The life of an average early miner involved about 10 hours of work per day, six days a week, in dark, tightly enclosed, wet and often dangerous conditions.
“If they were working in the wintertime, quite often they would go into the mine right when the sun is coming up, and get out of the mine when the sun would be setting. So they were pretty much in the dark for months at a time,” said Gordon Brownlow, a guide with the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance.
Visitors at the Washington Mine site on Saturday learned about the history of mining in the West, viewed mining relics, toured inside a mineshaft, learned some tricks of the trade and even learned about miners’ superstitions.
“In Colorado, you drive by the sites where all these old mines were and you wonder, ‘Who were these people, and what did they do and why did they build these funky looking structures?’” Brownlow said. “I think people are happy to learn what it really means.”
Upon retiring after 30 years in television, Brownlow decided to find out more about his family’s mining history.
“I got interested because my family originated in England. They were Cornish miners and moved to Montana, where they became gold miners.
“I’d never really understood, except for pictures that I’d seen,” he said.
The historian was so fascinated by the stories and history of mining, in 2007 he joined the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance to help them tell stories of early day mines.
Now he takes guests back in time at Washington Gold and Silver Mine near Breckenridge. In the mid-1880s, Washington was one of the area’s largest mines, with five main shafts and over 10,000 feet of underground workings.
A pay rate of about $3 per day attracted miners to the West. That compared with about $1 or $2 a day in Eastern Coal mines, Brownlow said.
But the work was far from glamorous. Every day before heading into the mine, workers would grab a brass coin-shaped piece with a number on it. Workers would return the coin to the board after each shift. This helped supervisors keep track of who was down in the mine at certain times, in case of an explosion or cave-in.
Upon coming up from the mine, workers would go to a changing room to get out of their wet clothes.
“But the mining company had a bigger reason for it,” Brownlow said. “They were worried about the miners stealing their gold.”
Some of the miners got smart and made false bottoms in their lunch pales or their hats — someplace where they could hide a nugget or two, Brownlow said. “Or they might swallow a small nugget and deal with it later.”
Miners were very superstitious. Tommyknockers, the spirits of departed miners that live in the mines shafts and tunnels, are a big part of mining folklore.
“If you didn’t feed them or talked bad about them you’d have cave-ins or lose tools or might not find the gold and silver you were looking for,” Brownlow said.
“Tommyknockers were very valuable to miners lives,” he said. “Miners used what they knew from working in the mines all of their lives, but they attributed it to their superstitions about the Tommyknockers.”
Anyone interested in hearing more mining tales can sign up for a tour through the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance.
Becky Harney and Jean Morgan were two in a group of about eight women from Louisville on the mine tour Saturday morning.
“We are both volunteers for the Louisville historical museum. Learning about what’s happening in other places helps us to understand what’s going on in our place,” Harney said.
The women said they appreciated the work Brownlow and the Heritage Alliance were doing to educate visitors about Breckenridge’s mining history.
“It’s so wonderful to see people that are interested in helping other people understand history and preserve what we have from our past,” Morgan said.