Frisco: Back in the days when work was truly hard
special to the daily
The Frisco Historic Park and Museum will host “Getting Blasted by Candlelight,” a free presentation on drilling and blasting techniques used by 1880s/1890s era Summit County hard-rock miners, at noon on Wednesday as part of its summer Lunchtime Lecture series.
Hard-rock mining implies lode or underground mining, where further processing is required to separate valuable metals from the ore once it is extracted. This is in contrast to placer mining, which looks for relatively pure nuggets or flakes of gold, for example, which have been formed by natural forces and deposited on subsequently buried surface layers.
“You can see old mine dumps all around Summit county – hundreds if not thousands,” explained Rick Hague, the former mining engineer and exploration geologist who will present Wednesday’s talk. “All the dumps came from underground mines.” Hague added that area mines primarily sought lead, zinc and
silver, with gold as a byproduct.
To mine the hard rock, workers drilled holes and blasted chunks of solid rock out of the earth – and in late 19th-century Summit County, they did it by hand. A typical work shift was around 10 hours long, during which the miners had five tasks to complete. The first was mucking, where they’d shovel the previous shift’s blasted rock into ore carts before tramming them out of the mine. The third task was timbering. “If the ground they were working in was very dangerous, they would timber it and start drilling (task #4) and blasting (task #5) again,” Hague said.
Until the late 1890s, miners steeled (chiseled) holes into the rock by hand using “hammers,” completing eight to 15 holes, used to house sticks of dynamite for blasting, per shift. Compressed-air mechanical drilling equipment started to come into the picture after that, including the infamous “widowmaker,” which produced so much sharp silica (quartz) dust that it tore up miners’ lungs as they breathed it. “White lung,” similar to “black lung” suffered by eastern coal miners, claimed many miners’ lives prematurely.
“If you were a woman back in those days and (married a) miner, you might go through two or three husbands,” Hague said, hence the name, “widowmaker.” Many of the miners hailed originally from the tin and copper mines of Cornwall in England, he added, emigrating to the U.S. and working in Appalachian coal mines before following mineral discoveries to Colorado and bringing the technology of the times along with them.
Hague will have a widowmaker and other artifacts, courtesy of the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance and Summit Historical Society, on hand for Wednesday’s lecture. There will also be cookies, but bring a bag lunch if you want. As you enjoy the talk over your lunch break, however, keep in mind that the miners who helped to build Summit County’s riches didn’t even get to come above ground to eat their lunches – and you think you work hard!
The final two lectures of the summer season will be “Railroads of the Frisco-Dillon Area” by Tom Klinger on Aug. 17 and “Rediscovering the Ute” by Sue Langdon on Aug. 24.
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