Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Little Men and Big Men

Although I’ve written several regional books on travel and history, I recently discovered an interesting fact about mining techniques and skills. It involves the size of the men who worked the mines, and their importance to the mining industry. In the book Historical Highlights of Idaho Springs – Mining Camp Days by Merle L. Sowell, the author describes in great detail the differences between the "Little Men" and "The Big Men" and the roles they played.
"In mining, there was always thick and thin variation of an ore vein. In the thinner sections, there general was a higher concentration of values than in the wider sections. A smaller man could work a thin vein much more easily than a big man; thus developed a special place for small miners. With the influx of Cornish miners in the early days here, the little men found their place in our mining economy…these little guys could work in the smallest shafts (winzes or raises), mine out the narrowest stopes and drive the tightest tunnels (drifts or crosscuts). They never broke out a pound of waste rock that wasn’t necessary or left a speck of ore that had value. All this they did by the light of candles. Blasting powder was their thing in explosives as dynamite hadn’t been invented. They (the little men) were cantankerous to handle and insisted on a split check lease or percentage of profit.
The second era of metal mining took place from 1890-1940, and brought many changes. Alfred Nobel invented dynamite which meant “Big Men” were needed to manhandle the muck buckets and muck cars. Everything increased in size with the greater tonnage. Muck buckets in the shafts went from one half ton to two or three tons. Hoisting engines had to increase in power and shafts were made much larger. Even the skipper, the man who wrestled these buckets at the top or at the muck pockets at the level station, went up to the heavyweight wrestler class."