Sierra history: Nevada Comstock miners had guts, grit on their side
Special to the Sun
TAHOE-TRUCKEE, Calif. — It took skill, brains, brawn and endurance to work underground in a Nevada Comstock mine day after day and survive.
Air temperatures at the deepest depths nearly 3,000 feet beneath the surface ranged from 100 degrees Fahrenheit to nearly 130 degrees due to heat emanating from volcanic rock.
Contemporary geologists considered Nevada’s 19th century silver mines to be the hottest in the world.
A labyrinth of clay seams throughout the Comstock matrix sealed off the flow of geothermally heated groundwater that riddled the subterranean rock.
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Much of this exceptionally hot water was under considerable pressure and would suddenly flood a mine if a clay seam was breached by a drill hole or cut by excavation.
In 1880, a seam breach at the 3,080 foot level of the New Yellow Jacket Mine flooded the tunnels and drifts with water heated to 170 degrees.
Miners caught trapped in such conditions were boiled like lobsters.
SUPERSTITION IN THE SIERRA
Cornish miners, however, had more than guts and grit on their side. Their harsh reality required supernatural support.
Most of them felt that the souls of departed miners — particularly those that died in mining accidents — were still present in the dank, dark shafts and slippery tunnels.
Superstitious miners believed that these impish elves, known as Tommyknockers, warned them of impending danger by knocking on wood before a collapse. Or sometimes the impish creatures mischievously hid tools or stole food from them.
Cornish miner Billie Williams placed small clay statues at the entrance of every mine he entered, and left food and tallow candles on small altars. Other miners, who considered the Cornish experts, adopted many of their practices and folklore.
One miner turned lay preacher told a Gold Hill, Nevada, congregation, “We rode the buckets with the Dark Companion, Death was always beside us.”
Hard-rock miners in the California diggings followed narrow, gold-bearing quartz veins and used basic post and cap supports to shore up any loose or weakened rock in the tunnels.
Nevada mining companies, however, had a more difficult challenge. From the beginning Comstock engineers employed the most advanced technology available at the time including steam-driven elevator hoists for personnel and equipment, as well as powerful air and water pumps.
Their rock-chewing compression drills could strike 250 times a minute with perfect accuracy.
But as miners tunneled to greater depths the lucrative ore bodies grew larger. By January 1861 the Ophir Mining Company reached a point where the silver lode was 45 feet wide.
Since the surrounding ground tended to shift and swell, and the ore was relatively soft and unstable, workers were in constant danger from cave-ins.
Experienced Mexican miners suggested using pillars of rock and wood to help support the tunnel, but timbers of sufficient length and strength were unavailable among the scrubby desert trees.
Other Comstock mines were running into the same problem, generating concern that everyone would be cut off from the lucrative bonanza believed buried at deeper levels.
Enter Philipp Deidesheimer, a brilliant German-born engineer, who had shipped into San Francisco in 1851 and gained local fame in California’s gold district for his innovative mining technology.
William F. Babcock, a Trustee of the Ophir Mining Company, contacted Deidesheimer and paid him to visit Virginia City to look into the cave-in problem.
For three frustrating weeks the engineer descended into the depths of the Ophir Mine, studying the geology and wracking his brain for a solution.
‘WHAT MORE COULD A MAN ASK FOR?’
One day he climbed out of the dark tunnel and threw himself on the ground to rest and inhale fresh air. While lying there he observed bees building honeycombs and the idea of the square-set timbering system came to him in a flash of inspiration.
His framing system consisted of timbers secured together in rectangular, interlocking cribs, which could be piled one upon the other to any required height.
These cribs, filled with waste rock, could be made enduring pillars of support.
The Ophir was probably the first mine in the world where such a system of support became necessary, since no ore body of such great size and richness had ever been discovered before.
Unfortunately, the design required an enormous quantity of high quality timber, which led to the near total clear-cutting of the Tahoe Basin forest, an environmental disaster that we are still dealing with today.
In his earnestness to help Babcock and reduce the risk to the miners, Deidesheimer failed to patent his invention and other mining companies seized upon the idea as soon as it became known.
Philipp Deidesheimer could have made millions of dollars from his clever engineering feat, but when someone asked him about that, he replied, “If all goes well and these square sets protect the lives of the miners, what more could a man ask for?”
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his blog: tahoenuggets.com.
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