Sierra history: Nevada Comstock miners had guts, grit on their side – by Mark McLaughlin (Tahoe Daily Tribune – May 15, 2015)

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker.

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.

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.


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.

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