Montana State University

Miners faced rough times in early American West

April 30, 2007 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


A miner in the early days of Montana. (Photo courtesy of the Butte-Silver Bow Archives).   High-Res Available

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BOZEMAN -- Miners in the early days of the American West faced many dangers, but desperate times drove them to the job, according to speakers at Montana State University's latest conference on Medical History of the West.

Some miners were injured in explosions or electrocuted. Others fell off ladders, slipped on rocks, inhaled silica dust, or suffered from mercury, lead or arsenic poisoning. Many got sick from drinking dirty water and living too close together. Miners faced immediate dangers, as well as health problems that developed over time. Improved technology increased production, but added new risks.

So why become a miner?

"When you consider the options of that time, whether it was sea faring, coal mining, working in a steel mill or railroading, your choice of dangers was relativistic," said Pierce Mullen, professor emeritus of history at MSU and one of the organizers of the conference, "Mining and Medicine: Drills, Dynamite, Dust and Disease."

Workers after the Civil War saw their incomes flatten during business cycles that reflected the world's economy, Mullen added. Severe depressions during the 1870s and 1890s left hundreds of thousands of workers without work for a year or more.

"People will do it (mine) if they are desperate enough," Mullen said. "Out here in the West, at first, they didn't seem to worry much about the dangers. A lot of things were dangerous."

Frederic Quivik, a consulting historian of technology, noted that mining in the United States didn't start in the West. People along the Atlantic Seaboard were already mining copper and iron during Colonial times. Westward expansion brought lead mining to the Mississippi Valley. Mining in the American West began with the California Gold Rush of 1848 and spread to Nevada, Arizona, Idaho and Montana.

A former Butte resident, Quivik has researched and written extensively about the environmental history of the copper industry in Butte and Anaconda. Besides his consultant work, he is an adjunct instructor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Gold and silver lured prospectors to the West, Quivik said. Once here, they discovered other metals like copper, lead and zinc and non-metallic minerals like asbestos, talc and borax.

Mullen added, "Mining has always had this glittery Powerball mentality.You can strike it rich, even if your chances aren't good."

Quivik said some early miners used a series of ladders that descended hundreds of feet into the ground. At the end of the day, when the miners were tired, not everyone made it to the top successfully. Hoists and open cages replaced ladders, but miners sometimes fell or banged into jutting rocks.

Power drills and electric lights were advancements that also carried risks, Quivik said. Power drills created more dust, so miners who inhaled too much silica developed the chronic lung disease called silicosis. Many miners were electrocuted after electric lights were installed in underground mines.

Other conference speakers discussed the Anaconda smelter and human health and the treatment of miners at the Galen Sanitarium. Brett Walker, head of the Department of History and Philosophy at MSU, compared mining in the West with the Kamioka Mine in Japan. Quivik looked at litigation in the early 1900s involving the Anaconda smelter. The conference ended with a discussion of mining in Libby.

The April 24 conference was held at MSU's Museum of the Rockies. It was sponsored by the Volney Steele Endowment for the Study of Medical History, the WWAMI medical education program, MSU's Department of History and Philosophy and the Museum of the Rockies.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu