, working face. The working face, front, or forehead is the face at the end of the tunnel heading, or at the end of the full-size excavation.
  • fan. A ventilator to exhaust or blow the air current necessary to circulate the mine roadways and workings. feeder. Very small fissures or cracks through which methane escapes from the coal. As working faces are advanced, fresh feeders are encountered in each fall of coal. b. A small stream of gas escaping from a coal crevice.
  • fire boss. A person designated to examine the mine for gas and other dangers. In certain states, the fire boss is designated as the mine examiner. b. A state certified supervisory mine official who examines the mine for firedamp, gas, and other dangers before a shift comes into it and who usually makes a second examination during the shift; in some states, it is used loosely to designate assistant or section foreman.
  • Fleuss apparatus. The first practical form of self-contained breathing apparatus, which was developed by H. A. Fleuss in 1879. Compressed oxygen, carried in a copper cylinder, was used in the apparatus; was used at Seaham colliery in 1881.
  • Gibbs apparatus. A compressed-oxygen breathing apparatus used widely in the United States. The capacity of the oxygen bottle is 270 liters at a pressure of 135 atmospheres. The oxygen supply is sufficient for a minimum time of 2 hours and the flow is automatic. Caustic soda is used in the regenerator. The apparatus, which weighs about 35 pounds, is carried by a harness strapped to the wearer.
  • hanging side; hanging wall; hanger. The wall or side above the ore body.
  • haulageway. The gangway, entry, or tunnel through which loaded or empty mine cars are hauled by animal or mechanical power.
  • headframe. The steel or timber frame at the top of a shaft, which carries the sheave or pulley for the hoisting rope, and serves various other purposes. b. The shaft frame, sheaves, hoisting arrangements, dumping gear, and connected works at the top of a shaft or pit.
  • helmet man. Rescue man
  • hydrocarbon. Any of a large class of organic compounds containing only carbon and hydrogen, comprising paraffins, olefins, members of the acetylene series, alicyclic hydrocarbons (such as cyclic terpenes and steroid hydrocarbons), and aromatic hydrocarbons (such as benzene, nephthalene, and biphenyl), and occurring in many cases in petroleum, natural gas, coal, and bitumens.
  • incendive spark. An incendive spark is an electric spark of sufficient intensity to ignite flammable material.
  • motorman. The man who operates a haulage locomotive.
  • overcast. An enclosed airway to permit one air current to pass over another one without interruption. They should be built of incombustible materials, such as concrete, tile, stone, or brick. The use of overcasts results in better ventilation, removes the danger due to doors, such as being left open, and leakage.
  • outburst. The name applied to the violent evolution of firedamp (usually together with large quantities of coal dust) from a working face. Outbursts are known wherever coal is worked. b. The occurrence is violent and may overwhelm the workings and fill the entire district with gaseous mixtures. Roadways advancing into virgin and stressed areas of coal are particularly prone to outbursts in certain seams and faults often intersect the area.
  • propagate. To transmit or spread from place to place; as coal dust propagates a mine explosion.
  • raise. A vertical or inclined opening driven upward from a level to connect with the level above, or to explore the ground for a limited distance above one level. After two levels are connected, the connection may be a winze or a raise, depending upon which level is taken as the point of reference.
  • recover. To restore a mine or a part of a mine that has been damaged by explosion, fire, water, or other cause to a working condition.
  • rock dusting. The dusting of underground areas with powdered limestone to dilute the coal dust in the mine atmosphere thereby reducing explosion hazards.
  • roof. The rock immediately above a coal seam. It is commonly a shale and is often carbonaceous in character and softer than similar rocks higher up in the roof strata. The roof shale may contain streaks and wisps of coaly material which tends to weaken the deposit. Roof in coal mining corresponds to hanging wall in metal mining.
  • room. A place abutting an entry or airway where coal has been mined and extending from the entry or airway to a face. b. Space driven off an entry in which coal is produced. Rooms may vary in width from 14 to 45 feet and in depth from 50 to 300 feet, depending on depth of overburden, underground conditions, and seam thickness.
  • shot. A charge of some kind of explosive, in regular mining placed in a hole drilled in the coal, the purpose being to break down the coal.
  • shot firer. A man whose special duty is to fire shots or blasts, especially in coal mines.
  • slope. The main working gallery or entry of a coal seam which dips at an angle and along which mine cars are hauled. sprocket. A gear that meshes with a chain or crawler track.
  • stopping. A brattice or, more commonly, a masonry or brick wall built across old headings, chutes, airways, etc. , to confine the ventilating current to certain passages, and also to lock up the gas in old workings, and in some cases to smother a mine fire.

America's Worst Mining Disasters

In the United States, the term "mine disaster" historically has been applied to mine accidents claiming 5 or more lives. Mine disasters, in this sense, once were appallingly common. For instance, the single year of 1907 saw 18 coal mine disasters, plus two more disasters in the metal and nonmetal mining industry. Among the disasters in 1907 was American history's worst - the Monongah coal mine explosion, which claimed 362 lives and impelled Congress to create the Bureau of Mines.

Even after the creation of the Bureau of Mines, and 1 month after the Monongah disaster, another catastrophe occurred at Darr Mine in Jacobs Creek, Pennsylvania causing 239 deaths.

Mine accidents have declined dramatically in number and severity through decades of research, technology, and preventive programs. Today, mine accidents resulting in five or more deaths are no longer common; however, preventing recurrence of disasters like those of the past remains a top priority requiring constant vigilance by management, labor, and government.

During the period of 1900-2016, there were 509 coal mining disaster incidents resulting in 11,719 fatalities:

Metal/NonMetal mining disasters during the same period numbered 82 with over 1,000 deaths.

For the purposes of Worldwide Mining Disasters, only metal and nonmetal disasters are included, excluding salt, quarry, and other mining accidents. This will be included under Worldwide Disasters if requested.

As mentioned, 1907 was the worst year for coal mine disasters, and 2 metal/non-metal mining disasters. In counting America's top 5 mining disasters, all involved coal mining, the most dangerous occupation in the world. Here are the top 5 mining disasters in U.S. history which occurred in the first quarter of the 20th century accounting for over 2,000 miners' deaths and many more injured by death toll:

Deadliest Decade in U.S. Underground Coal Mining & Top 5 Worst Disasters

The deadliest decade in coal mining history occurred from 1900 to 1909, when a total of 3,660 miners died in 133 mine disasters. December 1907, known as “Bloody December”, recorded a staggering 703 miner deaths in 5 separate mine explosions. The Monongah No. 6 & No. 8 disaster, which occurred on December 6, 1907, resulted in the deaths of 362 miners and is recorded as the worst mining disaster in U.S. history. 4 of the Top 5 Worst Mining Disasters in US history occurred in this decade.

In the wake of these tragedies, an Act of Congress established the U.S. Bureau of Mines within the Department of the Interior on July 1, 1910. Its primary directive was expressively clear – to reduce fatalities in the mining industry.

The Worst Mining Disaster in US History
On Dec. 6, 1907, explosions occurred at the No. 6 & No. 8 mines at Monongah, WV. 362 miners died.

On that day, family members wait behind a makeshift barrier to hear the fate of their loved ones.

Top 5 United States Mining Disasters
Mine Disaster Location Date No. Killed
Fairmont Coal Company’s No. 6 and No. 8 mines Mine Disaster Monongah, West Virginia 6 Dec 1907 362
Stag Canyon Mine No. 2 Mine Disaster Dawson, New Mexico 22 Oct 1913 263
Cherry Mine Disaster (St. Paul #2) Cherry, Illinois 13 Nov 1909 259
Darr Mine Disaster Jacobs Creek, Pennsylvania 19 Dec 1907 239
Fraterville Mine Disaster Fraterville, Tennessee 19 May 1902 216

These disasters are linked if underlined above, and will be under the appropriate State disaster pages below.

Want to know more about the worst American Mining Disasters? Check these out:

Historical Data on Mine Disasters in the United States

As mentioned, mine accidents in the United States have declined dramatically in number and severity through decades of research, technology, and preventive programs. Today, mine accidents resulting in five or more deaths are no longer common; however, historical data reminds us of the tragedies and this summarizes the "worst of the worst".

Statistical Summary
Number of Documented Mine Disasters (where 5 or more deaths occurred):
Historic Period Coal Mine Disasters Metal and Nonmetal Mine Disasters Total Disasters
Through 1875 19 4 23
1876-1900 101 17 118
1901-1925 305 51 356
1926-1950 147 23 170
1951-1975 35 9 44
1976-present 16 1 17

1907: Year with largest number of coal mine fatalities (3,242)

1917: Year with largest number of Metal/Nonmetal mine fatalities (983)

1909: Year with largest number of Coal mine disasters (20 disasters)

1911: Year with largest number of Metal/Nonmetal mine disasters (8 disasters)

1910: Year with largest number of mine disasters overall: (25 disasters: 19 Coal, 6 Metal/Nonmetal)

State with the most mine disasters: Pennsylvania (216)

County with the most mine disasters: Luzerne County, Pennsylvania (64)

The most mournful period is the 13 consecutive days from April 20th to May 2nd which reveals 17 mine disasters that killed 1,019 miners in the year when disasters occurred.

No mine disasters occurred on Christmas Day and only 1 disaster, the Shafer Mine Explosion in Moweaqua, Illinois, happened on Christmas Eve.

The worst decade for mining was 1900-1909. During that period there were 157 disasters which killed 3,932 miners.

There have been 27 Coal and 1 Metal/Nonmetal mine disasters where 100 or more miners were killed.

5 or more mine disasters have occurred in 45 counties in the United States.

The No. 1 cause of mine disasters in the United States is Explosion (520).

Only 1 disaster has occurred on February 29 Leap Year - Davis No. 42 Mine Explosion

Worst of a Disaster Category

  • Explosion — Monongah Nos. 6 and 8 Mines, Monongah, WV – 362 killed
  • Mine Fire — St. Paul Mine No. 2, Cherry, IL – 259 killed
  • Explosives — Baltimore Tunnel No. 2, Wilkes-Barre, PA – 92 killed
  • Inundation — Diamond Mine, Braidwood, IL – 69 killed
  • Roof Fall — Twin Shaft Colliery, Pittston, PA – 58 killed

Links to State Mining & State Disaster Pages

The state name links to that state's page. All states have disaster pages set up and are ready for information to be input for each of the disasters.

United States Mining State Pages
State No. of Disasters Coal Gold MNM
Alabama 43 42 0 1
Alaska 4 2 2 0
Arizona 7 0 0 7
Arkansas 8 8 0 0
California 11 2 7 2
Colorado 42 33 8 1
Idaho 4 0 1 3
Illinois 45 45 0 0
Indiana 16 16 0 0
Iowa 3 3 0 0
Kansas 5 5 0 0
Kentucky 40 40 0 0
Maryland 4 4 0 0
Michigan 15 0 1 14
Minnesota 4 0 0 4
Missouri 6 4 0 2
Montana 14 3 3 8
Nevada 11 0 8 3
New Mexico 12 11 1 0
North Carolina 4 4 0 0
Ohio 19 19 0 0
Oklahoma 26 26 0 0
Pennsylvania 189 189 0 0
Tennessee 13 12 0 1
Utah 14 11 1 2
Virginia 32 32 0 0
Washington 19 19 0 0
West Virginia 102 102 0 0
Wyoming 12 12 0 0
Total 724 645 32 47

Mining Museums

There is one premier mining museum in the US located in Colorado, The National Mining Hall of Fame & Museum

The museum's website is Mining Hall of Fame

For more interesting info on the museum: National Mining Museum

These are links to mining museums across the United States. They include all types of mining and not necessarily regarding disasters, but fun to learn more about the industries and how miners lived:

Want to Know More?

Check these out. Websites Links and links to books




Mining Facts

Mining Rescue


  • List of Disasters in the United States by Death Toll
  • Historical Summary of Coal-Mine Explosions in the United States, 1810-1958
  • Bureau of Mines Bulletin 509, Injury Experience in Coal Mining, 1948
  • Bureau of Mines Bulletin 616, *Historical Documentation of Major Coal-Mine Disasters in the United States Not Classified as Explosions of Gas or Dust: 1846-1962
  • Bureau of Mines Bulletin 586; *Historical Summary of Coal-Mine Explosions in the United States, 1810-1958
  • Bureau of Mines I.C. 7493, Major Disasters at Metal and Nonmetal Mines and Quarries in the United States (Excluding Coal Mines)
  • Historical Summary of Mine Disasters in the United States, Volume I, Coal Mines, 1810-1958 (MSHA)
  • Historical Summary of Mine Disasters in the United States, Volume II, Coal Mines, 1959-1998 (MSHA)
  • Historical Summary of Mine Disasters in the United States, Volume III, Metal and Nonmetal Mines, 1885-1998 (MSHA)
  • Mine Disasters, OT 32, 2000 (MSHA)
  • 1998-present, MSHA Fatalgrams and Fatality Reports
  • Newspaper article citations from the archives at the National Mine Health and Safety Academy Library, Beckley, West Virginia (*Historical Mining Disasters by Jane DeMarchi)
  • A Complete Survey of American Industries, Book IV by Albert S. Bolles, 1879


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