While many romantic tales have been told of the prospectors that discovered the quartz leads that would become great mines, and of the mine owners and entrepreneurs that built empires of industry in what was a vast wilderness, it was the miner that ultimately did the difficult and dangerous work that extracted the great wealth of the West.
This collection of photos captures miners at work in western mines from the 1860s to the 1920s.
Arizona remained a territory until 1912, a staggering 62 years after California was admitted into the Union. Regardless of the difficulties of opening the Arizona mining frontiers, intrepid miners filled the state, and Arizona became both a prominent gold producer and the nations leading producer of copper.
California was the nation’s leading producer of gold for much of the 1800s. Although the great Gold Rush attracted miners by the thousands that worked in the state’s extensive placer mining districts, it was lode mining that brought permanence to California’s mining industry.
The Kennedy mine, located near Jackson, was first discovered in the 1850s. The mine operated well into the twentieth century, reaching a depth of over 5,900 feet.
Operations like the Empire mine at Grass Valley were major operations employing hundreds of miners. The mines were often thousands of feet deep. Moving miners from the surface to the current workings could be a busy affair, as seen in the following image of dozens of miners riding to work in an incline shaft.
It was not uncommon for mines to take photos of a crew of miners for promotional purposes. This photo from the Plumas Eureka mine at Johnsville is unusual in that some of the miner’s children are present.
The Bagdad mine is located south of Ludlow in the southern California desert. A USGS report states:
The Bagdad Chase was one of only four gold mines in California to be authorized to remain in production during World War II; the ore’s silica content made it useful as a flux in smelting. Although not very profitable, the mine operated continuously from 1940 to 1954.
Photos from this mine provide excellent views of timbering used to stabilize loose rock in the stopes where ore was being removed.
The next photo is a remarkable view of miners working in square-set timbering. In addition to the four miners near the center of the view, note the single miner standing with a candle on the upper level to the left, and a lower level in the timbering on the lower left.
Colorado had many of the nation’s most important mining districts. The combination of rich mines and the state’s spectacular mountain scenery attracted many professional photographers during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The result is that more amazing mining scenes were captured in Colorado than in any other state.
Gold was discovered at Cripple Creek in the early 1890s. About a decade later, this was the nation’s top gold districts, with hundreds of mines and thousands of miners employed. The image below illustrates the hazard of falling rocks in the mines.
The following photo shows how miners rode the cages into the mine to start a shift. The Ajax mine was located at Victor, the district’s second largest city.
Although many advances in mining technology were made by 1900, the light the miners worked by was still provided by candles.
These miners are working 400 feet below ground at the Portland mine at Goldfield (Cripple Creek district).
Pneumatic drills became increasingly common in the late 1800s. Before these drills were available, holes in the rock were hand-drilled by miners, using a hand-held drill and a sledge hammer.
In this photo from a Colorado mine, a pair of drills are being used on a rock face. Note the wooden planks used to elevate the miner’s standing position relative to the face.
A miner rides in an ore bucket “850 feet deep in the Hubert Mine” in this 1895 photo from Nevadaville. Note the trap door with rails mounted on it so that the ore car can pass over it when closed.
There are two photos in this series, in the second one more miners crowd to get into the scene.
As mines go deeper and more complex, hoisting stations had to be built in underground chambers. The following photo depicts a hoist operator underground in Aspen’s Della S mine.
Miners of the Grizzly Bear mine, located in Ouray County, pose for this photo. Note the elevated track for ore cars at the right side of the photo.
Mules were commonly used to pull ore cars underground, as seen in this photo from an unidentified Colorado mine.
In the following photo, miners are working in a stope, with supervisors doing the important work of course.
The Trade Dollar mine is located between Silver City and Dewey, high up on a remote mountain range in southwest Idaho. This mine was a major producer, credited with $20,000,000 in gold and silver production by 1909.
Idaho’s most famous mining region is the Silver Valley, located in the northern part of the state. This region is the second largest silver producer in the entire world, and mining is still active today nearly a century and a half after the first mines were opened.
Mining was a massive industry here by the turn of the century, with thousands of miners working the regions many silver mines (the mines also produced significant lead and zinc). The scene below illustrates how hundreds of miners were transported into the mine for a shift.
Although Montana was a significant producer of gold and silver, it is best known for the copper mines of Butte. A historical sign in Butte describes the importance of this district:
The “Richest Hill on Earth” Butte produced more mineral wealth than any other mining district in the world up to the middle of the 20th century. To date over 48 billion dollars of wealth has been unearthed from this hill.
Immigrants from around the world came to Butte to work the in mines and mills of the great copper mines. These are some scenes from the Copper mines of Butte.
Pneumatic drills greatly improved the efficiency of the hard rock mining process. Numerous holes are drilled into a rock face, then the holes are packed with explosives and the rock face is blasted out a few feet at a time.
The following photo shows miners lighting the fuses of the explosive-packed holes of a rock face.
These Butte miners are holding lunch pails and are ready to descend the cage into the mine.
The following image shows four levels of cages full of miners ready that are being raised from the mine at the end of the shift.
The Elkhorn mine, at the town of Elkhorn, was one of the West’s largest producers of silver. The mine operated on an incline shaft, as seen in the next photo.
The photo below depicts timbering in Montana’s Elkhorn mine ca. 1900. According to the USGS, extensive timbering was required to support the loose slate in the stopes. Some of the timbers were sixty feet long.
Many things had to be improvised in a mine, as shown here by the planks used as a platform to stand on.
This amazing photo shows some of the miners of the Elkhorn mine. Note the miner at the top who seems to be pranking his fellow miner with a candle.
Granite, Montana was another major silver producer. The miners below are ready for a shift at the mine.
This photo of miners posing at a Philipsburg mine has many interesting details: a headframe stands over the shaft with ore car visible, and an adit with an ore car in the background.
This crew of Unionville miners pose at the shaft of the Whitlach mine.
These miners are posing at the Bald Mountain mine near Marysville. Of interest is the “Keep Out” sign which is printed with the name Thomas Cruse. Cruse’s rags to riches story is one of the most interesting in the annals of western mining:
The fabulous Drumlummon mine at Marysville, Montana was discovered in 1876 by Thomas Cruse, a poor immigrant from Ireland that had a reputation for taking grubstakes and never producing any returns on them. Cruse was ridiculed by his fellow miners until he discovered the Drumlummon lode, and overnight “Irish Tommy” became “Mr. Cruse”.
In the next photo, a crew leads mule-powerd trains of ore cars from the Drumlummon mine. After the mine had been developed to the point that the great wealth contained in its ore body was undeniable, the quiet and understated Cruse merely stated “Yes, I have struck it, and I guess it is pretty rich.”
Nevada is known as the “Silver State”, largely due to the fabulous silver mines of the Comstock Lode. Located at Virginia City, the Comstock mines changed the landscape of American mining after their discovery in 1859. By the early 1860s, the fabulous Comstock mines diverted the nation’s attention from the goldfields of California, and factored in the push for early statehood for Nevada.
The Comstock mines held vast riches, but they were deep, hot, and posed mining complexities that had not been confronted before anywhere in the world. The miners of this area worked in difficult and dangerous conditions–scenes that were captured by the some of the earliest underground photos ever taken.
In this ca. 1868 photo, miners are about to descend into the Savage mine at Virginia City. This mine, like most of the mines of the Comstock, got very hot, as described by the Feb 14, 1880 edition of Mining and Scientific Press:
Those who have never personally inspected the lower levels of our mines may obtain some idea of the degree of heat to be found therein by visiting the Savage works at the change of shifts. The men-packed together as close as they can stand on the cage-are popped up out of the shaft all steaming hot, for all the world like a bunch of asparagus just lifted from the pot. They make their appearance in a cloud of steam that pours up continuously from the “depths profound,” and are dimly seen until they step forth upon the floor of the works.
Miners dealt with the heat in various ways, including working the mines half dressed, as seen in the photo below. The article from Mining and Scientific Press further describes the heat in the mines:
Down where the men come from you must keep your hands off the pump column and the pipes, and if you pick up any iron tool you will at once put it down without being told to do so. Down there they handle things with gloves on, or wrap rags about the drills they are guiding and iron apparatus they are moving; and down there, too, you will learn to keep your mouth shut after you have drawn a few mouthfuls of hot air into your lungs.
In this 1867 photo, a miner rakes ore that has been dumped from a bucket into an ore car.
This crew of Comstock miners from the 1870s pose with lunch pails. It is interesting to see different norms in dress and style with miners of different decades.
Before pneumatic drills, rock drilling was done by hand, either by a single miner (single jacking) or by a pair of miners (double jacking). The drill was a hand held tool like a chisel–the miner would strike it, then turn the drill, then strike it again. “Double Jacking” consisted of one miner swinging the hammer while the other held and turned the drill.
In this rare photo, miners are double jacking in a Comstock mine.
In this colorized image from 1867, miners push ore cars through the Gould & Curry mine. Note the stacks of timbers on the right milled for use as square sets.
Some of the photos on this page depict miners working in square set timbering. This mining innovation was invented by Philip Deidesheimer in 1860 for use in the Ophir Mine at Virginia City. The diagram below shows how it was applied in the nearby Gould & Curry mine.
Square set timbering was one of the most impactful inventions in mining during the 1800s. Philip Deidesheimer refused to patent his invention, insisting it was for the safety of the miners. Sadly, despite being one of the preeminent mining engineers of the era, he died in poverty in 1916.
In the following image, miners pose within square set timbering in the Mohawk Mine at Goldfield.
Leasing was a practice where groups of miners would work a mine for a percentage of the ore they mined rather than a daily wage. This arrangement was advantageous in scenarios where the mine owners did not have the capital to develop the mine. Miners benefited by receiving compensation directly proportional to the success of their work.
The leasing system was popular in Goldfield for the first few years after the initial discoveries of the rich gold mines there in 1903. By the latter part of that decade, most of the mines had been consolidated and were being worked by large mining companies.
In the scene above, miners are working their lease in the January mine in 1904. Below, miners work a goldfield mine by candlelight.
The following image shows a miner in the stope of a Round Mountain mine.
A 1913 edition of Engineering and Mining Journal, in an article about the Nevada Wonder mine (at Wonder, Nevada), mentions cost associated with “fitting up the 700-ft. station for the electric sinking hoist, and cutting stations 12 ft. from the shaft on the 800- and 900-ft. levels, and 15 ft. from the shaft on the 1000-ft. level. The shaft was timbered with 8×8-in. Oregon Pine.” It is likely that the following image was that 700 foot station with the electric sinking hoist.
This crew of miners at the Keystone mine (Goodsprings, Nevada) may look like hard men, but they still prefer the company of their mascot for the group photo.
This device in the Keystone mine is used to lift ore cars and dump the ore into a bin.
Another example of an underground hoist station is seen here in the Keystone mine.
Miners work in a stope by candlelight at the Keystone mine.
The Mount Diablo mine was located in Nevada’s Candelaria district at Metallic City. In this photo another mine crew poses with the camp dog. There is a second animal at the right side of the photo which is likely another dog, although it moved its head and is blurry so it almost looks like a little pig.
The following photo captures a mine surveyor at work in a Candelaria mine around 1900.
In another image of Mount Diablo employees, abundant candle wax is visible on the miner’s clothes.
The Black Hills of South Dakota are home to the nation’s single deepest, and largest producing gold mine in America. The mighty Homestake mine operated for over 120 years and reaching a depth of 8,000 feet.
The following image from 1908 shows square set timbering in one of the stopes of the Homestake.
The next photo appears to be a composite of two photos, intended to illustrate how the mines shafts were used both to take miners in and out of the mines, and to bring ore to the surface.
The following 1890s photo depicts a miner loading ore into a car from a chute.
Kansas Salt Miners
The fact that Kansas had a significant salt mining industry is something that is often overlooked. Salt is still being mined at a few locations.
These photos were taken at the Stratica mine in Hutchinson, Kansas. The mine is now the location of a museum, with underground tours available.
More Photo Collections from Western Mining History
The following collections capture more of the West’s amazing mining history:
A Collection of Arizona Mining Photos
A Collection of Arizona Mining Photos highlights some of the best historic scenes from various Arizona districts during the peak mining years between the 1870s and the 1920s.
Incredible Photos of Colorado Mining Scenes
Colorado’s spectacular scenery and the richness of the state’s mines attracted many of the top photographers working at the time. These are some of the most incredible mining scenes from the state of Colorado: Incredible Photos of Colorado Mining Scenes
Best Historical Photos: Colorized Mining Scenes
This collection images highlights some of the best colorized photos of historic western mining scenes. Included are mines, miners, historic mining towns, and related scenes: Best Historical Photos: Colorized Mining Scenes
The Comstock Lode: Nevada’s Big Bonanza
The Comstock Lode was the West’s first great silver mining district. Photos of the towns, mines, and mills are available at The Comstock Lode: Nevada’s Big Bonanza
A Collection of Nevada Mining Photos
The first mines in Nevada were discovered in the 1850s, and by the 1860s new districts were being discovered throughout the state. Nevada would first be known as the “Silver State” but would eventually become the largest gold producing state in the Nation. These are some of the best historical photos from Nevada’s notable mining districts: A Collection of Nevada Mining Photos